Going for the ‘R-word’: NATO’s military build-up and the Western European press (1)
Despite Russia having stationed roughly four times as many troops on its side of the border, the Western European press is bent on making NATO look like it was provoking Putin’s regime. So much so, in fact, that they have turned eliciting the word “Russia” from alliance officers into a sport.
On Friday’s “Today” news program on the BBC’s Radio 4, a short segment touched on the subject of NATO’s plans to increase its presence in the Baltic States.
The report, by a team of correspondents who attended the final rehearsal battle of the alliance’s Saber Strike exercise in June, said that while most allied officers were very reluctant to imply that their increased presence was aimed at deterring Russian action in the region, the commander of Estonia’s military, Lieutenant General Riho Terras, was less circumspect.
“Russia’s behavior in the last years has been very aggressive, and Russia has shown that it is willing and capable of using its conventional military power in order to achieve its political objectives,” Terras said. But while the report insinuated that the Estonian commander had been unusually candid for an allied officer, the correspondent still needed to badger him outright to get a quote as unequivocal as this.
In fact, for the better part of the press conference and the following short interviews, reporters from France, Sweden, the UK, and several other countries all aimed for the same target and effectively transformed the proceedings into a competition around who could get the officers to say “Russia” first.
Neither Russian president Vladimir Putin nor his defense minister, Sergey Shoygu, are exactly known for their verbal restraint. Making direct and indirect threats alike, they have had no qualms whatsoever about making it absolutely clear in which direction they intend to go - a massively reinforced western border.
At present, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania together have about 18,000 troops, a number set to grow by about 3,000 should NATO members decide in Warsaw to deploy a battalion to each of the three countries. In comparison, Russia’s Western military district, facing the Baltic, boasts some 57,500 troops at the ready, plus another 11,000 in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Furthermore, Russia recently announced that it was going to move another 20,000 military personnel to its Western, and 10,000 more to its Southern, military districts “in response to NATO’s military build-up.” Without reinforcements on either side, Russian troops currently outnumber those of NATO by a factor of 3.8. Announced reinforcements on both sides taken into account, Russia will soon have 4.2 times as many soldiers lined up along its side of the border as NATO does.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has been involved in an armed conflict in Ukraine since February of the same year. After Russia invaded, occupied, and incorporated territory of a neighboring country into its own, NATO members discussed the reinforcement of their Eastern deterrent. With Russia, NATO faces a military power that has not only moved four times as much personnel and equipment towards its border than the alliance itself could muster, but also a power that has demonstrated, with action against Georgia in 2008 as well as Ukraine in 2014, its readiness to use military force against its neighbors.
Considering these numbers, it is particularly surprising that NATO officers need to be prodded at all to come right out and state openly that Russia is the primary reason for the alliance’s increased presence. Because even if the politicians need to take other interests into account - natural gas deliveries to Western Europe, for instance - it would still seem to be the military’s main role to make sure all eventualities are accounted for.