RIGA, Latvia – Policy-makers, diplomats and pundits gathered in the Latvian capital for the first day of the Riga security conference, as tensions between NATO and Russia reached a new high with the arrival in the Baltic Sea of two Russian navy ships equipped with cruise missiles.
The conference focused on Russia and threats in the Nordic-Baltic region, with most participants emphasizing the importance of unity in NATO and the European Union. Former NATO general secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for a stronger presence of NATO in the east, and said he did not exclude “the necessity of permanent NATO bases in the region” if Russia was to “step up its provocations”. Anders Fogh Rasmussen also criticized effort by several European countries to develop a common European defense, calling talks about a EU army “wasteful and a duplication of NATO efforts”.
These talks come amid heightened tensions in the Baltic region. Two days ago, Russian media reported the deployment in Kaliningrad of Russian ships equipped with cruise missiles (Russian defense minister has not confirmed the reports). At the beginning of the month, Poland as well as Baltic countries also protested the deployment of ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, while Estonia and Finland denounced at the same time alleged violations of their airspace by Russian warplanes. Earlier, NATO countries had agreed in Warsaw to send four combat-ready battalions to its north eastern flank, a decision seen as an aggressive move in Moscow.
New Cold War?
Several panellists at the Riga conference emphasized the “fight for values” in the current confrontation between Russia and the west in what was reminiscent of “cold war” rhetoric. “Russia is an increasing challenge as it sees the West and our values as adversary” declared Latvian president Raimonds Vējonis in the opening speech of the conference. In a separate panel focused on disinformation, Jānis Sārts, Director of the “NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence” in Latvia, compared Russia and the Islamic State, arguing that both were “attacking our values” and “pushing a single narrative, punishing anyone who doesn’t stick to that narrative” (Mr Sārts earlier specified that he was not talking as a representative of NATO).
NATO announced in the last few days an unprecedented deployment of troops in the east, described by the Reuters agency as “NATO’s biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War”: Britain will move next year warplanes in Romania, while the US should deploy tanks, artillery and troops in Poland at the same time. At the Riga conference, Canada defense minister Harjit Sajjan confirmed the arrival early next year of a battle group that had been announced at the Warsaw NATO summit in July. “The region has become pivotal for NATO” declared Latvian defense minister Raimonds Bergmanis, who added that “the alliance need to be strong and project power, because it is the only message that Russia understand and takes into account”.
Prospects of better relations with Russia remain bleak in the short-term: beyond tensions in the Baltic region, the West is in disagreement with Moscow over Ukraine as well as Syria, where US and Russian warplanes had a “near-miss” on the 17th of October, according to a US official. In Sotchi, Russian and western policy makers and analysts who gathered for the “Valdai” summit echoed fears of a new cold war, with Bloomberg writing that “Russian and U.S. foreign-policy experts […] appear out of ideas on how to even start defusing it”.