Little noticed or reported by the media, the NATO-Russia Council met on April 20 to discuss the deteriorating relations and rising tensions between the western alliance and Moscow. The meeting lasted longer than anticipated and ended without agreement on the key issues.
Russia’s threatening activities continue to increase, reported U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti during his April 21 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. General Scaparrotti is scheduled to become commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He noted that a resurgent Russia is contesting for power with increasingly aggressive behavior that challenges international norms, often in violation of international law.
In addition to aggressive actions against NATO ships and planes, the Kremlin’s submarines and aircraft have frequently acted in a hostile manner in or near the alliance’s air and sea borders.
General Scaparrotti’s comments have been backed up by independent analyses. A Heritage Foundation report on military matters notes: “Russia is both able and willing to use military force against neighboring nations… President Vladimir Putin has challenged the post–Cold War world order. NATO members that share borders with Russia and have large ethnic Russian populations are under severe political, military, and economic pressure from Moscow. Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO or the European Union (EU), has Russian forces on its soil and has struggled to maintain its sovereignty, having lost Crimea…Russia has repeatedly surprised European nations by launching unannounced “snap exercises.” The term “snap exercises” (sometimes called “snap inspections”) refers to major military exercises ordered with little or no notice. The Russian military has claimed that the purpose of such exercises is to test the readiness of its forces, but observers have argued that they are meant to impress the West with Russia’s military strength. In 2014 and 2015, Russia raised concerns among its neighbors by conducting a series of “snap exercises” of a magnitude not previously seen.”
A World Affairs Journal noted President Putin’s 2014 comment that “he could, at will, occupy any Eastern European capital in two days.” Their study states:
“This apparently spontaneous utterance reveals… Moscow’s true assessment of NATO’s capabilities, cohesion, and will to resist. In an echo of Soviet tactics, it also reflects Putin’s reflexive recourse to intimidation—e.g., unwarranted boasting about Russian military capabilities and intentions—as a negotiating strategy. In 2014 alone, Moscow repeatedly threatened the Baltic and Nordic states and civilian airliners, heightened intelligence penetration, deployed unprecedented military forces against those states, intensified overflights and submarine reconnaissance, mobilized nuclear forces and threats, deployed nuclear-capable forces in Kaliningrad, menaced Moldova, and openly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. Russian officials openly declared that the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty of 1989 was dead, and continued a large-scale comprehensive defense buildup in areas ranging from space and counter-space to submarine and ground forces as well as nuclear forces. Seeing as Norway and Estonia’s defense ministers, in separate 2014 speeches in Washington, both indicated that Russia already enjoyed superiority in the Baltic region, these gestures looked like overkill on Putin’s part, to put it mildly. “
At the April 20 meeting, according to NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, the two sides held “very different views.” He primarily blamed Russia’s actions against Ukraine for the increased tension, and made it clear that the west stands firm in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The alliance, he stressed, does not recognize the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, and is ‘disturbed’ at the increase in ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine and the targeting of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation) monitors in the region. Stoltenberg pointed out that the Allies have seen a decrease in transparency in Russia’s military activities, combined with an increase in military activity and forces, and strong rhetoric. He called this “a dangerous combination.”
However, all 29 members of the NATO-Russia Council agreed on the need for a full and rapid implementation of the Minsk agreements, which call for an agreement to halt the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Although vowing to keep lines of communication with Moscow open, Stoltenberg promised to “remain firm that there can be no return to practical cooperation until Russia returns to the respect of international law.” He maintained that the alliance will engage in defensive actions that merely respond to Russia’s military buildup.