Russian Troops in Ukraine Shape NATO’s Counter to Putin

Russian Troops in Ukraine Shape NATO’s Counter to Putin

NATO’s response to Russia’s latest incursion into Ukrainian territory came into focus on Tuesday — and it’s forceful.

Russian tanks, troops, and artillery reportedly crossed into a previously unbreached border of eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, Aug. 26, opening a third front near the city of Novoazovsk and leading Ukrainian forces into a chaotic retreat. Western officials told the New York Times that they fear Russia is carving out a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed earlier this year.

NATO answered by announcing it would deploy troops to new bases in Eastern Europe, the first time soldiers serving under the NATO banner have been sent to a former Soviet bloc nation. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the move is a direct response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

"We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe," Rasmussen told European newspapers. "We have something already called the NATO Response Force, whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly if needed. Now it’s our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very high readiness."

NATO is also shipping more supplies and other equipment to these bases so that troops can quickly respond to crises in Eastern Europe, Rasmussen said.

"In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations. So it will involve the pre-positioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters. The bottom line is, you will, in the future, see a more visible NATO presence in the east."

Rasmussen hopes the buildup will assure NATO countries such as Estonia and Latvia, both of which have Russian-speaking populations. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy doctrine claims Russia may intervene to protect such groups, regardless of which country they are citizens of. Putin’s critics say the policy is just a pretext for invasion, pointing to Ukraine as proof.

The NATO chief also said that the policy shift does not violate existing agreements with Russia, which discourage NATO from establishing permanent bases in Eastern Europe.

"To prevent misunderstanding I use the phrase ‘for as long as necessary,’" Rasmussen said of the bases. "Our eastern allies will be satisfied when they see what is actually in the readiness action plan."

But that is unlikely to placate Putin or his Kremlin backers. Putin has warned repeatedly that Moscow would swiftly rebuke any new military installations within the former Soviet Union. For instance, when U.S. President George W. Bush tried building a missile-defense shield across Poland, Turkey — which was never part of the Soviet Union — and the Czech Republic, the Kremlin protested vigorously. President Barack Obama scrapped the plan.

Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden say they will work more closely with NATO now. Under the terms of the deal, NATO troops will help Nordic nations during emergencies.

According to the Finnish government, in the event of "disasters, disruptions and threats to security," NATO will come to its aid. Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enstrom told the Associated Press that neither Sweden nor Finland are seeking NATO membership, but added: "We are an active partner with NATO, and we want to deepen our partnership with NATO."

Taken together, the Nordic agreement and the troop stationings in Eastern Europe are exactly the kinds of actions experts told Foreign Policy are needed to balance the so-called Putin doctrine. They also come ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Wales, where the alliance’s leaders are expected to formalize a response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

"NATO needs to put multilateral troops on the ground in allied territory," former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker said in a recent interview.

"I find it very difficult if we go back to the pre-Crimea status quo," added Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group. "The worry [about the Putin doctrine] is not going away."

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Belarus during a regional economic summit. The two reportedly met for two hours Tuesday and left the session with very different impressions.

Poroshenko said that all of the leaders at the summit — including Putin — agreed to a peace plan to stem the crisis. Putin had a different recollection.

"We did not discuss this matter substantively," Putin reportedly said. "Frankly speaking, we cannot discuss any conditions for a cease-fire or possible agreements between Kiev, Donetsk, and Luhansk. This is not our business; it is a domestic matter of Ukraine itself."

The Ukrainian government also alleges that Russia spiked its military activity in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where nine Russian soldiers were captured Tuesday. Putin admitted that his soldiers were taken but said that the whole incident was an accident. (Canada’s NATO delegation sent out this helpful tweet to assist lost Russian soldiers.)

"After all, Ukrainian service members entered our territory with armored equipment, and we didn’t have any problems. I hope that in this case, there also will not be any problems with the Ukrainian side," Putin said, according to the Kremlin’s transcript of his remarks.

Complicating matters further, Russia allegedly will cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, which could lead to gas-supply disruptions across Europe. Europe relies on Russia for some 30 percent of its energy, while Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom gets 60 percent of its revenue from European coffers.

"We know about the plans to completely block the transit [of gas] to EU member states," said Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, according to Ukrainian news agency UNIAN. "We know about the plans to disable all energy resources going to Ukraine."

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak denied the accusation, calling it a "groundless attempt to intentionally mislead or misinform European consumers of Russian gas," according to Reuters.

"We will put forth maximum efforts to fulfill gas-contract obligations to European importers regardless of political issues in this or that transit country," Novak added.