Wednesday, 30 April 2014

NATO warships are sending a mixed message to Russia

A group of NATO warships, 4 minehunters and 1 command and support ship, has arrived in the Baltic Sea. Their aim is to reassure the Baltic states that NATO will be there to defend them against a possible Russian aggression as well as show NATO resolve to act and react to an international crisis as required.

NATO did, however, send  a mixed message to Russia. On the one side it shows that NATO will respond to what it believes to be ongoing unilateral Russian aggression and that it will come to the aid of the Baltic states to deter Russia for making any moves over there. Al three countries have an ethnic Russian minority and this could in theory lead to the same situation as in Crimea with Russia organizing protests, a referendum and annexation of these areas. Although this scenario is theoretically possible, the question remains wheter Russia is willing to execute it in EU/NATO countries.

On the other side however, NATO sends a message of military weakness against the Russians. Russia’s Baltic fleet consists of Sovremenny class destroyers, Neustrashimyy class frigates and Steregushchy class corvettes as well as a Lada and 2 Kilo class submarines. Include the several older corvettes from the Soviet era and one can easily see that 4 minehunters and 1 command ship will not make a difference in the balance of power in the Baltic Sea.

NATO, and western politicians, are careful not to provoke Russia and are aiming for a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. In their view, sending a military force to deter the Russians from using an aggressive policy makes sense. However, they don’t want to start sending a major amount of forces in this area out of fear that the Russians would be threatened and start taking countermeasures. Sending a token force seems to make the most sense from this point of view.

One must however take into account the way the Russians see things. In Russia strength is measured by showing brute force. There is a reason why President Putin has built a macho culture around himself, why military maneuvers take place at the Ukrainian border and why Russia sends warships towards Syria when it disagrees with the United States of America over how to deal with the Assad-regime. Showing brute force means strength. From this point of view the appearance of 4 minehunters in the Baltic Sea, ships that cannot defend themselves, let alone go on the attack; is viewed as a sign of military weakness by Russia.

Had NATO sent a force of frigates and destroyers in the Baltic Sea, it would have sent a clear message to Russia about NATO’s resolve to stand up and protect the Baltic States. The big question is whether or not such a move might have intimidated the Russians enough to make them feel threatened in such a way that they feel the need to build up their forces. There is a fine line between deterrence and provocation, especially against an assertive Russia that is flexing its muscles more and more. NATO decided to send a small token force that cannot be seen as a provocation but the danger is that this force is not even seen as a real deterrence.

The big question behind this deployment still remains unanswered. Is NATO afraid to provoke the Russians by not deploying more potent ships such as frigates to send a warning? Is there a fundamental weakness within the decision making process in NATO? Is there a fear within that the deployment of fighting forces could lead us back to a new Cold War? This is a question that cannot be easily answered with just one case. However, as long as NATO continues to send token forces as a response to Russia’s politics it will miss its effect. Token forces without any strength will only be seen as a sign of weakness by Russia and might encourage Russia to take more bold actions.

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