Vladimir Putin is a heck of a gambler. Never has a card shark gotten more out of a low pair. He presides over a nation that has a far smaller economy than does the U.S., a shrinking military, declining life expectancy, and rising alcoholism. Yet somehow, he bluffs the world into thinking he is a strong leader. What must be admitted after his meeting with President Trump in Helsinki, with all of the consternation and negative commentary that followed, is that the former KGB colonel — whose domestic political opponents keep dying with amazing rapidity — takes a clear-eyed realist approach to the world and goes after his goals with alacrity. Resenting Russia’s eclipse after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin seeks to reestablish the country as a strong regional power in Europe. To do so, he need not necessarily raise his own country up so much as fragment and degrade the nations of Europe and, at all costs, destroy their links to and comity with the United States. Along the way, he also seeks to erode the little things such as the concepts of freedom and democracy, which seem to bring about a sense of untidiness to his autocratic-czarist mind.
Putin seeks weakness that he can exploit. It need not even be real weakness, but rather just the perception. Historically, any gap in an opponent’s armor, any “tell” at the card table, has triggered a future test from Putin or his Russian countrymen. Stalin perceived Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mental and physical decline at Yalta and set about locking Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain. Khrushchev perceived John F. Kennedy to be an irresolute, inexperienced leader at Vienna in 1961, and the result was the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Bush’s strategic distraction in Iraq led to Russian incursions into Georgia. President Obama’s sotto voce comment to Dmitri Medvedev, “I will have more flexibility,” after his reelection in 2012, invited Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea and portions of Ukraine in 2014. It is a Russian truism about testing an enemy: When you meet mush, keep pressing; when you meet steel, you stop. So the question now, after the circular finger-pointing among the NATO alliance after Helsinki, is: Where will Vladimir Putin test the United States and its allies next?
He will be guided in his decision by three principles. First, whatever he does must strengthen Russian interests. Superfluous actions are not worth the risk to him. Second, any action must undermine a key European interest and to degrade Western unity. Third, it must have an ambiguous-enough effect on American interests to allow the United States to remain away from the card table, for Putin knows that he lacks the hand to call the United States. As Putin’s luck would have it, there are actually a range of scenarios that could satisfy these requirements.
1) Putin could double down on his military operations in Ukraine. Perhaps he would launch an overt (as opposed to using “little green men”) military operation based upon some perceived slight to ethnic Russians living there, expanding his geographical holdings beyond the Donbass region. Western responses to the 2014 invasion have been largely muted, even after Russia shot down a civilian airliner flying in Ukrainian airspace. Ukraine itself remains outside of NATO and is generally not considered part of the West, and the sense is growing that NATO will no longer expand, that Ukraine’s window of opportunity has closed. Expansion of Russian activities in the region could both strengthen Putin’s political position at home — so long as he continues to suppress coverage of dead Russian soldiers — and encourage more voices to call for the inevitable reimposition of “the natural order” in Eastern Europe.
2) Putin could choose to execute a combined operation, seizing territory in the Baltic Sea. There are several islands there that are historically contested among several nations, including Russia and Sweden. Gotland, for instance, is currently under the control of Sweden, which is not a member of the NATO alliance but is a member of the European Union. A Russian seizure of this island would pose a military challenge to the European Union without necessarily triggering a response from the United States. Under these conditions, Russia would almost certainly prevail from a military standpoint. The installation of advanced anti-access/area-denial weapons, such as those installed at the exclave at Kaliningrad, would provide Russia with air and sea dominance over the entire Baltic Sea and hence the maritime approaches to Poland and the three Baltic states. Under such circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine these nations seeking to make a deal with Russia to secure their political futures.
3) Putin could lure away a current member of the NATO alliance. The current tensions among Turkey, the United States, and the entire NATO alliance, as well as Turkey’s opening of a dialogue with Russia and Iran with regard to the security situation in Syria, have opened a window for Turkey’s departure from the NATO alliance. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new “strong presidency” in Turkey, his entreaty to Russia to buy S-400 advanced anti-air missiles, and his decision to capture and hold hostage an American pastor, all have brought American relations with Turkey to a breaking point. It is not hard to imagine either the current government collapsing or tipping towards Russia in an effort by Erdogan to preserve his hold on power. Whether voluntarily or by force, the departure of a NATO ally from the alliance would open the door for others to follow.
Other scenarios are possible. “Land grabs” in the Arctic, actions that seek to blind key EU surveillance satellites in space, cyberattacks, and economic coercion via Russia’s energy supplies, could all challenge Europe and create strains within the NATO alliance — especially if NATO as a whole continues to fail to meet the 2-percent-of-GDP commitment first discussed by its member states at the Prague Summit in 2002. But whatever happens, if history holds, will happen soon: sometime within the next six to 18 months.
There is a path to avoid this seeming inevitability, however. Were the United States to continue to make significant capital investments in its military — moving from spending 3.4 percent of GDP ($700 billion) to 4 percent ($760 billion) in its baseline defense budget — at the same time that NATO heeds Trump’s call to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense, it would significantly raise the stakes on the betting table. Using those additional funds to buy advanced-capability missiles, fifth-generation aircraft, and mobile armor would help as well.
But the best way to offset Putin’s next move is to anticipate that he is going to make one. Through an aggressive exercise schedule in the Baltic and eastern Mediterranean Seas, the United States and its NATO allies could reinforce their interests and demonstrate their resolve while robbing Putin of the initiative for aggressive action. Given the expanse of Russian territory, the U.S. and its allies could also stage pop-up exercises elsewhere in central Eurasia or along Russia’s Pacific coast to remind Putin of just how much territory he has to defend.
Vladimir Putin believes he is restoring Russia to its former Soviet and Czarist glory and rekindling in the hearts of his people a sense of greatness. But as students of the great strategist George Kennan know, Russia’s real strategic culture has never been one of greatness but rather one marked by fear. A unified U.S.–NATO alliance holds a winning hand at the geostrategic card table, but only if it plays together and prepares for its competitor. No matter how good a card player Putin is, the full house held by the U.S. and NATO can beat his low pair.