As others have done, I very much welcome the UK Government decision to send one hundred military personnel to provide training and other assistance to the governments of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. I welcome the additional handful of military personnel that the UK also intends to send to Ukraine as well and that adds to a small number of highly specialist UK military training teams that have been providing support over the past year.
I welcome too that NATO has already set up six small headquarters in Eastern Europe and plans two more to occur in Hungary and Slovakia. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday that the organisation plans to boost its response force so that NATO forces can move quickly and effectively if and when they need to deploy. “Bigger, faster and more capable” were the words that he chose to use as he talked about final agreement to the military concept behind NATO’s ‘Response Force’.
Established in 2003, the NATO Response Force is a high readiness force comprising of land, air, sea, and special-forces units which are capable of rapid deployment. The Response Force is designed to perform a wide range of tasks, including immediate defence response, crisis management, peace support operations, disaster relief, and the protection of critical infrastructure. In terms of sizing, the NATO Response Force is I believe currently planned to have 40,000 military personnel at readiness. Having increased the size of its military presence and activity along Russian borders, including Poland and the vulnerable Baltic States region. Currently 36,000 troops for 30 states, including non-NATO states, together with 200 aircraft and 60 warships are engaged on exercises in the Baltic and East European region. The plan is that they remain there until mid-way through November.
Whilst my wish today is to centre my thoughts primarily toward what NATO is doing to support Baltic and Eastern European member and non-member states one observes that NATO is also eyeing support for Turkey should that be required following Russia’ deliberate ignoring of Turkey’s sovereign nation status by incursions of Russian aircraft in its airspace. Russia’s new more aggressive stance in Syria as it attempts to prop up the Assad regime under a pretext of supporting attempts to rid the world of ISIL are a clear step up of the overall Putin power doctrine. The denial by Russia of US belief that four Russian missiles landed in Iran as opposed to Syria is also interesting not least because Iran has so chosen to say nothing on the matter.
I offer no solution to the hardening and worsening of geo-political relations and I observe that NATO is properly reacting to a fast increasing level of threat. The noticeable intensification of Russian aggression and Putin’s support of Assad since what I observe as a breakdown of talks that the Russian leader had with President Obama at the United Nations two weeks ago points to a problem that is unlikely to be resolved by diplomacy alone. Bigger troubles may lie ahead.
As NATO member states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are, due to their small size, limited in capacity and scale of their respective armed forces and equipment meaning they will in the foreseeable future be unlikely to be able to adequately defend themselves against the rising tensions and already, in Ukraine and the Crimea at least, unleashed Russian aggression.
The decision by the UK Government to send a small number of troops to assist three Baltic States is as far as I am concerned an act of commitment clearly justified. But is it really enough of a response from the sixth largest economy in the world to some of the most downtrodden of its fellow NATO members? It is not.
Russia will of course be irritated by any move that the larger NATO member states including the US, France, UK and Germany in support of Baltic and other Eastern European states in what it deems as areas over which it should be dominant. We may as a result expect an increase in the number of Russian ‘Bear’ aircraft flying close to UK airspace and maybe of Russian submarines as well. New ‘Cold War’ this may well be but while our resolve on this may be clear the change in stance by Russia questions whether we are sufficiently ready in terms of equipment capability.
Adding of course to what Britain has already been doing in the region, includes Royal Air Force Typhoons policing the skies together with other air power related elements including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft for now we can hardly be accused failing to provide a pretty strong level of support to Baltic NATO member states. But what about Ukraine itself?
Ukraine has to all intents and purposes been an issue that the UK hoped might just go away. Diplomacy, led by Germany and France, helped to an extent but the reality is that Ukraine remains a conflict in waiting. Of course, it is absolutely true that Britain has provided training and some other specific high level military support to Ukraine including the provision of some military equipment such as body armour that might assist the Ukraine government in its fight against Russian aggression. But to all intents and purposes we have chosen to stand aside from involving ourselves in finding a diplomatic solution. I worry that while we may continue to see Ukraine as being a danger and a threat to stability and peace that this will soon become known as the almost forgotten conflict. In retrospect, perhaps forgotten is the wrong word – more likely ‘hidden from view’ by the worsening situation and events that have during the past week or so occurred in Syria.
For all the new found aggressive stance that, combined with the determination of Vladimir Putin to ensure that Russia is in terms of status at least, to be seen as a dominant world power, I believe that Putin himself treads a finer line than we might imagine in what he is able to achieve militarily. His Army might be enormous in terms of scale but the reality is that it is weak and demotivated force. In terms of equipment capability while Russia still has very strong air power capability its maritime capability is today weak in comparison to twenty years ago.
True, Russia continues to have a large arsenal of nuclear weapons but as a nation it remains weak from an economic standpoint. Arguably Russia has stood up quite well to Russian sanctions and the real weakness in its economy can better be put down to the collapse in the global price of oil and gas price. The Russian people have though suffered far more than we imagine through various shortages including foodstuffs particularly, having itself halted imports of dairy products from the west, items such as milk and cheese.
A final thought: Observers of Russian affairs were recently told by the head of the State Duma’s defense committee, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, that the national defense budget for next year would reach a record 3.3 trillion rubles ($81 billion), representing 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. My understanding is that the budget for 2015 represents something like an 812 billion ruble ($20 billion) increase over 2014, In theory at least we can expect Russia to increase defence spending in each of the next five years provided that it can fund such an increase. This may be questionable as Russia’s GDP for this year alone is forecast by the World Bank to be just over $2 trillion. Indeed, Russia’s own Finance Ministry has said that it expects the economy to grow by a mere 1 percent in 2015.
Admiral Komoyedov has also said that the Duma (the elected State Assembly) plans to spend 3.1 trillion rubles ($76 billion), or 3.7 percent of GDP, on defense in 2016 and 3.23 trillion ($79 billion), or 3.6 percent of GDP, in 2017 adding that “these parameters are significantly higher than in 2014, when the proportion of GDP was 3.4 percent”. Last year, defense accounted for 3.2 percent of GDP. In 2012 it had been 3 percent. Of course, if the state of the economy is worsening and defence spending rising then looking at GDP momentum the GDP figure will be very erratic although it may be said that internally it highlights levels of affordability. For the record SIPRI figures show that the US spent $571bn (3.5% of GDP) in 2014 while Russia spent 4.5% of GDP on defence – the discrepancy here with Russia’s own figures more likely being how GDP is worked out. China remains well behind other major countries spending a mere 2.1% of GDP on defence and the largest in GDP terms in 2014 was Saudi Arabia at 10.4% and in second position is Israel at 5.2% of GDP having spent $23bn on defence last year. The UK is eighth on the SIPRI list spending 2.2% on defence in 2014.
CHW (London 9th October 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785