NATO says it doesn't want a new arms race with Russia. The Kremlin says the same.
And yet the parallel military buildups are well under way, with each side blaming the other whenever it announces a new deployment, or a drill near the increasingly sensitive border between the two sides, or – in Moscow's case – the development of new types of weapons.
Following a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced the Western alliance would take its turn upping the ante, more than trebling the size of the NATO Response Force, to 40,000 troops from 13,000. The larger force – stationed across several bases in Europe and capable of deploying at short notice to the scene of an emerging crisis – would send the message to Russia "that NATO is ready and able and prepared to protect all its allies against any threat."
Defence Minister Jason Kenney said Canada, which currently has 200 soldiers taking part in NATO training exercises in Poland, was willing to offer "military enablers" to the expanded response force, including for aerial refuelling and airborne reconnaissance. The deployments were necessitated by "the posture of aggression demonstrated by Vladimir Putin," he added.
NATO also empowered its top commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, to "stage and prepare" alliance troops even while still waiting for political authorization to stage a mission, a slight but symbolic weakening of civilian control over the combined military of the 28-country alliance.
Mr. Stoltenberg denied that NATO was now involved in a Cold War-style arms race, but said the alliance needed to respond to an aggressive new military posture from Moscow since last year's outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine.
"We don't seek confrontation, we don't seek an arms race with Russia, but we have to keep our nations safe," Mr. Stoltenberg said. "That's the reason we are responding in a proper and defensive way."
Russia, of course, says the same thing whenever it announces a snap military drill along its Western frontier, or another rise in military spending.
The announcement of the enlarged rapid-response force came after a week of chest-thumping on both sides. NATO's Very High Readiness Task Force – a 5,000-soldier force that is the spearhead of the larger response force – conducted its first major drill, in western Poland. That was followed by exercises in Latvia that saw U.S. B-52 bombers deployed for the first time over the skies of the tiny former Soviet republic.
U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter announced Tuesday that the U.S. would deploy some 250 battle tanks and military vehicles onto the territory of NATO allies Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
Russia, for its part, has repeatedly warned that the stationing of heavy military equipment in former Warsaw Pact states would force it to respond in kind by further building up its military presence along its borders with the Baltic States and Poland. Moscow unveiled a new model of heavy battle tank last month, and Mr. Putin pushed the boundaries even further last week by announcing that, over the next year, Russia would add 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its arsenal, capable of piercing any country's missile defences.
NATO says Russia also has thousands of soldiers inside eastern Ukraine, bolstering separatist forces in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of the country and fuelling a year-old war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives. A February ceasefire deal looks to be rapidly disintegrating, with daily casualties along the front line, and Ukrainian and separatist forces accusing each other of daily violations.
Russia has consistently denied that its regular forces are involved in the fighting in Ukraine, and the Kremlin says copious satellite and video evidence that appears to prove the participation of Russian troops has been falsified to besmirch it.
While Mr. Putin acknowledges NATO is militarily superior to Russia – he told an Italian newspaper earlier this month that "only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO" – he has the advantage of domestic support. A poll released Wednesday by the independent Levada Centre found a record-high 89 per cent of Russians approve of the job their President is doing. A Levada survey earlier this month found that a large majority of Russians blamed the West, rather than their own government, for the war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, popular backing for NATO's key principle of mutual defence appears to be wavering, with a majority of French, Germans and Italians telling pollsters that they would not support war with Russia, even if Moscow attacked one of their NATO allies. Among eight countries polled, only in Canada and the United States was there a clear majority in favour of defending an ally against a Russian attack.
"If they're not going to defend Article 5 [the article in NATO's founding treaty that calls for mutual defence], what does NATO stand for?" asked Judy Dempsey, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. European populations, she said, were scarred by the events of the 20th century. "The fear is [the showdown with Russia] will lead to a massive war."
NATO's chest-pounding displays of strength also belie the enormous imbalance of responsibility within the alliance. Mr. Stoltenberg said just five of the 28 members – the U.S., Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia – had met their commitment to spend 2 per cent of their country's gross domestic product on defence.
Despite Canadian participation in several NATO missions in Eastern Europe, as well as in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Canada is among the alliance's laggards, spending 1 per cent of GDP on the military.
Mr. Kenney said Canada would be increasing its military budget by 3 per cent a year starting in 2017, but didn't specify if or when Canada intended to meet the target of 2 per cent of GDP.