The recently concluded Nato exercises have put Europe on a potential powder keg
German Foreign Minister Frank Walter is an important leader of the German Social Democratic Party and has been looking after Germany’s foreign affairs since 2013. In addition, he is also occupying a senior position in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Frank Walter was chief of staff in the German Chancellery, serving the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, from 1999 to 2005. Then he was foreign minister in Angela Merkel’s coalition government from 2005 to 2009, when he contested against Merkel for the chancellorship but lost.
Recently, Walter invited the ire of not only his coalition partners but also from some other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) leaders. He was criticising the Nato military exercises in Europe and blamed it for escalating war hysteria in an overall peaceful continent. Nato is an organisation of North Atlantic countries established in 1949, essentially to defend its members against any non-Nato aggression. Its headquarters is located in the Belgian capital, Brussels, and it boasts of 28 members from Europe and North America. Its newest members are Albania and Croatia that joined Nato in 2009.
Another 22 countries are also allied with Nato in its Cooperation for Peace programme. Interestingly, the total defence expenses of Nato are equivalent to around 75 per cent of the total world spending on defence, and each Nato member has to spend at least two per cent of its GDP on this account. It is worth remembering that initially Nato was more of a political organisation but, after the Korean War it gradually became a military alliance.
Now, the German foreign minister is annoyed at the recent military manoeuvers that he considers a threat to the regional peace and an invitation to the Russian Federation to become even more aggressive against Europe. Of late, Germany has been behaving responsibly in the face of increasing migration from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Germany is not only at the forefront to accept migrants but is also encouraging other European countries to do the same. At the same time, Germany is not in favour of any Nato adventure in Europe that may result in an outbreak of hostilities between Russia and the Nato countries.
The German foreign minister has been repeatedly stressing upon increasing engagement with Russia to defuse tensions but most Nato countries are in favour of adopting a stronger posture against their eastern neighbour. The recent symbolic parade of the Nato forces in Poland has been termed saber-rattling by Russia and Frank Walter has equated it with a paramount folly on the part of Nato. He has rightly pointed out that on one side, Germany has been repeatedly asked to forget about the past and on the other, Nato itself is being held hostage to the animosities of the past.
Ostensibly, Nato terms its manoeuvers an exercise to test its abilities to fight any aggression but in fact it is a message to Russia to sober up and vacate the Crimean peninsula that it occupied at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in March 2014. On June 7, 2016, Nato began its mock defence against a Russian attack on Poland. In these two-week-long exercises, Nato deployed more than 30,000 soldiers of which about 15,000 were from America and 12,000 from Poland. Dozens of fighter plans and ships were mobilised and hundreds of vehicles were on call; some estimates put their number to over 3,000.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Poland was considered as one of the staunchest allies of the Soviet Union. Located in Central Europe, Poland shares borders with Germany, Czech Republic, and Slovakia; and on the east it borders with Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania. With around 40 million people, Poland is the sixth largest country in the European Union. During the Second World War, the Red Army of the USSR had liberated Poland from Hitler’s occupation but in turn installed a puppet government that imposed a socialist system in Poland for over four decades. It could only break free after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Poland has gravitated toward Western Europe and America, to the dismay of the Russian Federation.
Before the recent posturing in Poland, Nato had also held its biggest military exercises in Italy, Portugal, and Spain in the closing months of 2015. That was the most elaborate show of strategic strength by Nato in over a decade, primarily targeted against Russia. Two huge exercises within less than a year have made it amply clear that Nato can respond to any challenge anywhere in Europe at short notice. Especially, in the wake of the Russian strikes in Syria, Nato has conveyed the message that it can mobilise quickly in and around Turkey.
There is no question about the Russian aggression in Ukraine whose eastern parts have been occupied by Russia or by the rebels backed by it. Still, Nato is in no position to drive Russia out of its occupied territory because any such attempt may result in an all-out war; and Nato would rather have a proxy war to advance its own interests in the region. Nato has been asking Russia to stop incursions in Syria where Bashar Al Asad has been buttressed by the Russian support. At the moment there are more than 40 rebel groups supported by not only Nato but also by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar; whereas the Asad government enjoys support from Russia and Iran.
An ever-increasing conflict in Syria is badly impacting Germany, and that’s where Frank Walter’s warning comes in. Walter wants de-escalation in tensions so that Europe is not pushed to the brink of another war both internally and externally. A countervailing voice against Walter is that of Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, who belongs to Norway but is more of a hawk than a dove. Stoltenberg had been prime minister of Norway for almost a decade but now support a more aggressive role for Nato against Russia. He thinks that Russia is a perennial threat to the Nato countries.
On June 14, Stoltenberg further upped the stakes by declaring that the Nato countries were a potential target of a cyber-attack too, and Nato should be prepared to counter such an attack. The latest situation is that Nato is preparing to retain a strong military presence in Europe, resulting in the Russian howling against Nato. Such military exercises are not a new phenomenon, and similar manoeuvers have been a regular occurring after every couple of years during the last decade. The new part is that now Russia has shed its passive posture of the 1990s and early 2000s, and its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, is inciting nationalistic feeling among the Russian people so that they can support him while he crushes his opposition in the name of another patriotic war.
The recently concluded exercises were named Anaconda as if a big python was ready to devour Russia; but the Russian planes were constantly on the vigil. These exercises were the biggest after the end of the cold war; they ended on June 17, but have put Europe on a potential powder keg.
Frank Walters wants to defuse this keg, probably because he remembers the devastation his own country had caused during the two world wars in the 20th century; destroying not only Europe but also killing millions of people from almost all corners of the world. Walter wants to save the world from another such tragedy, but still, his is a lone voice that needs support from all peace-loving people around the world.