Tensions between NATO and Russia have been rising ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and the ensuing Ukraine crisis. A second Cold War appears to be inevitable, so what should the UK and NATO do?
VICE News’ Simon Ostrovsky tracked an ethnic Buryat soldier from his hometown of Ulan-Ude in Russia’s Buryat Republic (bordering Mongolia) to eastern Ukraine based on pictures he posted on social media. Aerial photographs of Russian artillery in Ukraine alongside the capture of 10 Russian paratroopers who “accidentally” crossed the border into Ukraine pretty much confirm NATO’s suspicions. However, Russian excursions into Ukraine are by no means the greatest of Russia’s provocations.
The Russian Air Force has recently been conducting fairly provocative operations in the form of flying long-range bombers and other aircraft very close to NATO airspace. In 2014, the number of interceptions of Russian aircraft over the Baltic states trebled and Russian bombers have recently been flying close to Scotland and Cornwall, prompting the RAF to scramble fighters. This appears to be Moscow testing NATO’s air defence capabilities. In April this year, a British fishing trawler was almost capsized in the Irish Sea. A UK fishing organisation suggested that a Russian submarine may have been responsible for the incident, although the MoD declined to comment. Russia has also stepped up military exercises, with tens of thousands of troops and aircraft involved, as a sign of strength to NATO.
However, don’t think NATO has not responded. NATO has carried out several large-scale exercises in the Baltic states and other eastern European countries, such as one in Poland in June that involved soldiers from 9 NATO countries along with 440 tanks. A NATO exercise named “Saber Strike 2015” in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland involved 13 nations and more than 6,000 troops. NATO is flexing its muscle towards the Kremlin – how can it be anything else?
NATO is even reinforcing its rapid-reaction forces, in order to prevent a situation similar to Ukraine occurring in other eastern European NATO countries. Following the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) announced it would be expanding from 13,000 to 30,000 troops. These would be drawn from all 28 member countries and are capable of being deployed to any NATO country within 48 hours. This has been the largest NATO reinforcement since the end of the Cold War. This is a definite throwback to that era, a move exacerbated by the United States’ recent actions in Europe.
The US on its own has been bulking up its presence in Europe sending us back to the Cold War. In April, 300 US paratroopers arrived in western Ukraine to begin training Ukrainian units. The reason for why Ukrainian units were being trained was not disclosed, but it is not difficult to guess that this is the American effort to restrict the Russian-backed separatists by better training the Ukrainian Army to fight them. American heavy weapons (including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery) are to be positioned in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Germany. These actions are extremely reminiscent of the Cold War era, and are a clear sign that the United States is willing to independently back NATO’s efforts in Europe. How long will it be before both sides begin to place nuclear missiles on their borders?
It is certain that the Second Cold War is on the way. Russia arguably began it by annexing Crimea and participating in the war in Ukraine. NATO’s immediate response has been to strengthen defences and bare its teeth as a sign of defiance to Mr Putin should he think of inciting an anti-government uprising in other eastern European countries. This situation cannot be reversed unless the Russians decide to stop their involvement in Ukraine and stop their support for the separatists. However, this is unlikely to happen as following that, the rebels (without Russian support) would be destroyed and Ukraine would quickly be incorporated into a victorious and perhaps aggressive NATO, right on Russia’s borders.
So what should the UK do? As a founding member of NATO, shouldn’t it be one of the major contributors? Well, that’s not really the case right now. The UK has not participated in several NATO exercises despite its fundamental role in creating NATO. The UK should ensure it meets the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence – however, this money needs to be spent wisely. There is no need to stockpile missiles like during the arms race. There is no need to buy hordes of weapons if there are insufficient soldiers to use them (bear in mind the UK has a regular army of only 90,000, compared to the 600,000-strong German Army). The money should be used to ensure that British forces are well-trained and capable of fighting a war like the one seen in Ukraine today, should such an event occur in another NATO country.
Britain has made a commitment in joining NATO, and it must honour this commitment. With Russia acting increasingly aggressively, NATO must not stand down to the bear. If anything, we need to stand up to Mr Putin and show him that we are not incapable of defending ourselves. Unfortunately, the Second Cold War seems to be where Europe is headed. Russia has now gone too far for us to expect a reversal in direction; we have no other option but to bolster our defences and be more vigilant in the east.