As is customary following inaugurations, new presidents telephone various world leaders among their first official acts in office. So early on Donald Trump rang up Vladimir Putin. The very next day, Russian forces intensified military action upon the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. Was this a simple coincidence or something more sinister?
While the Trump administration deals with an increasing number of obvious foreign policy headaches, the forgotten war in the Ukraine looms large. This conflict has already claimed 10,000 dead and displaced 1.7 million others from their homes on the southeastern border with Russia; and the world media has largely failed to even cover it as the conflict escalates. In Avdiivka alone, Russian artillery and rocket attacks have left 16,000 civilians without basic necessities in sub-zero temperatures. Another 17,000 people have fled there since April, 2014.
Experts say that Russia’s intent is to sabotage a February 2015 cease-fire with the Ukraine by provoking a major government counter-attack. More than 500 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since then, and another 3,000-plus wounded following over 11,000 Russian cease-fire violations. American and European Union sanctions against Moscow have had little impact, while western calls for a stoppage of hostilities have been largely ignored.
All this comes during President Trump’s call for improved relations with Russia.
Yet despite Trump’s best efforts, Putin’s Eastern European strategy and his continued escalation of military activity in Ukraine are clear tests of American resolve. And no attempt at goodwill alone on the part of Trump will lessen Moscow’s pursuit of past glory in reconstructing its former Soviet empire. So, why should we be concerned?
Following Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and his subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, countries across Eastern Europe began efforts to build up their conventional military capabilities against a similar threat from the Russians. According to Nolan Peterson of “The Daily Signal,” Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia each came to this realization after it became apparent they could no longer depend on the U.S. or NATO to maintain their security. Unlike the United States, they are well aware that they are viewed by Russia as former territories of the Soviet Union, and thus still coveted as part of the Russian Bear’s centuries-old domination of the region.
According to the well-respected British intelligence and defense firm, IHS Jane’s, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (all members of NATO) increased their combined military spending from $210 million to $390 million from 2014 to 2016. By 2018, the total is expected to reach $670 million with no end in sight. Despite such flashpoints as North Korea, Iran and Syria, Jane’s states that military spending in the Baltic region is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. And Russia itself increased military spending by 28.6 percent in 2015; their largest hike since 2002. The natural danger is that a wider conflict could spread across Eastern Europe; ultimately drawing in the United States. And history records that World War I was precipitated in this region of the world following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia.
Despite the fact that NATO plans to deploy four combat battalions in Poland and the Baltics in 2017, this fact has not deterred Putin from harassing American military ships and planes, launching assorted cyberattacks/propaganda at the U.S and within the countries at risk, and massively increasing Russia’s presence in Syria. In addition, a Russian intelligence gathering ship was recently identified 70 miles off our east coast, while it was confirmed that Moscow has secretly deployed cruise missiles inside its borders in violation of a 1987 U.S./Russian treaty.
These acts have also not gone unnoticed across Eastern Europe. As a result, civilian militias have sprung up inside the Baltic states. Lithuania has reinstituted a military draft and issued to its citizens a manual on guerilla warfare. Estonia’s civilian Defense League now holds weekend military training for 25,000 volunteers. And in places such as Sweden and Finland, mistrust of Russia runs high as well.
Historically, Moscow has always taken advantage of weakness on the part of its adversaries to increase its power and influence. Ronald Reagan understood this completely and once famously uttered the old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify,” in characterizing U.S.-Russian relations. Clearly, this was advice that Barack Obama, and George W. Bush to a lesser degree, ignored to our country’s detriment. The sooner President Trump comes to acknowledge its truth in his dealings with Russia, the better off Eastern Europe, and ultimately, the United States will be.
Mark Figley is a political activist and guest columnist from Elida. Reach him a firstname.lastname@example.org