As Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko talk about the Ukraine situation, suspicious "little green men" spontaneously appear once more, and the Ukrainian army continues a long, bloody advance into the rebel-held east, NATO may be fixing to get almost as aggressively ambiguous as Russia already is.
A few events before the upcoming NATO Summit in Cardiff on September 4 all suggest that the West has finally decided that it would like to do a great deal (or more than absolutely nothing) but just doesn't want to be too tacky about it.
The first is a puzzling sale of 58 T-72 tanks to the Czech Republic by Hungary. Since the signing of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 1990, the purchase, transfer, and stationing of European arms and troops has been tightly regulated. So a sale between two signatories (such as the Czech Republic and Hungary) is closely monitored. And something caught the eye of defense industry observers in this transaction. While the Czechs were buying the vehicles, it didn't appear that they would actually be using them.
It's not yet possible to tell where these tanks will be going, but the current speculation is that they're destined for the Ukrainian army. This makes sense, because Ukraine is desperate for new equipment that is completely compatible with the Soviet-style stuff already in their inventory; the army doesn't want to screw around with new training or parts in the middle of a war.
The closer you have to live to Russia, the more adamant you are about having a lot of armed backup.
But Hungary borders Ukraine directly, so why not just drive them into Ukraine? Well, the Hungarian entity selling the tanks is their Ministry of Defense. The Czech buyer, however, is a private company. So as long as the Czechs keep in compliance with relevant treaty obligations and the like, the sale is legal, and the Hungarian government can be completely honest when they say they're not providing arms to the Ukrainian military.
Secondly, the Croatian Ministry of Defense has announced that this is the perfect time to upgrade its helicopters to something more in keeping with the country's position as a member of a US-led alliance. They're getting rid of 14 old Mil Mi-8 transport choppers and will replace them with 20 new UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from the US. What about the old, non-NATO helicopters? Well, as it turns out, there's a country to Croatia's east — that starts with "U-K-R" and rhymes with "insane" — on the lookout for ready-to-use Soviet-compatible equipment.
Finally, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently told the Guardian that the alliance may put some sort of bases in Eastern European nations that share a border with Russia. There's some division on this within NATO. Some longtime NATO members, like Spain and Italy, are opposed to new bases, but folks in the East are clamoring for a stronger, permanent NATO presence, and Germany is sitting on the fence. It appears that the closer you have to live to Russia, the more adamant you are about having a lot of armed backup.
To split the difference (and to limit how big a deal Russia can make out of this) NATO won't be setting up large permanent bases. Rather, the idea is that there are facilities, with some troops stationed there for as "long as necessary" and other NATO forces rotated through. The idea of higher rotation is that it acquaints all the other militaries with the environment and gives them practice deploying to the base without being stationed there permanently.
Hopefully, this means that in the event of a real crisis, all of NATO would know how to find their way to the east, would be familiar with all the local rental car places, hotels, and restaurants, and could just hop on over and go fight the heck out of a war with Russia in a jiffy.
But even if NATO wanted a more visible and formidable presence in the East, it may simply not have enough strength to do it convincingly. As Rasmussen told the Guardian:
"Since the end of the cold war we have lived in relatively good weather. Now we are faced with a profound climate change. That requires more investment. Politicians have tried to harvest the peace dividend after the end of the cold war. That's understandable. But now we are in a completely new security situation."
Whether or not having the ability to conjure a large military deterrent is the same as actually having the deterrent in place is an interesting question. How much of deterring an opponent is just the basic psychological fact of having a big ole military force on the ground, versus having a big ole military force on speed dial? It might not pack quite as much punch; consider the difference between seeing a cop right in front of you versus knowing they're a phone call away. How will Russia, NATO, and Eastern Europe view a 24-hour armed guard differently than an armed first responder? It's hard to tell, but Ukrainians might have some thoughts on the matter.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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