On Filling a Vacuum

by Andrew Stuttaford

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s Saturday, but this bleak, brilliant assessment by The Economist’s Edward Lucas (for the Center of European Policy Analysis) of the challenge posed by Russia makes for uncomfortable, essential reading (thus the length of the excerpt, but also please read the whole thing). I might disagree with Lucas on the question of the degree (and effectiveness) of sanctions, but not, on this:

Western institutions are buckling under the strain. NATO wants to do its job – to ensure the territorial defense of its most vulnerable members. But the politicians will not let it. They will not commit the troops needed to make deterrence credible…

For the countries which are serious about defense, a mood of bleak realism is setting in. Poland in particular – the defense heavyweight of the region – is coming to terms with the failure of its top diplomatic priority in recent years: the wooing of Germany. To be fair, Polish-German relations are now the warmest in history. On EU issues, Warsaw is at the heart of decision-making. But on the crucial issue of hard security, Germany has shown that it cannot be trusted. Angela Merkel’s heart is in the right place, but German voters loathe the idea of a military confrontation with Russia. That might change if Germany’s vital interests were at stake. But they are not (Mr. Putin might be nasty, but he is not stupid). A secure, stable, prosperous united Ukraine matters far more in Warsaw than it does in Berlin. The Baltic States may be only a secondary concern for Poland – but they are a tertiary one, if that, for Germany.

 Poland is also pushing hard for stronger Visegrád  [a grouping made up of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] cooperation. But [Poland’s] allies do not inspire confidence. They spend nothing serious on defense. They do not see the threat. And they have other interests. Hungary, ominously, is taking its own path by showing understanding for Russia and impatience with the ever-critical West. Slovakia’s government does the minimum needed to show willingness on issues such as “reverse flow” – exporting gas to Ukraine backwards along the existing export pipelines. But Russian influence runs deep there, as it does in the Czech Republic, which yet again is under a government of questionable integrity and ability.

 The immediate danger is that Poland loses enthusiasm for collective defense. It has been disappointed by America,  Germany and its Central European allies; by two out of its three Baltic neighbors (Estonia is a shining exception); and by Sweden, which remains criminally irresponsible about its role in regional security….

Russia’s clear military aim in the region is to make it impossible for NATO to reinforce the Baltic States in a crisis. That can be countered first by making sure that the Baltic States are reinforced now – not by token companies of temporarily deployed American soldiers but by all the kinds of land, sea and air forces needed to slow down a Russian invasion. Second, NATO needs to make sure that Russia’s area-denial weapons are countered…

But the big danger is not a full-scale military assault on the Baltic States or Poland, but that Russia creates conditions which render that unnecessary. The lesson of Ukraine is that Russia wages a new kind of warfare, where the target is not the enemy’s military muscle but his will power. An excellent new paper by Latvian defense analyst Janis Berzins highlights the way in which Russia tilts the odds in its favor through propaganda, intimidation, economic pressure, bribery, subversion and diplomacy until the adversary feels so confused and hopeless that they are unable to resist.

 It is on this front that the greatest efforts are needed. Europe’s multilateral, rule-based and Atlanticist future will not be won or lost in Brussels or Washington. It will perish in depressed small towns, depopulated villages and grim housing projects in big cities in the Baltic States. They will be among those who fall victim to the frenzied scaremongering of Russian information-warfare. It will founder because demoralized officials have lost faith in their countries’ eventual convergence with European standards of prosperity and public administration. It will be sacrificed in sleazy deal-making in industries such as energy and transit by tycoon-politicians who cherish their business ties with Russia more than their country’s national interests.

 Avoiding that is well beyond NATO’s remit but it can help partly by showing a robust physical presence to counter any idea that defeat is inevitable and also by reviving strategic communications and information-warfare to shore up morale (and even perhaps to launch some counter-attacks). The EU can do a lot more to bolster public services, infrastructure and living standards in the places most vulnerable to Russian mischief-making. Just imagine how useful it would have been had we spent a few billion dollars doing that in eastern Ukraine in recent years. But national morale is primarily the responsibility of national governments. As we have seen in Ukraine they can also easily fall, or be pushed, into a death-spiral of incompetence and unpopularity…

The Corner

The one and only.