The eyebrow-raising US visit to Europe by Donald Trump has confirmed the worst fears of Europeans: If Russia attempts another Crimea-like, takeover somewhere on the continent, it will be theirs alone.
Trump made it clear that European leaders cannot rely on the US to protect them. Not only was he harshly criticize by his party for not being more conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit, but he also lashed back at US allies, calling the European Union a foe.
Although the US may have more troops in Europe than it has soldiers, a Pentagon report recently stated that they are evaluating the effects of possible troop reductions. This is coupled with Trump’s unpredictable behavior, which cause America’s traditional allies to be nervous. Trump has actually weakened the West by launching trade wars and constantly attacking his closest allies.
A Second War In Europe Is Possible
Despite Trump’s assurances last week that the US values NATO, Trump may have encouraged Putin to visit Europe in divisive fashion. He may be assessing that more European land might not be subject to much military resistance, despite his assurances.
Poland is so worry that it recently offered to pay up to US$2bn for a permanent deployment of an armour division on their soil.
The unease between Moscow and the West is further exacerbate by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and Putin’s recent emphasis on Russia’s rights and obligations to protect Russians and Russian speakers outside its borders. This is especially evident in the Baltic States, where two of them (Estonia and Latvia), have large Russian minority populations.
It’s not helpful when Russia conducts military drills and dispatches warplanes at the borders with the Baltics. This gives the impression that there is a possibility of military escalation.
Eastern Europe Russia Is Experiencing Tensions
A narrow strip of land lying between Poland and Lithuania, known as the Suwalki Gap, could be the focus of any Russian military incursion. It is name after the Polish town of Suwalki. This would allow Russia to strengthen its only access to Baltic Sea via its Kaliningrad exclave. The Baltics would then cut off from the rest Europe.
The Suwalki Gap links Kaliningrad and Belarus, a loyal Russian ally. Moscow organizes joint strategic military exercises with Minsk regularly, including the Zapad war games in September last year.
Kaliningrad is also strategically important because it is the location of recently deployed nuclear-capable long-range missiles with nuclear capabilities and an upgraded nuclear weapons storage facility.
NATO members held military drills last June to address their fears about an invasion. They focused on the defense of this 104km area from possible Russian attacks. NATO then held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint exercise in Poland and Baltics last month. This was one of the largest-ever war games in this region.
These NATO military builds-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent the Cold War. They feed both Russia’s deeply-rooted sense of vulnerability vis–a-vis the West as well as Europe’s own feelings and insecurity.
Do It All Alone Russia
However, if Russia invaded the Suwalki Gap would Europe go to war? It might not be possible. NATO doesn’t have the military resources to wage war against Russia, so European military options are limited. European leaders were acutely aware of this and launched a new regional defense fund last year to help develop the continent’s military capability outside of NATO.
A direct Russian invasion of NATO members would be the worst case scenario. However, it is more likely that Putin would seek further destabilisation of the bloc’s east. Flank through a hybrid conflict that includes cyber-attacks and divisive propaganda campaigns. He would also use armed proxy forces such as the little green men who appeared in the Ukraine conflict.