Beef up NATO’s eastern defenses

Russian Army's MI-28 attack helicopter flies as salute cannons fire during a show at a shooting range in Alabino, outside of Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

In May 1997, 18 years ago, representatives of NATO and Russia in Paris signed a “Founding Act” pledging to work together “with the aim of creating in Europe a common space of security and stability, without dividing lines or spheres of influence limiting the sovereignty of any state.”

Roughly a year later, Vladimir Putin began his meteoric rise to power based in part on his determination to reject the premises of the Founding Act and restore Russia’s “spheres of influence” in Eastern and Southern Europe.

Since then Russia has condemned any moves by the United States or NATO aimed at improving the military defenses of its newest members, former Russian satellites in Eastern Europe, such as installing ballistic missile defenses to negate any Iranian threat to Europe.

It has accused the West of violating the terms of the Founding Act while itself pursuing policies threatening to Eastern European members of NATO.

So it is no surprise that Russia has reacted with pugnacious rhetoric to a proposal to station U.S. heavy military equipment in Poland and its other Eastern European member in response to Russia’s military seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and its continued military support for pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists and veiled threats to Baltic members of NATO with sizable ethnic Russian populations.

Russian Gen. Yuri Yakubov said if the U.S. adopted the proposal Russia would install Iskander surface-to-surface missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, in effect behind NATO’s front lines. The Iskander, with a range of 500 kilometers, can reach the German border and cover much of Poland. It can carry a nuclear warhead. He also said Russia would strengthen its military forces on NATO’s border.

“If America’s heavy arms, be it tanks, artillery systems or other heavy military hardware, are deployed to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, it will be the Pentagon’s and NATO’s most aggressive step since the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago,” he said, blithely ignoring Russia’s heavy hand in creating the new military tension in Eastern Europe.

Last week Mr. Putin told an Italian newspaper that “only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO.” He also suggested that the United States was stirring up fear of Russia in order to maintain leadership of NATO.

But the call for a more forceful demonstration of American commitment in Europe comes not from Washington but from the Baltic nations and Poland who face Russia’s growing effort to intimidate them into submission.

President Obama should embrace the proposed storage of U.S. heavy military equipment in Eastern Europe for use by U.S. troops in training exercises. And it is time to consider an announcement that Russia’s actions have abrogated the “Founding Act,” freeing NATO to reconsider its military options for defending its most exposed members.