At first glance, it was an unusual occasion for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to explain how the defense alliance is strengthening its military presence in Eastern Europe. For example, Denmark will send a frigate to the Baltic Sea and move combat aircraft to Lithuania. The Netherlands is sending jets to Bulgaria, and Spain is considering a similar move, which has already sent a combat ship to the Black Sea. And in the Mediterranean, the US is back for the first time since the end of the Cold War an aircraft carrier under the command of NATO.
When Stoltenberg listed these measures at NATO headquarters on Monday evening, the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland were standing next to him. Their countries do not belong to NATO, but their close cooperation with the alliance has become much closer. The reason is the same that led to the transfers: For almost a year, Russia has been moving troops and material to the borders with Ukraine. According to Western intelligence services, there are currently at least 106,000 combat-ready Russian soldiers – and many thousands are still on the move.
Moscow has so far not responded to Stoltenberg’s invitation to hold further meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. In the press conference, the Norwegian renewed his readiness for dialogue and emphasized that it was a “defensive measure”: “NATO is not threatening Russia.” At the same time, it remains the case that, contrary to what Russia had asked for shortly before Christmas, the Alliance will not promise not to accept any new members. Speaking to his guests, Stoltenberg said: “Finland and Sweden decide which way to go. Not Russia and nobody else either.”
United States put 8,500 soldiers on increased readiness
Ann Linde of Sweden and Pekka Haavisto of Finland said there is currently no plan to join NATO. However, according to Haavisto, there is great concern about Russia’s behavior, which Stoltenberg believes harbors a real risk of war. Sweden recently increased its military presence on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland after numerous Russian activities were observed. According to Linde, Sweden has increased its defense budget by 80 percent since 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
The investments made by Swedes and Finns in their armies are often mentioned by Eastern European diplomats, whose countries in Western Europe are often accused of collective Russophobia. Unsurprisingly, the announcements from Washington that around 8,500 US soldiers had been put on increased standby were welcomed in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A Pentagon spokesman said no decision had yet been made about transporting these troops to Europe, adding: “This is a clear signal to Mr. Putin that we take our responsibility to NATO seriously.”
Apparently the US is considering moving up to 5,000 of its troops to Poland and the Baltic States. The countries have been asking for such a stationing for a long time. Just recently, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said: “The best deterrent against Russia is an American flag.” NATO currently has about 4,000 soldiers stationed in the four countries as part of the “Enhanced Forward Presence” (EFP) program, who are supported by tanks, air defense and reconnaissance units. In Lithuania, the Bundeswehr leads the combat unit. From February, the air force will monitor the airspace in the southern part of the alliance from the Romanian city of Constanza. French soldiers could also soon be on their way to Romania: Paris is willing to take part in a multinational NATO task force if an EFP deployment in this country is decided.
Bulgaria rejects Russian demands
Such is also conceivable in Bulgaria. The official line there has been clear so far: Prime Minister Kyril Petkov rejected the Kremlin’s previously expressed demand in parliament on Friday that NATO troops be withdrawn from his country. “As a NATO member, we decide independently how to organize our army, in consultation with our partners,” he said. This Tuesday, the National Security Council should discuss the Ukraine crisis and the consequences for Bulgaria. They want to “stand in line with our allies,” Petkov said, but the decisions should be “based on the assessments of the Bulgarian security services.”
President Rumen Radev also called the Kremlin’s demand for a NATO withdrawal from Bulgaria “unacceptable and unfounded.” This is remarkable, since Radev is considered to be pro-Moscow. In fact, Bulgaria and Russia are very close linguistically, historically and religiously, and the country’s reservations about a tough confrontational course with Moscow are correspondingly high. Defense Minister Stefan Yanew recently rejected the stationing of additional NATO troops in Bulgaria on Facebook – whereupon Prime Minister Petkov made it clear that this was only a private opinion.
The fact that Spain and the Netherlands are now taking over air surveillance over Bulgaria with fighter jets, Petkov does not want to see as an escalation step. The aircraft were not sent “due to an emergency”, but part of an airspace surveillance mission agreed in 2016.
Loyalties to Russia have always been weaker in neighboring Romania. Without recognizable regard for possible sensitivities, President Klaus Iohannis recently welcomed on Twitter the respective willingness of the USA and France to increase their military presence in Romania and acknowledged the “very strong” solidarity within NATO.