There will be immediate reaction if Putin attacks Poland, Lithuania – US Colonel

If Putin decides to cut off Lithuania from Poland from the two sides – Russia and Belarus, the reaction of the United States and NATO will be immediate. What will it look like? How many soldiers have Washington and NATO deploy to the ‘front line’, to the border with Russia and Belarus? What are Putin’s goals in Europe?

Colonel Ray Wójcik, Director of the Warsaw office of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a former US military attache in Poland, answered questions of Belsat TV show Prasviet host Siarhiej Pieliasa.

Part 1: Even if Lukashenka wanted to be independent, he cannot’ – US analyst

S.P.: You worked for the centre of planning and realisation of the European Deterrence Initiative as well as for the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence. Could you please specify the goals of these programmes?

R.W.: The European Defense Initiative which started in 2014 by President Obama and then followed up by President Trump in the last few years is a large funding mechanism that pays for our soldiers, our equipment to support operation Atlantic Resolve in the region. Operation Atlantic Resolve is the US name for the US forces involved [but this is a larger NATO mission]. From the USA it is managed by the US European Command in Germany, there were primary efforts from our component services US Air Force Europe, US Navy Europe, United States Army and US Marine Corps Europe and Special Operations Command. All these components are involved in this. It involves rotational exercise and training deployments of our army brigade combat team primarily based in Poland but moves all over the eastern flank of NATO from the Black sea to the Baltics.

S.P.: How many troops are involved?

The army brigade combat team is close to 5,000 soldiers and again, they rotate across the eastern flank. Then the battle groups. They were announced at the Warsaw summit in 2016. That was sort of next step in hardening our security to definitely deter and be ready to defend against any miscalculation of President Putin. So, the battle groups were enhanced greatly by our allies; now we have leadership of the UK in Estonia leading a battle group over several countries, we have the Canadians leading a battle group in Latvia and several countries aside and Germany leads a battle group and that was the first one to deploy – by the way even before the US to Lithuania and again, they have several nations with them.

There is one more battle group in addition to the army brigade combat team – the EFP Presence battle group in Poland. Primarily, US partner with Romanians and UK, we lead a battle group in Poland. Those battle groups were set for a response if there is a miscalculation across any part of NATO territory, their job is to provide the situation awareness, be in contact with host nation, home forces, and then they will be connected to the NATO Command control structure to be ready to alert the response forces, they will come and reinforce the battle groups and/or be ready to go to defensive positions in case of any incursion.

S.P.: What will happen if Russian and Belarusian forces attack the Suwalki Gap from Kaliningrad and Belarus and cut off the Baltic states from the rest of NATO? What will be the response of the US or NATO?

The CEPA has been studying this issue for a long time. We are closely connected with MoDs of Lithuania and Poland in sort of a study to look at how we keep the Suwalki сorridor. We all refer to it as a gap in our view. It is a gap for President Putin to close, he wants to close it, but it’s our corridor, our movement corridor to keep open, it’s our duty. That’s our [problem] looking very seriously from the A2/AD [anti-access and area denial] threat about Kaliningrad (precision artillery, air defense) and of course, forces that arrived in Belarus. If forces in Belarus and Kaliningrad are reinforced by Russian forces, decide to move in the Suwalki gap, there would be an immediate reaction from us, the US , probably and Poland and Lithuania and the Baltics. The rest of NATO and that’s a question – our people debate this – how quickly NATO would make a decision on something has to do with the Baltics (or something in the north of Poland). I think if you look at 9.11, at how quickly NATO responded the US need at 911, I think you could definitely see what we are talking about occupation or seizure NATO territory. I think NATO would make a fast decision. But I think what we are doing now is looking at a geographic problem, looking at the reinforcements we need to get, what assets we need to have a counter to A2/AD. That’s the study we are doing right now and I think if you ask me in about three months, there would be much more specific answer for you. It would be definitely a challenge, but we are preparing for that.

S.P.: You have become Director of the Warsaw office of the Center for European Policy Analysis. CEPA is one of the first think-tanks to have started analysing Russia’s actions in the information field, i.e. disinformation, psychological attacks on its neighbours, etc. What is your mission in this sphere and why is it important?

R.W.: CEPA is very involved in doing the best work we can on information war program we call Strategic Communication. So, information warfare, media manipulation, disinformation, fake news – in all those categories CEPA is right in the centre of those policy debates in looking into what needs to happen in one in those areas, because we can see over the last few years what is happening and who is doing it, and in most cases we could see who the targets are – whether its Russians in Lithuania, or even Poles in Lithuania, Latvia, Russians in Belarus. The Russian-speaking minority are definitely a big target, but it’s not just like that. Through Russia Today, you have many opportunities to influence Western European population with disinformation, and the same happens even in the USA. This is something CEPA is looking at very closely; CEPA wants to move from the study of understanding ‘what and who’, but to ‘what is the real impact’. Are the targeted really believe in all this? Are they making decisions or voting based on this? That’s kind of the next level.

What we really need to do. Edward Lucas who leads our StratCom program, he is a very well known author, economist, expert, leads this effort and sort of taking the next step to get the real impact, to figure out how we can counter and better counter.

For example, Belsat does much to get after the fixed media that are available in Belarus and Russia. And Belsat is doing its part to show the real truth about what is happening in the West, the decisions, the discussions, and what is happening in Belarus.

There are also kinds of things we need to improve. From my view of a thinktanker, one of the major thing that needs to happen is more synchronisation of EU effort in cyber-infowar space, NATO in cyber-infowar space and then with the public media sphere; there is a lot of things going on they are positive – to study, to learn, trying to counter, but I think they are not fully synchronised, they should be better syncronised in the future.

S.P.: I am very glad to hear that you notice the role of Belsat TV and other media outlets. I have another question about CEPA. We know that former director Wess Mitchell has become the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Taking into account that Wess Mitchell is one of the best experts on our region – will the fact of his working for the Washington administration have any influence on the US policy?

Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Nicosia, Cyprus, 16 March 2018. Reuters / Yiannis Kourtoglou / FORUM

R.W.: CEPA could not be prouder that our number one man was selected by the administration to serve in such an important position. Wess Mitchell is a cofounder of CEPA, and the primary mission of CEPA from its founding till today is to focus on the frontline states of NATO and anchor them ever closer in the transatlantic relationship with US helping those countries to be secure on the energy front, etc. Wess has that intrinsically built inside of him and we are just proud that he is in such a key position for the State Department; part of our Central European friends, of course, know that and they have a high regard for CEPA because of Wess Mitchell and now they feel like they have a friend working in the State Department in this very important position. I would say that CEPA itself was never about one man. Wess was absolutely critical to the development building CEPA is institutionally connected with Washington and Central East Europe as an organisation and at the front now is Peter Doran, he was a Vice President and he is doing an incredible job of leading CEPA forth. I would say to Central European friends, of friends in Belarus, certainly, the focus of CEPA on the frontline states, on the concerns with Russia means that there is an expert advising the Secretary of State specifically on the issues of this region; he covers all of Europe and you have to in this position, but even if you are covering the frontline states, you have to be tied into what the West is gonna do to either respond or support the flank security. Wess is undoubtedly true expert, he is in the right position, we are lucky to have him there, I think everybody is proud of that and I think he will be good, intelligent, thoughtful and expert thinker for Secretary of State on advise in this region.

S.P:. Four years ago, during the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia waged its hybrid aggression against Ukraine. However, six years before Sochi and Crimea it was another war – against Georgia. At that moment, the Olympics in Beijing were underway. In two months, the World Cup in Russia will start. Should we expect any aggressive actions from Russia?

R.W.: I think with president Vladimir Putin, we should always be considering expecting the unexpected. Everybody in the West, NATO, EU is trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is thinking, what his real goals are.

S.P.: What are his real goals, say, in Europe?

It is very difficult to answer but I think NATO, and EU to a certain extent are really spending a lot of time to figure out what are these indications and warnings. Let’s go back to Zapad, the largest Russian exercise in the western district, which happens on a four-year basis. They conducted Zapad last September and some of the concerns leading at the Zapad with you know as the indications were coming all these trains up to 4,000 train cars coming with Russian equipment and troops through Belarus to the western district or entered the western district in the thought that there is so much equipment going to Belarus, that much of it was going to stay there under the guise of Zapad. But that did not happen. It could be that Vladimir Putin changed his mind, we don’t know, or it was never planned to do this. But it was a big concern. Those kinds of things, figuring out what are the true indications or warnings – and you bring up a couple of interesting ones about the international Olympic Games – that occurred before these major incursions so those certainly should be considered because I think we should not discount anything from our adversary. The regional threat has totally caused some reshaping in thinking especially in NATO, because who would have thought you would have seen this battlegroups in the United States with significant forces in the region.

I do not understand what his ultimate goal is. He definitely in the medium term wants to cause confusion and instability in Europe. He definitely feels that the biggest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union or lost of presige and respect for Russia or the Soviet Union because of the collapse of the Soviet empire. So, there is a sense he is trying to regain this and many in Russia, you know, who believe in a strong imperial Russia, like this, and are sort of proud, you know, Russia, kind of feeling. That’s part of his thinking of the return of Russian Empire in some ways and then since it is very difficult to show that at the same time throwing instability into the West into NATO, into EU is part of his goal. I would say If you were the leader of Russia what your goal would be? your goal should be enhancing the life, the security of your own people and to me the number one goal that Vladimir Putin should be focused on is a great relationship with the West, NATO, have security on his borders because of that, and then economic prosperity for his people. That what his goal in my view should be. But it is obviously not and we are responding to that in every way you can. If one day Russia changes a course which I hope they do, then we will hopefully see them adopting more of the goal that we have in the West. We would like them to adopt which is ultimately our view. You know what President Bush said in 1989 about creating Europe ‘whole, free and for peace’. We hope that in some point president Putin will join us in supporting the idea both in speech and reality.

S.P.: I was about to ask about US goals, but you have already quoted president Bush. I hope it remains topical.

Absolutely, there is no reason to go beyond, there were straight words saying all about the U.S. goals in Europe.

The interview was aired as part of the TV show Prasviet with Siarhiej Pieliasa

Photo: Paolo Bovo / Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire / FORUM