U.S. and Russia Testing Each Other’s Commitments in Eastern Europe

Ukraine Protests

NATO military exercises have begun in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia as a response to the 40,000 troops Russia has amassed near Ukraine’s eastern border. The sequential deployments of the American 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in these Eastern European countries, totaling around 600 U.S. troops, illustrate President Obama’s attempt to reassure NATO allies against possible threats.

The exercises suggest a skepticism among Russia’s rivals that economic sanctions and diplomatic talks will be sufficient to halt the Russian-driven unrest in Ukrainian cities like Donestk, Kramatorsk, Slaviansk, and Luhansk. Government buildings in numerous Eastern Ukraine cities have been taken over by pro-Russian separatist forces and still “unrecognized” army officials, strongly resembling what Crimea went through before breaking off from Ukraine. 

The escalating concern has invigorated the defensive role of NATO, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel telling reporters that “Russian aggression has renewed our resolve to strengthen the NATO alliance.” Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but the unrest there has sparked concern among NATO members in Russia’s sphere of influence, particularly in Poland and the Baltic States.

NATO naval forces have also begun performing battle exercises in the Baltic Sea. These have been promoted by Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia, and Belgium. The Russian Defense Ministry responded by conducting its own naval operations in the Caspian Sea and flying surveillance flights over Ukrainian airspace. Even though Russia’s Military Minister Sergei Shoygu has insisted on his country’s preference to stay out of direct military clashes, these allegations should be taken with a grain of salt in light of Russia’s naval, army, and aerial exercises.

The international support has given confidence to a Ukrainian army that was previously paralyzed at the presence of an imposing Russian military. Consequently, military exercises are being more actively conducted within Ukraine itself.

Both sides have been testing each other’s commitments in the region, but now the tensions have reached a high point. The Obama administration is clearly reluctant to escalate any potential conflict with Russia. But if Russia accelerates its intervention in Ukraine, it will face strong pressure from its NATO allies in Eastern Europe to take a more aggressive stance.

Piero Sarmiento is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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  • Shoaib Khan

    The current confrontation with the West over Ukraine is “forming a new Russian
    society” and the only question is whether Russia will use the near term to
    modernize not in order to please the West but to “more effectively defend its
    interests” against the US. The risks that what is taking place in Ukraine could become “a tragedy,” and the possibilities that the crisis could give Russia a new “chance.”

    The usual ways of evaluating the situation in Ukraine fail to capture what he suggests is its most important consequence: the conclusion of most Russians that this is a clear case of “us” against “them” and that the “them” in this case is important enough to make them feel important as well.

    With Russia and the West seemingly on the brink of confrontation over Eastern Ukraine, Russia Direct sat down with Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, to discuss how far Russia and the West might go in their geopolitical face-off over Ukraine.

    Many Russians and some in the West believe that the Russian military could overrun Ukraine because of its superiority over Ukrainian forces, but such views ignore both the enormous challenges that any occupier of Ukraine would face and the reality that the Ukrainian military is in fact a far more serious opponent than many believe.

    With Russia and the United States so focused on the Ukraine crisis, there’s a risk that terrorists or other non-state actors might step up their activity – a risk with grave implications for the world. the Ukrainian crisis inspires a general deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations it is the new Russia-West Cold War. And in that context, all forms of collaboration
    are now in peril or at risk of being jeopardized. And therefore, it is going to
    be very difficult to assume that Washington will again reach out to Moscow and
    say we need to improve cooperation in these areas because the attitude, the mood
    now, is not to collaborate.

    The sanctions signal the West’s readiness to confront Russia. They demonstrate
    that all 28 EU member states agree on joint measures and that the EU and the
    United States have a common approach. The sanctions also show that the West is
    ready to pay a price in terms of the partial interruption of its economic
    interaction with Russia. Unity is key here, to communicate to Moscow that a
    Russian game of divide and rule in response to Western pressure won’t work. the sanctions are meant to change Russia’s behavior. As a minimum goal, they
    are designed to prevent Russia from escalating the situation in Ukraine further.
    In the best―but very unlikely―scenario, the measures are meant to force Russia
    to go back to the status quo ante and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

    Another way for the EU to push back would be to respond to Russia’s attack on
    Ukraine by helping the country defend itself. But the EU as an entity has ruled
    out sending weapons
    to Ukraine. The main argument against providing arms is that Ukraine has no
    chance of winning against Russia if Moscow decides to escalate the conflict. But
    if Kiev had a stronger army, it would be harder and more costly for Russia to
    advance farther into Ukraine.

    In any case, Europe and the United States should be ready to confront Russia
    as soon as it puts unacceptable pressure on countries in the neighborhood. They
    should communicate clear messages to the Kremlin about the exact price Russia
    would have to pay for every future escalatory step it takes. A lack of clarity
    on the side of the West could lead the Kremlin to miscalculate, which could in
    turn force the West to react much more harshly than anticipated.

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