A US-led NATO force was deployed in Orzysz, Poland on Thursday 13th April as part of NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” into the Baltics. The first US troops were welcomed from the multinational force, which will consist of 900 US, 150 British, and 120 Romanian troops that are being stationed to counter the perceived Russian threat in the region. The Orzysz NATO base is located 100 km from the Russian enclave, Kaliningrad, where S-400 and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were positioned by Russia in November last year. The base is also situated close to the strategically important Suwalki Gap on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Three similar NATO units will also be deployed this year in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as part of these operations.
At the welcoming ceremony, Polish President Andrzej Duda claimed it was a historic “moment” and that multiple generations have “dreamt of” becoming part of the West. The Polish government has been lobbying for troops to be stationed in the country ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Also speaking at the ceremony was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe Curtis Scaparrotti, who stated that the deployment demonstrated “NATO’s unity and resolve and sends a clear message to any potential aggressor.” Additionally, in a press conference with the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, US President Donald Trump altered his position on NATO as he claimed he no longer thought of it as “obsolete.” This push by NATO further into Eastern Europe marks a continuing trend towards increased militarization and heightening tensions between Russia and the West.
Initiating military operations, on the presumption of potential aggression by Russia, will only further strain relations. Policymakers should conceive alternate strategies whilst maintaining an open dialogue within the region, rather than resorting to the threat of the use of force. Such strategies increase the potential for misperceptions and reactionary measures, which may eventuate into open conflict. Both Russia and the US-led NATO should continue to promote cooperation efforts through the NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002 for joint actions and consensus-building, as a means of alleviating the ongoing escalation.
Over the past few years, both sides have increased their military presence, which may potentially contribute to a future crisis. Russia has maintained that NATO’s expansion into post-Soviet states is a means of encircling and containing it. Its response has been the subsequent annexation of Crimea and military build-up in the Black Sea and the region. Consequently, NATO upgraded its position from one of reassurance to direct presence, with troop deployment in Poland and the Baltic member states conceived at the July 2016 NATO-Warsaw Summit. This change signals to Russia that it will respond with force in the event of any aggressive move into the Baltics.
Relations between Russia and the US are at an all-time low in light of their varying positions on the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. Aggressive posturing could escalate to an outbreak of conflict if both NATO and Russia continue to militarize in response to each other. There must be a move away from the perpetuation of Cold War-style rhetoric, and open communication and cooperation should be promoted to maintain peace and security. A prevention of further armament in the region will ensure that current tensions do not reach their tipping point.