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The Post-Cold War Arms Race

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

The latest military confrontation in Europe began recently in Ukraine. In the middle of June, Russia announced that it would respond to any moves by the United States to build up military capabilities in Eastern Europe by fortifying its western border. In other words, this is a new post-Cold War arms race in the making. So, how did we come to this?New Cold War Russia the West

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and NATO eventually came to an understanding regarding the status of the non-Warsaw Pact Eastern Europe, as reflected in the 1997 Founding Act. In this Act, NATO and Russia agreed to create a common space of security and stability in Europe, “without spheres of influence limiting the sovereignty of any state.” The member states of NATO reiterated that they had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members and do not foresee any future need to do so.” As well, and most relevant today, NATO and Russia agreed to “strengthen stability by further developing measures to prevent any potentially threatening buildup of conventional forces in agreed regions of Europe, to include Central and Eastern Europe.”

As such, Russia likely had the understanding that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO or the European Union. Ukraine and Crimea have extensive and long ties with Russia. Ukraine had been part of Russia since the mid-17th century. The southern and eastern parts of Ukraine are populated primarily with Russians. There are more Russians in Ukraine than any other country in the world (more than 8 million constituting around 17 percent of the population). When Ukraine was a state within the Soviet Union, the Crimean Peninsula was part of it, and it served as the headquarters for the Soviet Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. The Crimean Peninsula had been part of Russia since 1783. In Crimea, there are a little more than 2 million citizens, of which more than 1.5 million are ethnic Russians.

The current situation began in November 2013 when Ukrainian President Yanukovych decided to forego the popular Ukraine-European Union Agreement and instead pursue closer ties with Russia. Russian President Putin offered to invest $15 billion in Ukrainian government securities while cutting the cost of gas exports to Ukraine by about one-third. This sudden switch in orientation led to massive protests in the capital city of Kiev and around the country. By February 2014, more than 80 protesters had been killed. This violence against protesters led the Ukrainian Parliament to turn against Yanukovych, and it voted to remove him from power. Oleksandr Turchynov was installed as the interim president Feb. 22. At this point, Yanukovych fled to Russia.

President Putin believed the West orchestrated this “coup.” He saw Ukraine moving toward the European Union (and eventually NATO), taking the Crimean Peninsula with it. He saw this as a break of the understanding with the West that Ukraine would remain neutral. He felt he needed to do something to reverse this course of action, and as such, he had Russian forces seize the Crimean Peninsula and support separatist movements in southern and eastern Ukraine. In March 2014, Russia formally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and after the pro-Russian separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, it supported both with military weapons and troops “on vacation.” This civil war is now known as the War in Donbass, and it has claimed the lives of more than 6,400 people and resulted in over a half a million refugees.

The U.S. and the European Union responded with economic sanctions against Russia, which are still in place today. As well, the U.S. and NATO conducted military exercises in Eastern European nations. While the U.S. could increase military exercises in the region, this still would not be enough to placate their concerns about future Russian military actions.

Meanwhile, Putin decided to respond by leveling economic sanctions against the U.S. and EU; conducting a series of military exercises along Russia’s western borders; and, probing NATO nation defenses in the air and on/under the sea. As a result, the NATO nations of Eastern Europe became justifiably more worried.

In September 2014, NATO leaders met in Wales to discuss the situation, and they issued a declaration Sept. 5. In it, NATO announced that it was significantly enhancing its NATO Response Force (created in 2003) by developing military units that would be able to rapidly respond to any potential challenges or threats along the NATO-Russian border. These allied-force units would be part of the new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). The VJTF would be designed to deploy within a few days on land, sea, and/or air. These units would be augmented by additional military equipment and supplies, and be hosted at specific military bases along NATO’s periphery. Currently, there are 25 NATO countries contributing to the 30,000-troop strong NRF. The VJTF would be comprised of a multinational brigade of approximately 5,000 troops.

To support the VJTF mission to be ready to fight “within a few days,” the U.S. is contemplating storing a company’s worth of equipment (enough for 150 soldiers) in each of the three Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). As well, the U.S. would station enough military supplies to support a battalion in both Poland and Romania, and possibly Bulgaria and Hungary too. Part of this military equipment would include heavy weaponry such as tanks and armored personnel carriers. Since World War II, the U.S. has not sent heavy weapons to any of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. As such, this is likely perceived by Russia as raising the stakes in this current confrontation.

The Russian military leadership recently reacted by declaring this potential move to be unacceptable. Russian General Yury Yakubov told the Russian news service Interfax that this would be the most aggressive military action since the Cold War, and that Russia would have no choice but to reinforce its entire western border, beef up Russian forces in Belarus, and station SS-26 Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. And, in mid-June, President Putin announced an additional 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs) to be added to the arsenal along with the previously promised 50! (A State Department report says Russia has 515 ICBMs deployed, while the U.S. has 450.)

So, what should the United States do at this point? It does appear like both sides are mobilizing for war, just as happened a century ago in Europe. However, this is not the time to back down, especially given that the NATO alliance rests on the credibility and support of the U.S. In the end, the European Union is economically stronger, and NATO is militarily stronger than Russia. So, it appears Russia may be bluffing, and the results of not calling the bluff could very well be the demise of NATO.

About the Author

Dr. Schwalbe retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Air Force Academy; a master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a Ph.D. from Auburn University in Public Policy.

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