America's military leadership has a new interest in the Russian threat to Europe:
Even as President Barack Obama tries to stave off a conflict with Russia, the Pentagon isn’t taking any chances.
Each of Obama’s picks for top Defense Department jobs says that Russia represents the biggest national security threat to the United States. The Army is giving heavier weapons to its frontline cavalry unit in Europe, while it also rotates more units into place. The Navy wants to upgrade its ability to hunt for submarines in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
And with Russian bombers nearing U.S. airspace in Alaska and Russian warplanes buzzing American warships at sea, both top current leaders of the Pentagon have begun talking about Russia in a way that sounds more like the Cold War than the era of “reset” between the two powers.
“While Russia has contributed in select security areas, such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism, it also has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and it is willing to use force to achieve its goals,” says the new National Military Strategy published by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”
As we look at the Russian threat, Belarus should be a major subject of study. Belarus is a former Soviet state whose independence puts a sizable buffer between NATO Poland and Russia.
And as I've noted for both the defense of the NATO Baltic states and friendly but non-NATO Ukraine, Belarus in Russian hands (or friendly to Russia) threatens the eastern flanks of the Baltic states and the northern flank of Ukraine.
If Russia is denied access to Belarus bases and territory, Putin has a harder time threatening NATO or even defending their Kaliningrad enclave.
And if Putin's paranoia is to be believed, Russia needs just such a buffer to keep the NATO panzers from sweeping across the steppe to the gates of Moscow.
Belarus is essentially a road between Russia and NATO.
Given its importance, Russia has done much to pull Belarus into Russia's orbit.
But the country often called the last Soviet state doesn't want to be a road:
Belarus and other former Soviet states have been alarmed by Russia's annexation of Crimea last year and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that continues to simmer.
[President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, who at times has had prickly relations with the Kremlin, has positioned himself as a middleman between Moscow and the West, hosting several rounds of talks in Minsk in efforts to defuse the crisis.
Since last year, Russia has sharply increased air and naval patrols along its borders and in the Baltic Sea.
Asked whether Belarus could suffer the same fate as Ukraine has, Lukashenka said, "Russia will never fight with Belarus."
"Maybe, tomorrow someone would want to cut off a piece of Polesia," he said, referring to a vast forested area stretching across Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. "Can you imagine what my reaction would be or that of our people? We would fight for every piece of land."
"If they come with the sword, they'll die by the sword," he added.
Despite being the last dictator in Europe (well, the only one for now), the West has an interest in promoting the independence of Belarus.
But given how important that territory is to Russia's ability to project power west, I assume Belarus is high on Putin's target list.
Belgium's King Albert I proclaimed that "Belgium is a nation, not a road" before World War I, but that's exactly what they were in two world wars as German troops swept through the country to get at France.
Belarus should plan accordingly.
As should the Pentagon. But for God's sake, no modern version of the Dyle Plan, please.
UPDATE: Of course, by refusing to base NATO units in Poland, and counting on the "very high readiness" reaction force to swoop into Poland or the Baltic states, that is basically the Dyle Plan, if you think about it.
Seriously, we at least need REFORPOL.
UPDATE: There is this:
Polish, German and Danish officers serve in the corps that is being upgraded to a high readiness force to meet new security challenges in a region feeling threatened by a resurgent Russia.
The Germans and Danes should at least preposition equipment for Multinational Corps Northeast and station recon units there, and make it a real combat unit.
I realize that equipment could probably be sent by train fairly quickly, but the symbolism of NATO equipment just a little farther east in Poland would be good.