NATO appears to be on a collision course with Russia as the Western military alliance expands, and Moscow warns of grave consequences to that expansion.
The latest example came last week, after the small Balkan country of Montenegro was offered membership in NATO.
“The continuing expansion of NATO and the military infrastructure of NATO to the east cannot fail to lead to actions in response from the east – that is, from Russia,” said a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
READ MORE: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West: The next Cold War?
While NATO maintains it exists only for defensive purposes, Russia has long objected to expansion close to its borders. Montenegro will be NATO’s 29th member, including former republics of the Soviet Union: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said last month Montenegro’s addition to NATO would be “another blow to European security and to relations between Russia and NATO.”
However, much of NATO’s recent expansion appears to be tied to rising aggression from Putin’s government, starting with the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last year.
“What I think he wants, what he likes, is destabilized states close to him that he can draw into his orbit and make part of a new sort of Russian empire,” says University of Toronto Russia expert Randall Hansen.
Russia has been building up military forces along its eastern borders, and earlier this year, Putin announced the addition of 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to his country’s nuclear stockpile.
“Well, I absolutely believe it’s a credible threat,” says Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, Commander of the United States Army’s European forces. “I mean, Russia has told Denmark, Romania, Sweden, that they are nuclear targets if they display any sort of a ballistic missile defence.”
In response to threats from Russia, NATO turned what was planned as a routine military exercise in Europe last month into a major show of force. “Trident Juncture” was expanded from 10,000 troops to 36,000 after Russia invaded Crimea.
“Nobody here wants a conflict with Russia, but in order to make sure that doesn’t happen, there has to be a demonstrated deterrent capability,” Hodges told 16×9.
Canada sent more than a thousand troops to participate in “Trident Juncture”. But NATO also announced this year it is tripling its Response Force to 40,000 troops, including a high readiness force code named “Spearhead”, which can be deployed to Eastern Europe within 48 hours. Canada has also committed staff officers to help run new NATO headquarters in six member countries, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where it’s feared Russia could invade next.
“This nuclear saber-rattling of Russia is unjustified. It’s destabilizing and it’s dangerous,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in June. “This is something which we are addressing, and it’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces.”
“It’s absolutely right that NATO is building up troops,” Hansen told 16×9. “NATO’s the easy part. If Putin moves on the Baltic States militarily, we will be at war.”