Belarus’s growing reliance on Russia poses a threat for countries alongside NATO’s eastern flank. Nonetheless, the peril from the Putin regime did not emerge until 2014 as Central European nations had seen Russia as the biggest security headache for their economy and politics much earlier than that. Yet they have not worked out a fully effective solution.
In September, the Zapad-2021 strategic military exercise will start at training grounds in Belarus and western Russia. Russia holds the Zapad military exercises every four years along with its Belarusian ally. This year’s edition is likely to bring a more showy attitude of Moscow as Belarus is getting more militarily engaged with Russia amid the political situation in the country whose incumbent leader Alexander Lukashenko sees Moscow as his only support. The upcoming Zapad-2021 drills will show to what extent these two countries integrated their military and whether it is necessary to adopt a new perception of this region. The Russia-Belarus rapprochement is particularly significant for NATO’s eastern flank amid the top strategic importance of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. A tight alliance that Minsk has with Moscow and dispatching Russian troops to Belarus is deadly for what is known as the Suwałki Gap––a corridor on the Alliance’s territorial fringes linking the Baltic states to Poland and other NATO countries between Russia’s Kaliningrad and Belarus. Andrey Kartapolov, a senior official at Russia’s foreign ministry, said on August 20 that the joint Russian-Belarusian drills should show NATO allies there was no need to disturb the “Russian bear”.
A massive military buildup started westwards shortly after Russia had aggressed Ukraine. Furthermore, Moscow urged to intensify flights over the Baltic Sea while tensions went up in this part of Europe. In response, at the July 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO allies pledged to strengthen the bloc’s eastern flank. Since then, they have been committed to pursuing the policy of deterrence while remaining open to dialogue with Russia. Yet Moscow rebuffs the idea of talks and is now beefing up its military potential in the Western Military District that Russian military strategists consider pivotal in a potential clash with the North Atlantic Alliance.
The Western Military District is now the most powerful of Russia’s five military districts. It is seeing constant updates to its stockpile; not only is the Russian military struggling to make some additions to the existing armies, corps, and divisions, but also it is creating new ones. In May 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian military would form 20 new units in the country’s west. “In total, the offensive potential of the Russian Army’s Land Forces in the western strategic direction was increased by over 50 percent in 2015–2020,” according to analysts from the Poland-based Center for Eastern Studies. Interestingly, Russia is adding more firepower to its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Its location and reported Russian efforts to bolster both its defensive and offensive potential (by adding more tanks) raises concerns of a deteriorating position of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland––albeit to a lesser extent––when confronted with a potential attack from Russia.
Military capabilities of the bloc had earlier been known to be too modest to beat off possible aggression in the Baltic states. Some analytical models show that the Russian military––along with its multiple advantages over the region––could occupy this part of the Alliance with several dozen hours. First, this is due to the military weakness of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and secondly, to their location, along with a lengthy frontline with Russia, the Baltic Sea behind, and its isolation from fellow NATO members. There is just one bridge between NATO allies and it runs through the Suwałki Gap, a narrow piece of land connecting member states. Military buildup in Russia’s strategic Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and the volatile situation in Belarus bring a more serious threat to the only strip of land linking the Baltic states to the rest of their allies. With its missile systems deployed to the exclave and the Baltic Fleet stationed there, Russia could easily cut off the Baltic states on land and discourage any relief missions at sea in the event of war.
The rapidly developing situation in Belarus contributed to enhanced Russian offensive capabilities in the northern part of NATO’s eastern flank stretching from Estonia to Poland. It is also where a NATO country borders Russia. However, that is not to say Moscow does not present any threat southward. Naturally, it is important that Moldova and Ukraine––both showing pro-Western sympathies––are now wedged between Russia and NATO states. Both of these “buffer” countries, there are circumstances where it is a challenge to describe as stable the southern bit of NATO’s eastern flank running from Slovakia and Hungary to Bulgaria through Hungary. This is chiefly about the smoldering conflict in Donbas, the annexation of Crimea, and the constant threat of Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Also, the strategic situation of Ukraine’s western neighbors could change depending on the scope of this plausible invasion. Another destabilizing factor is Russian troops that have been deeply engaged in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Once in concert with rebel fighters, thousands of Russian soldiers are dangerous not only to Moldova; they could also serve a tactical role if Russia invaded Ukraine. Moldova’s close ties with Romania make it a top security issue for the NATO state. The third factor is Russia’s military build-up in the Black Sea, possible after Moscow annexed Crimea. Thus Russia presents a threat to NATO’s eastern wing in the north and the south, in the Baltic and Black Seas, respectively.
Moscow says it is beefing up its military along its western border just opposite NATO’s eastern wing to counteract the alleged belligerence of the western military bloc. This narrative is just one example of the information warfare campaign Moscow has for years waged against the West as one of the top non-military Russian threats to the bloc’s eastern wing. Information warfare operations are being waged on many fronts. One of its goals is an endeavor to smash the cohesion of the North Atlantic Alliance hence fake news frequently popping up to compromise allied forces in Poland or the Baltic states.
Russia imperils nations along the bloc’s eastern flank through staged provocations and destabilizing efforts. Its most flashy example is a hybrid warfare strategy that Lukashenko wages by sending masses of migrants into the European Union. It yet failed to sow foment in Lithuania. In Poland, the joint Russia-Belarus strategy turned far more effective, igniting deep political disputes the country had seen for years now. Moscow selects its tools carefully, depending on whom it attacks. In Estonia and Latvia, it plays the card of Russian-speaking communities. Elsewhere in Europe, Russia is nourishing persistent ethnic and historical rows both among NATO states and between the bloc’s countries and non-NATO countries, including Ukraine.
A powerful tool for Russian pressure is energy––its oil and gas flow––and this exposes the scale of the non-military threat Moscow could represent to NATO’s eastern wing. Russia had skillfully used this tactic long before Putin invaded Ukraine, sparking a new Cold War with Western nations. Many NATO states remain heavily reliant on Russian energy commodities. Poland’s policy to diversify energy flows––by importing liquefied natural gas or building the Baltic Pipe link––is meant to gradually reverse this tendency and boost the security of the country’s allies. Nonetheless, energy projects such as the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 could jeopardize these efforts. A threat from Russia is something more than just the military. Sadly, countries alongside NATO’s eastern flank cannot count on their allies in other respects.
Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński