NATO’s eastern-flank members are lobbying for a long-term alliance commitment to keep increased military forces in their countries, along with authority for those forces to respond quickly to possible Russian intervention in advance of formal political approval from NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Looking toward NATO’s July summit in Warsaw, the Baltic countries in particular would like “a very blunt and strong statement” from NATO that a strong deterrent force will be in place “as long as necessary, while we have such a neighbor,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview during a visit to Washington on Friday.
The call for a more formal NATO force follows an alliance decision this month to expand its presence in Central and Eastern Europe, and President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal to more than quadruple U.S. spending, to $3.4 billion, on military training, exercises and pre-positioned equipment in countries nearest the Russian border.
In congressional testimony Thursday, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO supreme commander, called Russia “an existential threat to the United States, and to our European allies and partners.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing military backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, along with provocative military air and sea actions around NATO’s perimeter, Breedlove said, indicate that “Russia has chosen to be an adversary.”
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Thursday said that the United States did not “seek to make Russia an enemy, even as it may view us that way. But make no mistake — we will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order.”
Rinkevics said that while his country appreciates both the sentiments and the expenditures, it believes that the number of NATO troops on the ground there, numbering in the hundreds on a rotational basis, should be increased, along with more pre-positioning of heavy weaponry including tanks.
Latvia, he said, also sees a “real need” for increased air defenses to provide “the ability to defend the country” in an attack until NATO reinforcements can arrive.
NATO has shied away from describing its eastern-based forces as “permanent.” A 1994 post-Cold War agreement with Russia says the alliance will maintain security by bolstering its reinforcement capabilities “rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.”
Russia has charged that any increase in NATO forces stationed in the east would violate that agreement. But NATO experts have debated the meaning of the word “substantial,” and numerous experts have said the agreement is not binding on the alliance.
Rinkevics echoed Breedlove’s description of Russia waging “hybrid” warfare, including provocative military movements, strategic threats and the use of communications. While earlier Russian propaganda efforts had primarily targeted the large Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic states of NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Rinkevics said, efforts via television and other media appear to be “deliberate attempts to target the whole society” in the region.
Russian- and Latvian-language broadcasts seek to denigrate the European Union and compare living standards there unfavorably to those in Russia, and promote the spread of negative stories about E.U. countries, he said. At the same time, Russian-funded nongovernmental organizations have established “compatriot” programs in which adolescents and teenagers are invited to Russia to participate in sports and other ostensibly apolitical activities.
In response, Rinkevics said, a center has been set up in the Baltics to train local journalists in international standards and investigations. Independent Russian journalists, prevented from working in their own country, have set up shop in the Baltics to counter Russian communications.