Security environment in NATO’s backyard after Crimea

Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine have had significant consequences for the security environment near NATO’s border.

As a response to Russia’s violation of international law principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, NATO countries decided to suspend all political and military cooperation with the Russian Federation. Moreover, NATO significantly boosted its military presence in the Baltic region. Subsequently, Russia reinforced its military, engaged in large military maneuvers, and deployed short-range ballistic missile systems near the NATO border. This article briefly analyzes the changed security environment on NATO’s frontline and argues that some of Russia’s military decisions were highly disproportionate and could further deepen the tensions between the two blocks. 

NATO response after Crimea

Shortly after the invasion of Crimea, NATO repeatedly condemned Russia’s continuing involvement in Eastern Ukraine and stressed that the Kremlin’s violations of international law represented a direct threat to the Euro-Atlantic security. As a response to this threat, NATO significantly reinforced its military capabilities in the Baltic Region. At the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO members not only pledged to increase their defense spending to 2% of their GDP within ten years but also adopted a new Readiness Action Plan. The Plan allowed for tripling the strength of the NATO Response Force (40,000 troops in total), creating a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and enhancing Standing Naval Forces. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, it was decided that four multinational battle groups (around 4,500 troops) would be deployed to the Baltic nations and Poland. At the end of August 2017, it was announced that all four battle groups were fully operational. Moreover, NATO also built up its Black Sea land presence around a Romanian-led multi national framework brigade in response to Russia’s military build-ups in its Black Sea ports. All the mentioned reinforcements by NATO were designated to serve as a deterrent force while providing security guarantees to Baltic and Central European Member states, which feel threatened by the Russian actions in Ukraine. 

Russia’s countermeasures

Despite the deterrence nature of NATO’s post-Crimea military deployments, Kremlin used the military build-ups in the Baltic region as a motive to increase its own military capabilities, both within its domestic forces and the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In 2015, Russia re-announced the creation of rapid reaction forces, with the overall number of up to 70,000 airborne troops (an increase of 15,000). As a response to NATO’s military build-up in the Baltic Region, the Russian Federation and six other CSTO members have regularly engaged in large military drills near the NATO border. The Russian-led military alliance, which operates on similar principles to NATO (“an attack against one member is an attack against all”), currently contains the six post-Soviet states of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Since 2015, Russia and its allies have conducted almost three times more military exercises than their NATO counterparts. 

In 2015, CSTO held a military exercise in Pskov, less than 25 miles from the Estonian border. It was estimated that around 2,000 soldiers with 200 vehicles and 40 aircraft participated in the exercise. According to Russian General Vladimir Shamanov, who oversaw the military exercise, the drills were aimed at “localizing an armed conflict and eliminating illegal armed formations in the Eastern European region.” 

In August 2016, more than 1,000 CSTO soldiers took part in joint military exercises in Belarus. The exercises were code-named Unbreakable Brotherhood and were designed to “ strengthen understanding and cooperation between CSTO peacekeeping forces and to improve their practical skills”. 

This year, Russia is conducting perhaps the biggest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. Known as ZAPAD 2017, this major military exercise will take place in the Kaliningrad region between 14th – 20th of September. Whether ZAPAD 2017 will serve as a ground for routine maneuvers or testing contingency plans for a full-scale conflict with NATO remains unclear, however, the potential size of the exercise is undoubtedly going to increase tensions between the two blocks and significantly present a great concern to Poland and the Baltic nations. 

In October, independent military units from CSTO will conduct operational-strategic drills code-named “Combat Brotherhood 2017” in Armenia, right next to Turkey – the second largest standing military force in NATO.

Deployment of Iskander missiles near the NATO border

Apart from the reinforcements and military drills near the NATO border, the Russian leadership has also decided to deploy 9K720 Iskander missiles to various regions, some of them sharing borders NATO countries. Iskander missiles (code-named SS26 Stone by NATO) are highly accurate, short-range ballistic missile systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Iskander missiles have permanently been deployed to the Kaliningrad Region, posing a direct threat to the security of Poland and the Baltic nations. Some of them have supposedly been acquired by Armenia, which could add pressure to the Alliance’s Southeastern flank where NATO and CSTO directly meet on the highly-militarized Turkish-Armenian border.

Moscow sees the deployment of Iskander systems in Kaliningrad as retaliation for NATO deployments in the Baltic Region. The Russian leadership also argues that the deployment is a direct response to the “Aegis Ashore” missile defense facility, which is being constructed at the Redzikowo Air Base in Poland. However, it should be noted that the Iskander’s nuclear capability is much more dangerous than regular reinforcements and the construction of missile shield facilities. The range of Iskander missiles is estimated to be around 500 – 700 km. Such a range combined with the capability of carrying nuclear warheads could threaten major European cities such as Berlin, Copenhagen, or Warsaw. 


In sum, the security environment on NATO’s frontline has significantly changed following Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine. In the immediate aftermath of the Crimean invasion, NATO boosted its military capabilities in the Baltic and the Black Sea Regions. As a countermeasure, the Russian Federation has engaged in many provocative military maneuvers and aggressively deployed missile systems with nuclear capability near the borders of NATO member states. With ZAPAD 2017 around the corner, it remains to be seen if the current power projection between the West and Russia will have a deterrent effect in the future. However, the presence of Iskanders in NATO’s backyard represents a serious threat to many NATO members and could further deepen the tensions between the two blocks. 


About the author:

Jiří Aberle is an intern at the IIR and a graduate student of Advanced International Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. 

Works cited:

Abrahamyan, Eduard. Armenia's New Ballistic Missiles Will Shake Up the Neighborhood. The National Interest, 2016, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Center for European Policy Analysis. The Road to ZAPAD 2017. Washington, Center for European Policy Analysis, 2017, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Dagdeverenis, Dimitros. NATO RESPONSE TO RUSSIA AFTER CRIMEA. Bridging Europe, 2015, Accessed 11 Sept. 2017. Accessed 12 Sept. 2017.

Hemicker, Lorenz. Russia Conducts Three Times More War Games than Nato. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2017, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017. 

Isachenkov, Vladimir. Russia seeks to allay Western fears about planned war games. Defense News, 2017, Accessed 12 Sept. 2017. 

LaGrone, Sam. NATO Commander Breedlove: Imported Russian Missiles Have Turned Crimea into a Black Sea ‘Power Projection’ Platform. U.S. Naval Institute, 2015, Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.

McDermott, Roger. Russia Hosts CSTO Exercises in Western Military District. Washington, The Jamestown Foundation, 2015, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

McDermott, Roger. Moscow Announces the Creation of Rapid Reaction Forces—Again. Washington, The Jamestown Foundation, 2015, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017. 

Missile Threat CSIS Missile Defense Project. SS-26 (Iskander). Washington, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016, Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.

NATO. NATO battlegroups in Baltic nations and Poland fully operational. 2017, Accessed 12 Sept. 2017.

Reuters. New Russia missiles in Kaliningrad are answer to U.S. shield: lawmaker. Reuters, 2016, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Sputnik News. Armenia to Host CSTO Interaction-2017 Drills on October 9-13. Sputnik News, 2017, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

The Guardian. Russia transfers nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. London, The Guardian, 2016, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

The Moscow Times. Anti-NATO Military Drills Begin in Belarus. 2016, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.