Richard Gowan is a World Politics Review analyst and a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He talks about rising NATO Russia tensions. His focus areas are the UN, European Security and Defence Policy, Africa, and Western Balkans. Dr. Gowan is also a nonresident fellow at the New York University’s (NYU) Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University and writes as a contributor to E!Sharp, The Globalist, and other international affairs magazines. Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Dr. Gowan about the growing differences between NATO and Russia and the rising tensions in the Baltic Sea.
The United States has decided to substantially increase its military presence in Central and Eastern Europe. It also plans to launch Anakonda military exercises next month in Poland with its European allies. What do you make of these moves by the U.S and its NATO allies? Some see these moves as a deliberate provocation of Russia, and some as an attempt at deterring Moscow from making aggressive moves in Central and Eastern Europe.
If the U.S. is ramping up its military presence in Europe, it is a matter of necessity not part of a conspiracy.
The Obama administration was originally keen to limit U.S. military commitments in Europe. Its overall strategic priority has been the pivot to Asia to balance China. It has also had to keep fighting wars in the Middle East, even though Obama has tried to limit American commitments there. The last thing that the U.S. needs is to spend more of its defense budget on another theater. But Russia’s increasing military activism has forced the administration to rethink and invest more in European security. The idea that Washington is out to provoke Russia militarily ultimately doesn’t make sense – it is reacting to Moscow’s moves. There is, however, a big risk of a cycle of maneuvers by both sides that will ratchet up tensions.
Can you elaborate on the strategic rationale for the U.S defense site in Romania? Are east European states more concerned about a Russian threat than they are about an Iranian one?
The original U.S. reasoning for this defense site was to provide some defense against missiles from Iran. The anti-missile system would not be of much use against an all-out Russian attack. But for Eastern European states the mere fact that the U.S. is positioning more defense sites in the region is of some symbolic value, a reassurance against Russian maneuvers.
How prepared, in your opinion, are European members of NATO for a potential Russian military move against Eastern or Central Europe? Are European members of NATO a force to be taken seriously without the presence and involvement of the United States?
It is an open secret that the Baltic countries in particular are extremely vulnerable to any Russian attack.
The real question for many policy-makers in Eastern Europe is whether the U.S. and “old” Western members of NATO would come to their aid in a crisis with Russia, especially if there was a real danger of nuclear weapons being used. America’s “return” to Europe offers some reassurance, but there is still a sense that Washington and many Western European countries would ultimately duck a fight over the Baltics – Russia could move so quickly that it would be impossible for NATO to react effectively in time.
Virtually all NATO countries spend less on defense than the U.S. argues that they should. Nonetheless, Germany has signaled that it will expand its military in the years ahead, which is a positive sign for NATO.
Do you think Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea through its naval bases in Sevastopol, Crimea enables Moscow to leverage more pressure on NATO and particularly on Turkey, a NATO member with a significant army and tense relations with Russia?
The combination of Russia bases in Crimea and its presence in Syria definitely does create strategic challenges for Turkey. The danger is less that Russia will launch an all-out attack on the Turks, who have a hefty military of their own, but Russia will stir up the Kurds in Syria and Turkey to challenge Ankara. Nonetheless we should keep in mind that NATO and Russia ultimately do have some common interests in the Middle East, above all confronting the long term challenge of Islamist terrorism.
Do you agree with the assertion that some of the actions by the Russian President Vladimir Putin are indicative of an urge to be treated on an equal basis by the West?
A lot of people have tried to look into Putin’s soul. He clearly does want to reassert Russia’s power on the world stage. Equally, he has used the Ukrainian crisis and Syrian war as opportunities to boost his domestic popularity – offsetting Russia’s economic problems. Some analysts fear that he may yet face major domestic unrest in the near future if the economy doesn’t get better, however: It is arguable that this would make him even more dangerous abroad. Overall, I see Putin as a gambler who takes the opportunities he can – such as the chance to grab Crimea – and keep other powers off balance.
In July of this year Western sanctions against Russia are expected to be extended. Do you expect to see a softening and or removal of some of those sanctions?
Unless there is real progress on consolidating peace in Ukraine, then the sanctions need to stay on. But it is crucial that the U.S. and EU indicate that they don’t want to punish Russia just for the hell of it – the sanctions need to support continued diplomacy over Ukraine, Syria and other sources of tension. The longer these conflicts go on unresolved, the harder it will be to rebuild relations with Moscow.