Last week, just as the EU was voting to extend its economic sanctions against Russia through the beginning of next year, the U.S. announced a major sign of its commitment to European security. But will Russian president Vladimir Putin take these actions as a serious warning to stop his saber-rattling—or a still-unserious gesture he can meet with even more military aggression?
The big announcement from the U.S.: We would be contributing both materiel and special-operations soldiers toward the strengthening of a NATO rapid-response team, intended to defend NATO member countries in the event of a invasion by a foreign power — almost certainly Russia. As NR’s Tom Rogan noted, parts of the rapid reaction force can’t deploy very rapidly at all, but it is a real commitment: In addition to the special-ops forces, the U.S. contribution includes 250 tanks and additional armored vehicles and heavy equipment. The goods will go to six different NATO member countries, including the Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), which fear they are the next target for Putin’s aggression, aimed at former Soviet republics and satellite countries considered to be within Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence.”
Russia has certainly not backed down vis-à-vis NATO recently: A few months ago, it announced it was deploying Iskander ICBMs (capable of carrying nuclear warheads) to its Kaliningrad exclave, situated on the Baltic between Poland and Lithuania. It has also increased the size and frequency of its military exercises in the region. “If the U.S. starts to really place potent missile-defense systems in Romania, Bulgaria, or Poland,” Putin adviser Sergei Ivanov warned, “we will say that the external threat has grown stronger.”
Russia’s talk is even more belligerent than its walk: In April, Russian generals warned they were ready to use nuclear force to defend the annexation of Crimea, and that they considered the same conditions that prompted military intervention in Ukraine to be present in the Baltic States.
But there is a bit of a mismatch here. Would Russia be comfortable using such bellicose rhetoric and taking such reckless aggressive action abroad if it actually considered NATO to be the “existential threat” it is so often portrayed as by Putin and the Russian media?
To my mind, the answer is obviously no. Rather, the relentless depiction of NATO and the “decadent” U.S.-led West as conspiring to undermine and harm Russia is a useful piece of propaganda to prop up Putin’s domestic popularity. Russia’s military aggression abroad and the anti-Western rhetoric at home have brought Putin big benefits at little tangible cost. The irony: Putin acts like the West is a belligerent threat, while it’s the West’s very pusillanimity that has enabled Russia to continue its military adventurism more or less as it pleases.
Putin acts like the West is a belligerent threat, while it’s the West’s very pusillanimity that has enabled Russia to continue its military adventurism more or less as it pleases.
While most date the current episode of Russian aggression to its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, in response to Ukraine’s Maidan movement, the phenomenon really began with its 2008 invasion of Georgia. Since there was no significant military response from Georgia, Putin won an easy PR victory at home. At little military or economic cost, he was able to project an image of Russia as a serious geopolitical power that could easily defend its regional interests, in this case undermining the Georgian government that had been seeking to join both the EU and NATO. His popularity shot up to what was then an all-time high, nearly 90 percent.
By 2012, though, Putin was facing a dire political situation at home. Hundreds of thousands were marching on the streets in Moscow to protest Russia’s deteriorating economy and pervasive political corruption. After securing his own reelection and further cracking down on his domestic opposition, Putin applied the lessons of 2008 to Ukraine’s uprising against its pro-Russian government. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was as swift as it was bloodless, with the “polite men” invaders (Russian troops purposely not displaying their insignia) encountering no opposition from the Ukrainian army or navy. Putin’s popularity again shot up to record levels without any significant military cost. Further into Ukraine, Putin has been content to keep the situation at a slow boil, enough to destabilize the country and region but doing no serious damage to Russia’s military and avoiding any real response from the West.
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The West’s economic sanctions, plus lower oil prices, have made life a little trickier for Putin, but are far from debilitating. Russia still has yet to encounter serious military opposition to its actions. When Putin looks to NATO‘s strategic plans, he sees organization in which only two members — the U.S. and Estonia — honor the commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. On the battlefield, he sees a U.S. that has been reluctant to supply Ukraine’s military with much-needed lethal aid, as Russia is providing for the eastern-Ukraine separatists. Is it any surprise he’s concluded that he can keep getting away with this?
#related#Flipping the equation should not be that hard: While Russia may have no problems squaring off against the ill-equipped militaries of its impoverished neighbors, the West must make it clear that it would be no match for the large, experienced, well-trained, and well-equipped force that is NATO.
In order to bring this point home, the group needs to honor its pledge to the Baltic countries — not just with a rapid-response force, but other credible, powerful commitments too. Military exercises should be increased, and the plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe should continue apace.
Putin’s position at home could be destabilized by bad economic news, aided by sanctions. But the quickest way to stop him in his tracks is to show Russia isn’t omnipotent on the battlefield.