assessments

Trouble Brews in Europe's Borderlands

5 MINS READJun 27, 2017 | 11:36 GMT
From the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, heightened tensions between Russia and the West will be on full display.
Now that the United States is increasing the pressure on Moscow, and the European Union has resolved to keep its sanctions in place, Russia has little incentive to compromise in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In fact, the fighting may keep escalating.
(ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • As the standoff between Russia and the West intensifies, the European borderlands will be a key arena of competition and potential escalation.
  • Three particular theaters to watch for growing frictions and possible security flare-ups will be the Baltic region, eastern Ukraine and Transdniestria.
  • Though significant military clashes are unlikely in these areas, they will nonetheless raise tensions and encourage military buildups between Russia and the West.

The standoff between Russia and the West shows no signs of dissipating anytime soon. Tensions have flared between the United States and Russia in recent weeks. Moscow, for example, pulled out of a deconfliction agreement with Washington in Syria and prepared counter-sanctions against the United States. The European Union voted June 22 to extend its sanctions on Russia for six months. Washington, meanwhile, expanded its restrictions on Russian individuals and entities connected with Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And Congress is considering even harsher sanctions against Russia as investigations into the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections get underway. The mutual enmity is likely to persist and perhaps even intensify in the coming months. As it does, competition between Moscow and the West could heat up in the European borderlands. From the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, three potential flashpoints bear watching.

Adding Fueling to the Fire in Eastern Ukraine

The first lies in Ukraine, where a conflict has been simmering for more than three years. Now that the United States is ramping up pressure on Russia, and the European Union has resolved to keep its sanctions in place, Moscow has little incentive to compromise on the security front in Donbas. In fact, the intensity of fighting along the line of contact has increased recently, and further flare-ups are likely as tensions between Russia and the United States keep mounting. Ukraine, too, has an interest in keeping the conflict active in its efforts to elicit greater security support from the United States, including the provision of lethal weapons, which U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has so far declined to offer.

Though Russia and Ukraine alike lack incentive to compromise in Donbas, neither side is likely to conduct a major military offensive in the near future. Ukraine is in no position to dislodge rebel strongholds, while Moscow understands that major military action would only galvanize Western support for Kiev. Limited tactical escalations around hotspots near the line of contact, such as Avdiivka, could occur, but both sides will work to contain any flare-ups that arise.

Strife on Russia's Western Border

Another possible flashpoint is the Baltic region, which comprises Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as western Russia, Kaliningrad and Belarus. Buzzings have occurred in the region with growing frequency over the past few weeks. On June 19, for example, a Russian SU-27 fighter jet came within 1.5 meters (5 feet) of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane. The next day, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighter jet tailed a Russian aircraft on which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was a passenger. The area also has been the site of significant military buildups in recent months. NATO has deployed semi-permanent rotations to each of the Baltic countries and Poland. Russia, likewise, has gathered forces and assets in its Western Military District abutting the Baltic states.

An even greater buildup can be expected when Russia and Belarus hold the Zapad military exercises Sept. 14-20. The exercises, which in the past have simulated invasions of the Baltic states and Poland, could be the largest by Russia in years. And Baltic leaders have warned that Russia could leave behind a permanent military presence in Belarus after the drills conclude. Though that outcome is unlikely, considering that the Belarusian public, and President Aleksandr Lukashenko, have long resisted it, Belarus has increased other forms of security cooperation with Russia of late. Minsk, for instance, plans to buy several SU-30SM fighter jets. If Russia leaves military assets in Belarus or its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad in the wake of the Zapad exercises, the buildups, coupled with the increased fighter jet activity, could heighten tensions between Moscow and the West. 

Reviving the Fight in Transdniestria?

The last potential point of contention lies closer to the Black Sea in the breakaway territory of Transdniestria. No casualties have occurred in the region since fighting ended in 1992 after Transdniestria seceded from Moldova. Nevertheless, relations between the government in Transdniestria and the two countries on either side of the territory have come under increasing strain recently. Since the end of May, Moldova and Ukraine have begun to institute joint border controls on the Ukrainian border with Transdniestria. The rebel territory's leadership protested the move — which weakens Transdniestria's autonomy by granting Moldova and Ukraine control over the people and goods passing in and out of its borders — and has threatened to call in Russian security forces in response. (The region hosts 1,200 Russian troops as a peacekeeping force.) Moscow has not officially commented on the threat, but the surge in joint military exercises between Russian and Transdniestrian forces over the past several weeks is probably not a coincidence.

But as is the case in eastern Ukraine, Moscow likely won't make a major military move in the breakaway territory. Not only is Russia hesitant to risk inviting further Western retaliation, but it also has even less logistical leeway in Transdniestria than it does in eastern Ukraine. Still, Moscow could help Transdniestria pressure Ukraine and Moldova by other means, such as by conducting bigger and more frequent military exercises, along with cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. And so, like eastern Ukraine and the Baltic region, Transdniestria will reflect and contribute to the rising tensions between Moscow and the West. 

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