Russian President Vladimir Putin must be feeling very claustrophobic these days. A survey of developments in Russia's near abroad over the past week explains why.
All along Russia's frontier with Europe, the U.S. military is bustling with activity. Bit by bit, the United States is expanding various military exercises under the banner of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The exercises began in the Baltics and Poland and, as of last week, expanded into Romania with plans to move into Bulgaria. So far, most of these missions are on the smaller side, consisting of only a few hundred troops at any given time, and are meant to test the U.S. ability to rapidly deploy units to countries that can then practice receiving and working with these forces. Additionally, various headquarter units from U.S. Army infantry brigades have been rotating in and assuming control of Operation Atlantic Resolve in order to practice joint command and control.
Although this is primarily a test of military capabilities, the exercises also serve the political aim of reassuring Eastern European allies of U.S. support. Take, for example, the Dragoon Ride convoy that began March 21. This 11-day spectacle is taking a U.S. military convoy, including Stryker armored vehicles, 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. In essence, the U.S. military is parading a giant American flag all along the European front.
The United States is ready to go beyond the bounds of NATO in sending this message to Moscow. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov took the opportunity Monday to broadcast U.S. support for his embattled country when he posted to his Facebook page the details of a U.S. training mission to begin April 20 in western Ukraine. According to Avakov, the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade and National Guard units will begin "long-term coaching and exercises" in three sets of training courses, each lasting eight weeks. The open question of whether the U.S. administration will approve lethal aid for the very Ukrainian troops receiving this training is already unnerving Russia. The placement of U.S. troops in Ukraine for these exercises is just another reason Russia will need to continue to hold its military ground in the east as the United States makes its presence felt in Ukraine.
Romania and Beyond
Romania is another locus of U.S. and NATO activity that Russia is eyeing nervously. Located on the Black Sea and sharing a border with Ukraine, Romania plays a critical role in NATO's strategy for the region. NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Europe Gen. Philip M. Breedlove is scheduled to travel to Bucharest on March 31. Before him, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Frank A. Rose visited Romania on March 30. Breedlove and Rose join the long list of Western officials who have met with their Romanian counterparts since the beginning of the year, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. In addition to boosting defense cooperation with Romania as part of NATO's broader strategy, U.S. officials are also working to give U.S. firms a greater presence in the country, especially in the energy sector, to dilute Russia's influence.
There is one visitor to Bucharest who stands out, however. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to visit Bucharest on April 1, his first visit there since 2007. His trip comes as Turkey is working to boost its energy ties with Russia through the planned construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline and a discount on Russian natural gas exports to Turkey. Nevertheless, the crisis in Ukraine has led Turkey, like some of its neighbors, to become more concerned about security in the Black Sea region. Turkey, like Romania, is a critical node in the U.S. strategy to round out an arc of allies along the Black Sea. Though Turkey has been participating in Black Sea NATO exercises alongside Bulgaria and Romania, it has also kept close to Moscow, trying to preserve its neutral posture. But Erdogan's recent trip to Kiev along with this week's trip to Romania will undoubtedly raise questions in Moscow's mind on whether Ankara is swaying to the West.
The West Reaches Into Central Asia
And if Russia has to worry about Turkey, it also needs to worry about Turkmenistan. Looking across the Caspian Sea, Ashgabat sees that an alliance is strengthening among Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Europeans to build energy connections that bypass Russia and run through the Caucasus and Turkey to serve Europe. Turkmenistan and its ample energy reserves are key to any major projects within that plan. The Turkmen government has been exceedingly cautious in avoiding upsetting Russia, fearful that Moscow will then take the opportunity to meddle in Ashgabat at a time when Central Asia is expecting greater instability. But the Europeans, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been lobbying Ashgabat to entertain their energy proposals. EU energy union chief Maros Sefcovic is planning a visit to Turkmenistan in the coming months to discuss plans for the Trans-Caspian pipeline.
The Turkmen government will need convincing that it will have the Western support it needs to manage any Russian backlash targeting Ashgabat if it proceeds with these plans. Notably, when the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress on March 26 to deliver CENTCOM's annual report, he mentioned that Turkmenistan has asked the United States for military equipment and technology to help insulate its border from any spillover instability from Afghanistan. Though Austin noted that Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality poses some difficulty in boosting military cooperation between Washington and Ashgabat, the fact that the usually prudent Turkmen government is even engaging with the United States will surely get Moscow's attention.
From the Baltics to the Black Sea and now the Caspian, the United States is on the search for recruits to encircle Russia. Romania threw its lot in with the United States last year, but this year, Turkey and Turkmenistan are the ones to watch.