Postwar generations of Germans grew up concerned about the so-called “Fulda Gap,” or the fear that the Soviet Union, with its clearly superior tank force, could invade West Germany via Fulda in the state of Hesse. They had good reason to be worried: What came after the war was an arms buildup with US tactical nuclear weapons, the arming of East Germany with nuclear weapons, the stationing of Soviet SS-20 missiles and the NATO Double-Track Decision. The NATO decision would have meant even more nuclear weapons in Germany, if the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had not chosen a policy of détente, initiating a period of disarmament during the Cold War.
Now we need a change of political attitudes. Today’s version of the Fulda Gap is the Suwalki Gap, a strategically important hole between Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and the Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, which came about as a result of German reunification, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and NATO expansion. The Poles and the Baltic nations are worried that many of the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers that were deployed on Thursday to take part in the major Russian-Belarussian “Zapad” (“west”) military exercise will remain in the region afterwards, and that they will eventually try to create a land corridor connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Eastern Europe’s warnings about the Zapad exercise are not exaggerated Russia-phobia.
Germany would be in the middle of any such conflict. With its military, the Bundeswehr, the country serves as the lead nation of a NATO battle group in the Lithuanian town of Rukla. After the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, NATO battalions consisting of 1,000 troops each were stationed in the three Baltic countries and Poland. Moscow has denounced them as part of an effort by the West to militarily encircle Russia. The eastern NATO countries and Ukraine, however, see the move as the minimum that the trans-Atlantic alliance could do to respond to Russia’s first shifting of its borders since the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was signed in Helsinki in the 1970s.
Eastern Europe’s warnings about the Zapad exercise are not exaggerated Russia-phobia. They stem from a very real fear. In Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made up stories and violated international law and international borders. This also follows on the first Zapad exercise of 2013. Instead of the 12,500 Russian soldiers announced at the time, more than 100,000 fighters were deployed. And some were never withdrawn from Russia’s western border after the exercise finished.
This time, Moscow and Minsk have stated that 12,700 soldiers are participating in the exercise, just under the 13,000-troop limit, the cutoff point at which foreign observers must be admitted. Based on their reconnaissance, NATO experts believe that up to 100,000 Russian and Belarussian soldiers are being deployed in an arc, from the Arctic to Ukraine.
While the Zapad exercise is indeed a massive show of force by Moscow’s newly upgraded military, panicked cries that “the Russians are coming” are unwarranted. Two lessons, however, are to be learned: First, the West needs to focus on defense, and that includes defense of the Baltic nations. No one should be persuaded by supposed friends in peace that the four NATO units in the East, known as the Enhanced Forward Presence, constitute an aggression against Russia. They are merely a signal of Western strength. This strength was the basis of the successful NATO Double-Track Decision as well as former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s eastern bloc-oriented foreign policy.
The second component is also a tactic that has been used before and is now worth repeating: the willingness to talk with Moscow over joint security architecture for the continent that Mr. Gorbachev once called the “Common European Home,” as well as a call for further disarmament.
Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who already wants to accommodate Mr. Putin with the partial lifting of sanctions in return for the most minimal of steps in Ukraine, has just initiated new talks on arms limitation. If the Kremlin’s leader is truly serious, and if his speeches about cooperation in Europe are more than just talk, he needs to establish transparency for Moscow’s war games and withdraw all his soldiers afterwards. And Russia should also offer disarmament of its own volition and withdraw the Iskander missiles, which can reach Berlin, from Kaliningrad.
When it comes to the Zapad war games and collective security, trust is the most important factor. Russia destroyed this trust when it violated international law in Crimea, no matter what yarns Mr. Putin tries to spin over a supposed encirclement by the West.
Mr. Gabriel has just re-emphasized that no NATO action was serious enough to justify Moscow violating international law. This is why he now needs to receive a sign of goodwill from Mr. Putin, and why he must urge our allies abroad to enter into a new round of disarmament talks. That would be in everyone’s interests, and most especially in Europe’s.
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