Since the conflict in Ukraine, Western military leaders are operating under the assumption that an armed conflict with Vladimir Putin's Russia will eventually happen. Signs of tension are everywhere.
WARSAW — In the Baltic nations, Scandinavia, and across Eastern Europe, the question is no longer if there will be war with Russia, but when.
Since its intervention in Ukraine two years ago, Moscow hasn't missed an opportunity to provoke its neighbors and escalate tensions. It has repeatedly violated the airspace shared by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and amassed troops on its western border. Russia has also deepened its cyber warfare campaign by intensifying its hacking, propaganda, and disinformation activities. Estonia alone saw a 200% increase in such attacks since last year.
"We are at war, a hybrid war, the last step before the shooting begins," said a high-ranking official at Multinational Corps Northeast, NATO's base in Szczecin in western Poland. "But we are ready."
At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, the alliance began closing the enormous gap between its slow reaction time — an estimated 30 days to mobilize forces — and Russia's ability to swiftly mount an attack. A report published in February this year by the RAND corporation, a security think tank, alarmed NATO officials by noting that Moscow could seize the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in just 60 hours.
The alliance is only just now realizing how urgent this renewed threat from Russia is.
Polish President Andrzej Duda recently inaugurated construction of an American missile defense base in the northern town of Redzikowo, with another base under construction in Deveselu in southern Romania.
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Russian helicopters in training exercise in the Orenburg region — Photo: Kremlin
Less than two months before this year's NATO summit in Warsaw, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz is maneuvring to definitively shift the alliance's focus to the Russian border. For him, the presence of Iskander-class ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave wedged between Poland and the Baltic states, is not a coincidence. "Moscow could destroy Lithuania in a second, but it could also target Berlin," he said.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski put it bluntly recently: "We saw what happened in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, so what are we waiting for?"
According to an analyst at a Polish military base, the threat posed by the Iskanders is twofold: "They're short-range missiles so they're difficult to intercept, but they can still reach half of Europe."
The request by Eastern European members to permanently deploy NATO troops on the Russian border would significantly worsen already sour ties with Moscow. Macierewicz and his regional counterparts believe such a move could act to deter Russian attacks.
Standing up to Moscow
The alliance is establishing a defensive architecture with a specific chain of command and a rapid response time to counter a potential Russian invasion.
"NATO and its member states are increasing the number of military exercises and air policing missions, but reaction times are crucial in case of aggression," said the tactical chief at NATO's headquarters in Poland. "Before Ukraine, our response time was 30 days but now it's 48 hours and we created new force integration units to respond quicker and deter any attack."
If Russian troops crossed the border today, 900 NATO soldiers and 400 tanks would deploy within two days, joined by a further 5,600 troops within the next two weeks.
"I've never seen so many Russian military exercises and provocations at the same time, they're meant to test our readiness," said this source. "This is unconventional warfare that seeks to divide and destabilize, but our mission is to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that we're ready to react, and we are."
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Putin at a Russian military training exercise in the Orenburg region — Photo: Kremlin
At the Polish Air Force base of Lask, home to 16 of the force's 48 F-16 jet fighters, pilots often encounter their Russian colleagues illegally flying into Polish airspace. "We had 18 close encounters in two weeks, the last one was with a Sukhoi Su-27," said one pilot. "The Russian pilot smiled at me from the cockpit and inclined his plane to show me how many bombs he was carrying, and he had lots of them."
Besides the sky, there are other fronts in this new hybrid war between Russia and the West. At the Joint Force Training Center in the northern Polish city of Bydgoszcz, soldiers from 20 countries train using war simulators, including commercially available video games, to recognize potential "signs" of hidden enemy soldiers, including foreign accents and clothing.
"This is a hybrid war fought with propaganda and manipulation of public opinion, it's information and cyber warfare," says an official at the Center. "Moscow's strategy is to divide NATO with continuous provocations by infiltrating and manipulating ethnic Russians in Europe and sowing disorder to demonstrate that the EU and NATO are neither united nor efficient."
At NATO's bases in Poland and Eastern Europe, soldiers and officials are being trained in the art of cyber warfare and counter-propaganda.
"Hybrid warfare isn't only soldiers posing as little green men in Crimea, it's also fake Facebook profiles and fictitious online newspapers that spread (bogus) content that's later picked up by credible publications," said one official at the Center. "And in a hybrid war, words can be very dangerous indeed."