Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

Putin’s Hybrid War Against Europe

Will NATO ever rouse itself?

Europe “whole, free, and at peace” was the mantra of the glory days of Euro-Atlanticism, when Russia was docile and history was ending. It was never a statement of reality. Europe was not whole (countries such as Moldova were indubitably European and clearly not where they wanted to be). It was not free (Belarus). It was not at peace (half-frozen conflicts scarred the map of Europe from Cyprus to Azerbaijan).

Now that aspiration is in tatters. Europe is not marching toward prosperity and freedom. It is retreating to a harsh world of power politics, where might is right, truth withers in the face of propaganda, and the ethnos — old ideas about blood, language, and soil — matters more than modern rules of democracy and international cooperation.

The Kremlin clock is sounding the death knell of Euro-Atlanticism. Not because Russia is strong — it is not — but because the rest of Europe is weak and the glue that holds the United States to the continent’s security arrangements has aged and grown brittle.

At first sight, it is perplexing that Russia — a country of 140 million, with a $2 trillion GDP — can threaten Europe (with a population of 600 million and a $20 trillion GDP), let alone NATO (950 million and $40 trillion). But Russia has three advantages: It is willing to accept economic pain; it is willing to threaten (and use) force; and it is willing to lie, prolifically and expertly, about what it does.

The Kremlin’s arsenal includes economic pressure (especially the use of gas, oil, and nuclear energy), corruption, subversion, propaganda, and military saber-rattling. Russia deploys these weapons against the frontline states in Europe’s new cold war.

The new arc of instability reaches from the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) across Ukraine and Moldova to southeastern Europe (Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia), through Central Europe (Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) to the Baltic littoral (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden). All these countries face Kremlin attacks on a spectrum ranging from clandestine influence-peddling to direct Russian military pressure.

The elements of the problem have long been clear, but we have failed to see how they combine. We bemoaned the thuggish and repressive behavior of some supposed allies (the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan, and the hot-headed and heavy-handed Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia), the Bulgarian feebleness toward gangsterdom, the disrespect that Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Robert Fico in Slovakia showed for the rule of law, Czech weakness on corruption, and the persistent Polish failure to deal with overbearing and incompetent bureaucracies.

But we assumed, wrongly, that we were in competition with the ghosts of the past, not the demons of the future. And we failed to see how Russia was stoking and exploiting these weaknesses. After the spectacular failure of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and the chaos of the 1990s, it was hard to imagine that the Kremlin could ever again call the tune in the old “bloodlands” — the swathe of territory, between the Baltic and the Black Seas, that under Hitler and Stalin suffered the greatest mass killings in European history. But the Cold War did not end. It just took a few years of recess. Russia remains a geopolitical contestant and antagonist.

The situation of each country is unique, but the overall picture is that the West is in retreat and Russia is winning. The sharpest conflict is over Ukraine. Russia decapitated and dismembered its closest and most important neighbor without firing a shot. It so demoralized and confused the leadership in Kiev through a mixture of subversion, propaganda, and special operations (sometimes called “hybrid war”) that it was able to seize the strategically important peninsula of Crimea in March 2014.

Ukraine failed to play its diplomatic cards. It could have raised an international storm over Russia’s actions. It did not. Moreover, Ukrainian forces in Crimea could have resisted. They could have blocked the airfields and ports used by the Russians, paralyzed their communications, taken control of road junctions, and knocked out the Russian-language media. They could have made it impossible for Russia to seize the territory without waging a full-scale war. But they didn’t. Ukrainian military commanders had inadequate supplies, no orders, no contingency plans, and no secure communications. One even contacted me on Facebook asking for advice. They retreated with their morale in tatters.

That set the scene for Russia’s next offensive, in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Here, Russia raised the stakes, using its regular forces (disguised lightly or not at all) in a more traditional war. The conflict in eastern Ukraine rumbles on, largely ignored by Western news outlets, which hew to the idea that the “cease-fire” declared in February in the Belarusian capital of Minsk marks the end of the conflict.

Russia has by now achieved its main goals in Ukraine. It has shown it can destroy the European security order that dates back to the Helsinki agreements of 1975. It has repudiated the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia, along with Britain and the United States, solemnly promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refrain from any kind of coercion, in return for the Kiev authorities’ agreement to give up their Soviet-era endowment of nuclear weapons.

Those promises are now revealed as worthless paper. That opens a broad and inviting avenue of attack for Russia in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Snap drills — often involving nuclear weapons — have been met with a puny Western response. If America is not willing to risk World War III with Russia over a provocation in the Baltics, NATO will be over by breakfast. That is a huge and tempting prize for the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin knows this. So do America’s European allies. The question is not whether Russia menaces the Baltics, but when and how it will follow through on that menacing. Already Estonia has experienced the humiliation of having a senior official kidnapped on its territory and abducted to Moscow, only days after President Obama, speaking in Tallinn, vowed that an “attack on one is an attack on all.” But after the seizure of this official — Eston Kohver, a high-ranking police officer in Estonia’s internal-security agency — the West did nothing. 

Russian warplanes regularly intrude into Baltic airspace. One recently harassed an American reconnaissance plane flying over the Baltic Sea. When the United States protested, Russia replied menacingly — “America is not a Baltic power. Russia is” — laying the rhetorical foundation for a no-fly zone should the United States wish to reinforce its NATO allies in a hurry.

The military security of northeastern Europe hangs by a thread. Russia has carried out dummy nuclear attacks on Sweden and Denmark. Both countries, having reduced their defense capabilities below the threadbare, are now scrambling to restore the naval, aviation, armored, and intelligence assets that they so recklessly discarded. Estonia, likely the only country in Europe to spend even 2 percent of its GDP on defense in 2015, is grimly waiting for its allies to follow suit. Poland, Lithuania, and even laggardly Latvia are scrambling to increase their defense budgets. Poland — the only economic heavyweight in the region — is following Finland’s lead in buying joint air-to-surface standoff missiles, the closest thing to a nuclear deterrent for a non-nuclear country. It is also buying the American-built Patriot missile-defense system.

But Poland stands almost alone. NATO plans require Poland to take the brunt of reinforcing the Baltic, deploying a third of the Polish army there, pending the arrival of other allies. But arrival with what? After 20 years of scrimping on defense budgets, no European country has enough deployable, mobile, high-readiness forces to fill this role. NATO has ditched its taboos about Russia and now talks a good game about rapid-reaction forces, but its real capabilities are painfully reduced. The United States is indispensable to Baltic security. But is Baltic security indispensable to the United States?

For all NATO’s weakness, it still retains a symbolic power that may be enough to deter Russia. But Russia does not need to outgun the West militarily. It just needs to outspend it on other fronts. That is the Kremlin’s real victory. Money, not hardened steel and high explosives, is what matters most in the new cold war. Russian money buys politicians, political parties, think tanks, media, academics, and officials — not just in the frontline states but also in citadel countries. Some is public — such as the €9 million loan to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, or the hefty stipend paid to Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, who as chancellor endorsed deals with the Russian gas company Gazprom and, after leaving office, took a job with that same company. America applies higher standards: Amid stormy controversy, former Republican representative Curt Weldon was investigated by the FBI in 2006 over his ties with Russia; the scandal may well have cost him his office, as he lost his reelection bid that year. No public figure anywhere in Europe has yet paid a price for taking money from the Kremlin.

Even the most powerful politician in Europe, Angela Merkel, is struggling to maintain European solidarity on sanctions over Ukraine. Politicians in Cyprus say openly that they share confidential European Union documents with Russia: Brussels is far away, but Moscow is a friend. Hungary, despairing of EU solidarity on energy, has signed a sweetheart deal with Russia for nuclear-

power stations.

The tide is slowly turning. Germany, for example, is changing its post–WWII pacifist posture, bringing 100 tanks out of storage and tweaking its defense plans. Ireland, which has no air force, is worriedly awakening to its dependence on the aging warplanes of Britain’s RAF to intercept the Russian bombers that buzz its airspace. Russia does not seem to care that Ireland is not a member of NATO — any more than it has refrained from bullying non-NATO Sweden and Finland. Those two Scandinavian countries, together with their Nordic partners Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, have issued an unprecedented joint declaration, decrying Russia’s war games, military buildup, and dangerous aviation stunts. That prompted a rebuke from the Russian foreign ministry. Russia is offended when foreigners do not take it seriously. It is even more offended when they do.

The hard truth is that Europe won’t bear the cost or the military risk for the defenses it needs. That won’t change until Europeans are a lot more scared or angry than they are now — which may be too late.

– Mr. Lucas, a senior editor of The Economist and a senior vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, is the author of, among other books, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West.

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