Military jousting between Russia and Nato forces is just posturing - for now
Published 29/10/2016 | 02:30
Recent weeks have seen a welter of headlines evoking the Cold War as Nato and Russia engage in a dance of military manoeuvres around each other.
In what has been termed Nato's biggest military build-up on Russia's hinterland since the Cold War, Britain says it will dispatch fighter jets to Romania in the coming year, while Washington plans to send troops and tanks to Poland.
At a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels this week, Germany, Canada and other Nato members said they too were prepared to deploy forces. That same day, two Russian warships equipped with cruise missiles made their way into the Baltic Sea. Moscow had earlier announced it was installing nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, the tiny Russian exclave situated on the Baltic between Poland and Lithuania.
All of this has been happening as a fleet of Russian warships - including Moscow's only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov - makes its way to the Mediterranean. There the warships are expected to join other Russian vessels already stationed off the coast of Syria amid fears they will be used to tip the continuing battle for Aleppo, where Moscow has already been carrying out air strikes on the rebel-held eastern side of the city.
Almost 500 people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured since forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, launched an operation to wrest control of eastern Aleppo in late September. Such is the devastation, particularly as a result of aerial bombardment, that UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council Aleppo "has essentially become a kill zone" and he is "incandescent with rage" that no action is being taken to resolve the situation.
Some 600km away, US-led coalition forces are massing around the Iraqi city of Mosul in a bid to dislodge Isil from what had become their stronghold in the country, an impending battle Russian President Vladimir Putin has equated with that of Aleppo, though the rebel forces in the Syrian city include moderates as well as extremists.
Moscow knows the stakes are high in Mosul, with the battle there - which will require a delicate balancing of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic dynamics - considered a litmus test for Obama's foreign policy legacy. Putin and his officials have shown they will waste no opportunity to criticise the conduct of US-aligned forces there just as Washington has slated Moscow for its role in Aleppo.
The timing of the Russian build-up in the Mediterranean is hardly coincidental, with the US presidential election next month and the Mosul operation already underway. If the Russian warships managed to help deliver a decisive blow for the Assad regime in Aleppo as US-led forces get bogged down around Mosul, it's not difficult to imagine the mood in the Kremlin.
But what is happening in Syria and Iraq is only part of the picture. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has framed the recent pledges of member states to contribute troops to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and eastern Europe as a response to the build-up of over 300,000 Russian troops along Moscow's western border.
He also noted that the Kremlin had this month suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the US.
Washington's defence secretary Ash Carter has made clear the focus is on deterrence, echoing the rhetoric of Nato leaders in July when they vowed to prevent Moscow from encroaching on embattled former Soviet states in the Baltics and eastern Europe, after it annexed the Crimea peninsula two years ago.
But while it might be tempting to cast the military posturing on both sides as reminiscent of the Cold War era, the overheated claims of Donald Trump and others suggesting that war might be imminent ignore other realities. Putin this week, speaking at a conference in Sochi, said it was "stupid and unrealistic" to believe Russia might actually launch military action against a European state.
Moscow's muscle-flexing overseas is partly aimed at stirring national sentiment at home, where authorities are struggling to revive a weak economy. Ironically, Nato's moves in the Baltics and eastern Europe feed Putin's narrative - churned out energetically by a host of state-controlled media - that old foes are determined to prevent Russia from regaining the superpower role it lost in the 1990s. But the current situation also provides Nato, an alliance that had been struggling with how it might adapt in a changing world, with a new sense of purpose.
The military dance between the two will continue for some time yet. The question is whether that dance could lead to something more serious.