NATO-Russia Collision Course

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An intense geopolitical rivalry between the Russian Federation and the US-led NATO on several fronts has led some to believe that the possibility of a military confrontation is increasing by the day.

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Narration: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization led by the United States seems to be on a collision course with Russia. Developments on the ground on both sides of Russia’s western borders and elsewhere are pointing to increasing tensions and the possibility of a military confrontation with disastrous consequences. NATO and Russia have been flexing their military muscles at levels not seen in decades. The two have shown through their military drills and deployments as well as public statements that they are serious about pursuing their geopolitical interests in the Baltic region, the Middle East and even in the Arctic. The rivalry between the U-S-led alliance and Russia will probably impact the rest of the international community, and is therefore being monitored by observers around the world.

The Finnmark region in northern Norway, less than two hundred kilometers from the Russian border. Several thousand NATO forces including American and British troops have been engaged in joint military exercises dubbed Joint Viking. NATO says the annual drills do not violate the alliance’s agreement with Russia, which bans significant deployments, because foreign troops will be rotated and not permanently stationed in Norway. But increased NATO activities are not limited to annual drills at all.

The alliance has been moving military hardware including US Abraham tanks and battalions of soldiers to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The buildup is taking place based on the terms of an agreement among NATO members meeting in Warsaw in July 2016. They agreed on “the biggest reinforcement since the Cold War” to counter what the alliance describes as “Russian aggression”. The term “Russian aggression” came into use when the conflict in Ukraine erupted in 2014 with the West accusing Moscow of backing pro-Russia militias in the Donbas region. Ever since the US and its allies have been using different methods including sanctions to mount pressure on the Kremlin.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Chief: “NATO is undertaking the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense in decades to send a powerful signal to deter any aggression or intimidation”

Narration: Moscow which dismisses the allegations insists that U-S-led NATO has been using the Ukraine crisis as a pretext to speed up its eastward expansion in a bid to contain Russia’s influence.

America's ongoing efforts to complete a comprehensive missile system in Europe have further worried Moscow. Radars, warships and long-range missile interceptors placed across Europe form components of the controversial system. Washington claims it is aimed at countering what it calls missile threats from Iran and North Korea NOT Russia.

SOUNDBITE [English] Noam Chomsky, Philosopher and U.S. foreign policy critic: “The pretence is that it’s to defend Europe from non-existent Iranian missiles. Ok? You can believe that you can believe in Alice in Wonderland! It’s of course aimed against Russia, Obviously. Furthermore it's understood by strategic analysts on all sides”

Narration: Moscow has dismissed the U.S. claims and slammed the move as an attempt to destroy the strategic balance in the region.

SOUNDBITE [Russian] Vladimir Putin, Russian President: “It was not about a hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat. It was about trying to change strategic balance of power in their favor in order not only to dominate but to have an opportunity to dictate their will to everybody: both to their geopolitical competitors and I think their allies. This is an extremely dangerous scenario.”

Narration: The war of words has been especially heated between nuclear powers Russia and the United States in recent years with top American and Russian generals and diplomats branding the other side as a grave threat. The situation is reminiscent of the days of the cold war. Some observers believe the possibility of a confrontation is even worse than those days.

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SOUNDBITE [English] Stephen Cohen, Professor of Russian studies, Princeton University: “I've been saying we were in a new cold war moving there with Russia for more than ten years. We are certainly there today. But here's what's also different. There are now three fronts in the new cold war. They are fought with the possibility of actual war. There is the Baltic region and Poland where NATO is unwisely building up its military presence. There is of course Ukraine which could explode at any moment. And of course there is Syria where you’ve got Russia and American aircraft and others all flying. So you got a multi-front potential Cuban missile crisis”

Narration: As NATO expands eastward, Russia is not sitting idly by. It has adopted a set of countermeasures that's caused alarm in European capitals and Washington. Russia has used its western-most territory Kaliningrad as a platform to boost its defenses. The territory is located between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. Moscow recently deployed the Iskandar missile system and a battalion of advanced S 400 air defense system in Kaliningrad The Iskandar tactical missile system is capable of launching ballistic and cruise missiles including those carrying a nuclear payload. And the S-400 codenamed as SA-21 growler by NATO, is a long range air defense system used to protect vast strategic sites or stores of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The Russian federation has been modernizing its military industry under President Vladimir Putin. It's been developing new military hardware, fighter jets and air defense systems and placing many of them along its frontiers where NATO forces are increasing in number. Moscow has also opened new military divisions along its western and southern edges. Moscow has repeatedly slammed the West for moving its forces close to Russian borders instead of focusing on the fight against terrorism that's been threatening the entire international community.

SOUNDBITE [Russian] Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister: “Instead of joining efforts in fighting the common international evil known as terrorism, NATO has announced Russia as the main threat and continues to increase its military potentials near our borders.”

Narration: The Russian anti-terror operations in Syria raised the level of tensions between Moscow and the US-led bloc to a whole new level. Russia began bombarding the positions of Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria in September 2015 following an official request from Damascus. Russian jets and cruise missiles have destroyed thousands of terrorist targets. The United States and its regional and Western allies have been funding countless militant groups fighting to topple the Syrian government since 2011. But the Russian campaign in Syria and Iran’s advisors and military support for Damascus have to a large extent changed the course of the war. Top Russian officials have declared that Moscow is determined to protect its interests in Syria such as its Mediterranean naval base at Tartus. Russia views Syria as a key base from which it exercises strategic influence in the region amid American-led efforts to dominate the Middle East.

The recent US cruise missile strike against Syria has turned into another serious bone of contention between Russia and America. Washington says the attack was a response to Damascus after a suspected gas attack in Idlib that the US and its allies blame on Syria. But Russia and Damascus have rejected the allegation and called for an investigation.

The new US administration under President Donald Trump has signaled that it will try to ease tensions with Russia. Trump has spoken of coordination and cooperation with Moscow on Syria. But over two months since he took office, Trump has failed to take meaningful steps to defuse tensions. For instance, Western deployments near Russia are still very much ongoing. Just recently, a top Kremlin spokesman said America’s relationship with Russia may currently be even worse than the days of the Cold War. The new US administration has caused numerous controversies since it came to power and has been forced to reverse many of its decisions. Observers are closely watching to see whether it can deliver on its promises of a less confrontational approach towards Moscow.


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