From Turkey to the Baltics, NATO faces up to Russia

A Russian ship passes through the Bosphorus. Reuters/Murad Sezer

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, has said the organisation is “ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats”. This followed incursions into Turkish airspace by Russian planes. On the same day, UK defence secretary, Michael Fallon announced that around 100 British troops would be deployed to the Baltic region.

Arguably these actions and others are a response to what Admiral Mark Ferguson, the commander of US Naval Forces Europe, described as Russia’s “arc of steel” – a chain of air, land and sea defence assets stretching from the Arctic to the Middle East.

These gestures herald what many in NATO see as an ominous new turn in Russia’s behaviour. This sea change in NATO-Russia relations has its roots way back in the Kosovo conflict, but finally seems to be coming full circle – first in Ukraine and now in Syria.

Deteriorating relations

Russia has reportedly had both regular and irregular troops operating in eastern Ukraine, not to mention Crimea, and has now entered into the civil war in the air over Syria to help prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, along with the Iranians and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Now both Ukraine and Syria are being used to illustrate how Russia is a growing threat to European security. NATO’s role is to give reassurance to not only the Baltic States and Poland but also now to Turkey.

Stoltenberg speaks in Brussels. EPA

From the NATO’s perspective, there are considerable concerns about its own frontiers. Russia has persistently violated airspaces since the end of the Cold War but has done so with increasing frequency in eastern and northern Europe in recent years. The air war in Ukraine, especially near its borders with NATO countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania) is almost nonexistent, especially after the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. The prospect for conflict in the skies over Syria, however, poses a much more serious problem.

Turkey had previously seemed a soft spot for Russia’s relations with the region but the mood between Ankara and Moscow has changed dramatically since Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, which Turkey has sought to remove link. As soon as Russian aircraftt violated Turkish airspace on October 5, the risk of a military stand-off between Russia and a NATO member increased.

NATO’s response

On one hand, the Turkish response to Russia’s intervention and its airspace violation is itself a serious issue. Military retaliation could spark a much wider conflict. Russia has indicated that it is serious about its intervention in Syria and has already carried out airstrikes on rebel groups supported by the US and Turkey. The possibility of accidents and open confrontation is real.

On the other, action in Syria enables NATO to remind its members and neighbours that Russia is a security threat to Europe.

The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have repeatedly stressed how vulnerable they are, given their geographical proximity to Russia and the number of Russian people living within their borders – which could be seen as catalysts for Russian intervention. This was, after all, one of the reasons Russia gave for annexing Crimea.

NATO has been very active in the Baltic region but local leaders have appealed for it to have a greater presence, including a permanent base for troops.

National security has been high on the agenda in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the beginning of their independence from the Soviet Union. Recently these concerns have concentrated on the prospect of Russia playing passport politics, a tactic used by Moscow in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia on the pretext of protecting its nationals living there. The cyber attacks that followed the Bronze Soldier riots in Estonia in 2007, when ethnic Russians and police clashed over the removal of a Soviet-era war monument, spooked not only the small state of 1.7m people, but NATO as a whole. As a result, NATO placed its Cyber Defence Centre in Tallinn.

Perhaps, given all this, it is small wonder that the Baltic States, their neighbour Poland, and more recently the non-NATO countries Sweden and Finland, see Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as boding ill for them and for NATO as a whole.