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Russia-NATO Tensions Threaten a Wider Regional Standoff

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) delivers his speech at the opening of the Army-2015 international military show featuring the latest Russian weapons, in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia, June 16, 2015.

Amid growing tensions with NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin is promising to beef up Russia's nuclear arsenal with 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2015.

Putin made the announcement this week at the unveiling of Russia’s new Patriot Park, a new arms sales expo that fans and critics alike have compared to a “military Disneyland.”

Its theme park trappings of guns and ammo are intended to promote both arm sales and a sense of patriotism among Russians.

Speaking to assembled guests against the backdrop of a military brass band, Putin took the occasion to insist the new ICBMs would be capable of penetrating “even the most advanced missile defense systems.”

The Russian leader went on to say that reviving Russia’s military-industrial complex was a current and future goal of the Kremlin, noting that Russia would be “forced” to direct its military might towards territories where threats existed.

Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, June 17, 2015.
Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, June 17, 2015.

Meanwhile, the United States has proposed stationing heavy weaponry in several countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics. U.S. officials say the move is part of an effort to reassure eastern-most NATO member states unnerved by Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its tacit support to separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

War of Words

The increasingly tense standoff between NATO and Russia has set off a war of words.

This week, a senior Russian defense ministry official called the planned NATO deployment in eastern Europe "the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO" since the Cold War.

NATO, in turn, accused the Kremlin of nuclear "saber rattling" over its planned ICBM program.

"I think the real origins of this conflict are much deeper and they're rooted in the 1990's," says Nadia Arbatova, head of European Political Studies at the Institute of World Economy in Moscow.

Arbatova compares the escalating confrontation to a classic "Greek tragedy", with two sides hurtling towards the inevitable. She argues years of botched cues and missed opportunities have fed Russia's resentment over exclusion from EU and NATO enlargement – leading to a hardening of positions over the Ukraine crisis.

"Russia has a feeling that it has not been included into this post bipolar security arrangement in the Euro-Atlantic space," says Arbatova.

"So if you look at NATO's enlargement or at regional strategies of the European Union, all of them were bypassing Russia. The 'either or' choice was absolutely counterproductive. So it was a terrible mistake."

But Putin's top foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov, insisted the Kremlin would not be gamed into an arms race with the West, citing concerns over its effect on Russia's economy.

Russia's economic prospects have sagged over the past year under the weight of Western sanctions and falling world oil prices. Some observers even question whether the Kremlin can afford its nuclear wish list given deep cuts the government has already been forced to make to social programs.

President Putin has insisted the Kremlin can afford both and called Russia's arms sector a source of economic growth.

Possible Danger

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow, says there is a much more immediate danger than any looming arms race or clash over Ukraine.

Felgenhauer points to a series of recent near skirmishes between Russia and the West as the Kremlin has routinely – and intentionally – violated Western airspace and waters to test Western defenses.

Speaking to VOA via Skype, he said a direct encounter with a military or civilian craft may be all but imminent.

"The fighting in Ukraine does not lead to any kind of NATO-Russia real encounter," says Felgenhauer. "But a direct clash between a Russian plane and a Western plane or between a Russian plane and a passenger Western plane? Sooner or later there's going to be an accident."

As if to underscore Felgenhauer's point, British RAF Typhoon jets on loan to Estonia scrambled from a local air base to meet Russian aircraft in Baltic airspace just last week.

And CNN reported recently that a Russian fighter jet shadowed a U.S. reconnaissance craft in international airspace over the Black Sea in late May.

U.S. officials say the aircraft flew within three meters of each other before the Russian plane broke off for its base.

According to Felgenhauer, these incidents are far from isolated:

"They're happening all the time," he said.

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