Europe: The Revolving Epicenter Of US-Russian Tension 1


On March 18th 2019, almost exactly five years on from Russia’s controversial annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, US Air Forces deployed six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Europe for “theatre integration and flying training” exercises with regional allies and NATO partners. The US Air Force confirmed the movements earlier on March 18th, noting that four B-52s “conducted flights to several places in Europe, including to the Norwegian Sea, the Baltic Sea/Estonia and the Mediterranean Sea/Greece”. On Thursday, March 21st, a further 300 US soldiers were deployed to Berlin. This move is representative of a new American strategy to rapidly deploy U.S.-based troops to Europe in order to bolster the NATO deterrent against possible acts of Russian aggression within the region.

Whilst large-scale military conflict between Russia and the West remains a distant and unlikely possibility, U.S. Major General John L. Gronski affirmed, “The purpose is really all about readiness, building readiness, and also inter-operability with our NATO allies such as Germany and Poland, two very essential allies in the NATO alliance.”  The Air Force added in a news release in the immediate hours of the military exercise, “Collectively, the flights from the Indo-Pacific and Europe demonstrated US commitment to allies and partners through the global employment of military forces.” In response to a growing US presence within Europe, Putin utilized the Presidential annual address to deal with renewed concerns over the prospect of a (second) Cold War, stating that “Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons which can be used not only in respect of those territories from which the direct threat to us originates, but also in respect of those territories where the centres of decision-making are located.” Political commentators have likened the recent geopolitical movements of the US to that of a process of ‘containment’, evidenced at the height of the Cold War. Michael Mandelbaum has written extensively on this issue, noting that “As during the Cold War, containment today requires American military deployment abroad. In Europe, ground troops are needed to deter Russian aggression.”

The recent geopolitical actions of the US serve to add further ‘fuel to the fire’. Whilst it is appropriate to note Russia’s recent displays of aggression in Georgia (2008), the Crimean Peninsula (2014) and Syria (2015), Russia’s military capabilities remain relatively weak in comparison to those of the US, and remains confined to areas of key strategic significance – such as the Crimean Peninsula that acts as a Russian military base and Syria that grants Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea through acquisition of the Tartus naval base. Therefore, recent US movements to contain and militarize the surrounding borders of the Russian nation appear counter intuitive when one considers the grand image of Russian military inferiority and a lack of desire to enter into a conflict with the US. This can be seen in Putin’s national address to the Duma in early March, where Putin asserted Russia would not seek confrontation following the suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty (INF) of 1987.

The issue of nuclear weapons raises an interesting point of conjecture. It is true that the quarter century following the Cold War was a period of relative international peace. The dominance of the United States meant ‘peace’ prevailed in militaristic terms. The global powers did not wage war against one another, nor was the possibility of military engagement a tangible reality due to the destructiveness of nuclear arsenal. Acclaimed political theorist, Kenneth Waltz writes, “Nuclear weapons have been the second force working for peace in the post-war world. They make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons.”

The recent withdrawal of both parties from the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned ground-launched medium-range missiles with a range of 310 to 3,400 miles, has continued to perpetuate tensions between the two powers, making nuclear engagement a greater possibility. In the initial days following the announcement that the US would withdraw from the INF treaty due to Russian non-compliance, Putin iterated Russia’s revived commitment to the research and development of nuclear arsenal but stressed Russia would not “get involved in a costly arms race.”  Recent developments in Europe, with regard to the deployment of US nuclear aircraft, is yet another segment of the evolving narrative of US- Russian relations. Simply, the process of containment has historically resulted in hostility, aggression and in the worst instance proxy conflict as evidenced in both Vietnam and more recently Syria. Failure to recall history invariably means the repetition of it. Hence, another means by which the US can peacefully and effectively limit Russian aggression in the near future is required.

How then do the US, or more broadly the West, counter potential acts of Russian aggression? The answer lies in cooperative trade and economic and diplomatic policy that serve to benefit both nations, Russia and the US. The rationale behind this method of conflict resolution is premised on Russia’s desire to re-assert itself as a great power of the international system. However, currently the nation lacks the economic might or international kudos to do so. The potentiality for Russia to economically prosper through profitable trade deals with the US for resources such as natural gas – of which Russia is a leading producer – would provide the incentive to cooperate diplomatically and allow room for both nations to compromise on issues that pertain regional and international significance, such as the deployment of nuclear capable missiles. By fostering multidimensional interdependence, all nations involved reduce the likelihood of war, and more so reduce the incentive to consider war as an option.

India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.

About India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.

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