Goodbye Détente: NATO Troops in Eastern Europe
The decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe harkens back to the Cold War era. NATO was created in 1949 immediately following the end of World War II; the purpose of the transatlantic alliance was to provide for the collective defense of Western Europe and North America. The main concern in the postwar era was the rising strength of the Soviet Union, and NATO was intended to counter Soviet expansionism. NATO’s continued growth throughout much of the Cold War and post-Cold War era has left the political leadership of Russia feeling trapped. Many of the Soviet Union’s once-satellites are now members of NATO, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
The increased presence of NATO in Eastern Europe comes as a product of fears toward further Russian aggression in the region. Over the last few years, specifically during Vladimir Putin's presidency, Russia has become more threatening in its policies and military operations in Eastern European countries. The Western push for a stronger NATO presence in Eastern Europe comes in response to Russia's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. NATO allies are concerned that Russia could, at anytime, invade Poland or the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The invasion of Ukrainian territory and subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea has caused NATO allies to worry the most. The Ukraine crisis began to pick up speed in January and February of 2014, when tensions between protesters anti-Russian protestors and the pro-Russian Ukrainian government erupted violently, leaving 88 people dead over the course of two bloody days. At the end of February, pro-Russian militants seized buildings in Simferopol, Crimea. The Russian government responded by approving the use of force to protect Russian interests. A referendum for Crimean succession is was backed by 97 percent of voters, leading Russia to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation, while the United States urged a cease-fire. Violent clashes between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian forces continued through the summer of 2014. The Ukrainian crisis is still ongoing while other events have raised tensions. Lastly, Russia has been violating NATO airspace over Canada and Finland. These violations came to a head when Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet on its Syrian border, a dangerous product of increased tensions between NATO allies and Russia over the past half-decade.
Facing this growing Russian dilemma, the United States has increased its military spending on Europe-based forces, and in turn NATO has received increased funding. The U.S. plans to increase military spending in Europe to over $3 billion in 2017. Some European states have begun to take individual action; the United Kingdom will permanently station 1,000 military personnel in Poland over the next year, in an attempt to deter further Russian aggression. It is expected that NATO defense ministers will soon begin planning the construction of small eastern outposts.
The détente between the West and Russia since the late 1980s is slowly unraveling at a time when NATO and Russia are attempting to unite in the fight against the Islamic State. Perhaps the U.S. and European allies will attempt to decrease tensions with Russia; however, the increased presence of NATO troops in Russian border countries suggests otherwise.