NATO and Russia: A Warm War Based on Border Tensions?

Since the annexation of Crimea early in 2014, Russia and NATO have been moving troops and equipment to their shared borders. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine enabled Russia to further move tactical equipment so close to the Ukrainian border that it can directly support separatist in self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

As for NATO, fighter aircrafts, AWACS and tankers have moved eastward to fly interception missions near Russia’s border. In fact, NATO has conducted these flights due to the increase of Russia’s probing near Allied airspace. NATO ground troops also increased its military exercises in the Baltic States and Poland to prepare its soldiers against a possible Russian incursion in Allied countries.

NATO also been testing Russia’s response, on many occasions, by flying very close to its airspace. Last April, a Russian Su-27 Flanker intercepted an American RC-135U Reconnaissance Aircraft near the Kaliningrad Oblast airspace. The RC-135U was most likely monitoring Russian military activities in the Oblast.

NATO Aerial deployment in Central & Eastern Europe
NATO Aerial deployment in Central & Eastern Europe

While both are quickly militarizing its common borders, we can ask ourselves if we are witnessing a Warm War situation. A Warm War is: “where talks are still going on and there would always be a chance of a peaceful outcome but armies, navies etc. are being fully mobilised and war plans are being put into operation ready for the command to fight.”

Theoretically, we are witnessing the start of a Warm Warm. However, no signs of imminent war indicates a changing status to a Hot War. That said, Russia is moving most of its Central and Western Military District soldiers and equipment to its borders, a situation where many pretend they are sounding their “drums of war.”

In response to this, NATO quickly upgraded its Rapid Response Force by readjusting the amount of soldiers to 30,000. Adding to that, NATO created a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force capable of deploying a multinational brigade comprised of 5,000 troops within two to three days.

The Iskander: Russia’s weapon of choice on NATO’s border

The Western Military District is responsible of protecting Russia’s Western border. Units under its command are mostly stationed near its shared borders with NATO, and in Southwest Russia.

One of Russia’s most effective weapon presently on NATO’s border, tactically and psychologically, is the Iskander Missile System.

The Iskander was successfully launched for the first time in 1996. Ten years after, the Russian military adopted the Iskander and approved a serial production of the missile.

The Iskander-M system is equipped with two solid-propellant single-stage guided missile, model 9M723K1. Effective at more than 500km, the Iskander can cruise at hypersonic speed of 2100m/s—Mach 6-7—and reaches heights up to 50km.

Russian Iskander Missile System, courtesy of Reuters.
Russian Iskander Missile System, courtesy of Reuters.

With an effective accuracy of 5-7 metres, it can be guided by satellite, aircraft and by conventional intelligence such as maps and aerial pictures. The missile can also be re-targeted in-flight in case of engaging mobile targets.

Russian AWACS and UAV can also optically guide the Iskander through encrypted radio transmission. The missile is controlled in all phases.

It can be launched as an alternative to strategic bombers in case of enemy air superiority. Using passive and active jamming system, the Iskander is a stealth missile and can be armed with an electronic jamming device to suppress enemy radars.

Russian troops deployment on its borders, 2015.
Russian troops deployment on its borders, 2015.

The 26th Tactical Missile Brigade on Estonia’s border has been tactically deployed to quickly hit the Baltic States’ capital and NATO installations in Estonia. The Brigade could also quickly hit airfields and defensive installations while ground troops moves forward.

In Kaliningrad, the 152th Tactical Missile Brigade, also equipped with Iskander missiles, offer Russia the possibility to hit many Allied capitals. Whilst Kaliningrad is completely detached from Russia’s mainland, its Iskander missiles have been strategically deployed to instill fear in neighbour countries.

The Iskander, developed to neutralize NATO’s missile defense system, forced them to quickly upgrade their anti-missile radar and air defence systems to counter the Iskander’s effectiveness.

Iskander range. Warsaw, Poland and Vilvius, Lithuania could be hit by an Iskander missile. Courtesy of Bilyana Lilly, an international relations expert and consultant specializing in Russian foreign and domestic policy, NATO, U.S. foreign policy, and international security.
Iskander range. Warsaw, Poland and Vilvius, Lithuania could be hit by an Iskander missile. Courtesy of Bilyana Lilly, an international relations expert and consultant specializing in Russian foreign and domestic policy, NATO, U.S. foreign policy, and international security.
Soldiers from the 76th Guards Airborne Division during a winter training
Soldiers from the 76th Guards Airborne Division during a winter training

Adding to the Iskander, Russia deployed an Air Assault Division in the Pskov Oblast. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division, the main force on Estonia’s border, offers 3 Air Assault Regiment and could very well tactically deploy its units as a spearhead force in Estonia.

The 76th spearheaded the 2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and was employed in operations during the annexation of Crimea.

 

NATO’s eastward deployment

NATO has deployed more troops to Russia’s border due to the Ukraine situation. Although NATO countries has their own military to defend themselves, the Alliance has moved multinational elements to ensure a quick and efficient response in case of a Russian offensive.

By having multinational command elements and a 30k-strong Response Force, NATO is strategically deploying Allied forces in region that would be Russia’s first targets. That said, they are also putting pressure on Russia’s border.

NATO Central Europe troops deployment
NATO Central Europe troops deployment

Unfortunately, NATO’s Eastward deployment has created more tension between the once-again rivals. Last June, the US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, announced the deployment of a heavy armoured brigade in 6 countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

British soldier participating in NATO Ex Joint Warrior 2014
British soldier participating in NATO Ex Joint Warrior 2014

A justified deployment by the Americans to support NATO’s efforts on its shared borders with Russia, it enhances the Alliance’s defensive capabilities. However, further deployments of NATO’s troops to Russian borders maintains Russia’s willingness to deploy more troops to defend its side of the borders.

That said, NATO has the right to deploy its troops in any Allied countries without justification. Nevertheless, the increase of military exercises reassert Russia’s right to conduct its own exercises on its borders.

NATO Large-Scale Drills, Exercise Noble Ledger. Courtesy of the Norwegian Armed Forces
NATO Large-Scale Drills, Exercise Noble Ledger. Courtesy of the Norwegian Armed Forces

The tensions between Russia and NATO is quickly escalating and troops deployments on borders is being use to flex muscles. As we are witnessing the start of a Warm War, diplomatic channels should be reopened and talks should resume. Many believes Russia is not open to dialogue but enough efforts from both sides could achieve good results.

A good start would be to create a buffer zone on each other’s borders to ease up tensions and prevent accidental clashes that could quickly escalate in a total war.

The Minsk II Agreement should also be taken seriously and both parties should actively work together. Respecting the Agreement would greatly improve relations between NATO and Russia, enabling them to resume talks to deescalate the border tensions.

Until then, the deployment of troops on NATO and Russia’s side demonstrates each other’s willingness to defend themselves at all cost.

 

 

Jonathan Wade, CD

Jonathan Wade is the director of the ‘The Sentinel Analytical Group’ and a decorated veteran of the Canadian Forces. Specialized in tactical, strategic, intelligence and geopolitics analysis, Jonathan has a fondness for technical details. His military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Jonathan brings in in-theatre experience. Jonathan writes about Russia, Canada and Arctic.