NATO’s Playbook for Putinism
A year after deploying troops to wage asymmetric, anonymous warfare against a sovereign, peaceful neighbor, annexing the Crimean peninsula, and carving out an armed Russian zone in eastern Ukraine, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has unveiled a new military doctrine focused on confronting NATO and pledging the use of Russia’s armed forces “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation.
Given that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin has reserved for himself the right to determine when, where and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for something much uglier and much more complicated than a new cold war. But if NATO stands up, speaks up and builds up, it can face down Putin and his bid to rebuild the Russian Empire piecemeal.
That’s not an overstatement. Putin calls Ukraine “Novorossiya”—a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. He has strong-armed Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into a “Eurasian Union,” with Russia at the helm. And he has repeatedly said he would use force to protect ethnic Russians outside Russia’s borders. Toward that end, Putin’s Russia already has dismembered Ukraine and Georgia. (Along with Crimea and a swath of eastern Ukraine, Putin has absorbed Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.) Russia’s top general announced last month that “The Defense Ministry will focus its efforts on increasing the combat capabilities of its units and increasing combat strength…in Crimea, the Kaliningrad region and the Arctic.” Importantly, Kaliningrad borders Poland and Lithuania.
Moreover, Putin has reopened military bases to bolster outsized Arctic claims, violated the INF Treaty, and tripled the number of Russian incursions into NATO airspace. Of particular concern to Americans, the Russian defense minister blustered in November that Moscow, apparently nostalgic for the bad old days of the Cold War, will deploy long-range bombers “to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.”
Although Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army, Russia has increased military spending 108 percent since 2004. Putin has unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes and 28 new submarines in the next 10 years. Putin’s army clearly retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It’s not unthinkable that the Baltics could be next. As Putin himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.” Lithuania is taking Putin at his word: A new emergency-response manual aims to “to gird citizens for the possibility of invasion, occupation and armed conflict,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.
Hoping to thwart Putin from moving further west, NATO’s political leaders have declared “continuing and unwavering commitment to defend the populations, territory, sovereignty” of the alliance; authorized deployment of military assets on a “rotational basis” in NATO’s east; and called on each NATO member to invest two percent of GDP in defense “within a decade.”
NATO’s leaders agree Russia’s actions in Ukraine have “fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace,” and they recognize that they must “display the political will to provide required capabilities and deploy forces when they are needed.”
In short, NATO has had no trouble speaking up since Putin began his salami-slice conquest of Ukraine. But overcoming Putinism requires more than words.
Take the two-percent-of-GDP commitment. That’s a step in the right direction, but NATO headquarters has been begging members to spend two percent on defense for years. Yet only four of NATO’s 28 members—the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia—meet that standard today. If we remove U.S. defense spending from the picture, NATO nations spend an average of 1.3 percent of GDP on defense.
Now more than any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO must devote adequate resources to deterrence. NATO’s mission is to keep the peace by deterring Moscow. That’s why it was formed in 1949, and why it survived after 1989. Yet years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to the British government.
Defense budgets are flat-lined or falling across the alliance: in France from 2.3 percent of GDP in 2005 to 1.9 percent, Germany 1.4 percent to 1.3 percent, Italy 1.4 percent to 1.2 percent, the Netherlands 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent, Turkey 2.1 percent to 1.8 percent, Britain 2.6 percent to 2.4 percent, Canada 1.4 percent to 1 percent, the United States 4.7 percent to 3.2 percent—headed for just 2.3 by 2022.
If NATO’s deterrence mission is to succeed today, each ally needs to lift its defense budget to the two-percent standard—and sooner rather than later. The political and military impact of the two-percent commitment is diluted by the 10-year timeframe. Washington should lead by example by reversing sequestration’s devastating cuts.
“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defense spending,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg soberly observes. “But we do not live in peaceful times.”
That much is abundantly clear, and the blame for the shift from cooperation to confrontation to conflict rests with Putin. Putin’s apologists argue that Moscow is reacting to NATO’s eastward expansion. However, NATO expands via consent and cooperation—not coercion. And NATO, unlike Putin, never has annexed a country.
Putin’s repeated acts of aggression explain why NATO is finally standing up to Putin’s bullying, though the results so far are mixed.
For instance, when Ukraine’s outgunned army asked the United States for defensive equipment, Washington sent MREs and nonlethal aid. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.” He’s right. Ukraine cannot be defended—and Putin cannot be deterred—by MREs.
France’s decision to delay indefinitely the sale of two amphibious-assault ships to Russia may not have been a profile in courage—after all, selling arms to an enemy in a time of conflict is the very definition of self-defeating—but it was a sacrifice. Voiding the deal costs at least $1.6 billion.
NATO’s return to high-intensity, full-spectrum exercises is further evidence that the alliance has realized it must act now to prevent a more direct challenge. Already, NATO has increased the number and tempo of exercises, with plans for a 25,000-man exercise this year and a commitment to a “broader and more demanding exercise program from 2016 onwards.”
NATO’s decision to increase deployments in Eastern Europe is a step in the right direction. NATO plans to build a “chain” of command centers in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
In the wake of Crimea, the U.S. has sent small units (battalion-size or smaller) to Eastern Europe for show-the-flag deployments, and there are plans to shift 3,000 U.S. troops to Europe. But NATO emphasizes that such deployments are “rotational.” When Putin and his tiny Baltic neighbors hear that word, they think temporary, perhaps expendable.
If Putin’s goal is to reclaim territory and prestige Moscow lost when the USSR collapsed, then it stands to reason the Baltics would be in his crosshairs. Neutralizing NATO would be a means to that end. Perhaps Abkhazia, Crimea and Donetsk are, for Putin, low-risk testing grounds for this strategy.
The best way to deter Putin and to show Poland and the Baltics that NATO’s all-for-one treaty commitments are as valid for them as they are for NATO’s founding members—and as valid today as they were during the Cold War—is to base permanent, heavy, defensive assets where they are most needed: on the territory of NATO’s most-at-risk members. That’s what the alliance did during the Cold War, and it kept the peace—as it will today. The goal here is not to start a war but quite the opposite: to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
NATO membership comes with a security guarantee backed by the United States. Without that guarantee, there is no security in Europe, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine and Georgia. In other words, NATO’s deterrent capability in the Baltics has to be credible. If not, Putin will challenge NATO directly, forcing the alliance either to blink or fire back. Neither of those alternatives leads to a happy outcome.
Well-meaning observers argue that deploying permanent units in Eastern Europe is prohibited by agreements made after the Cold War. But NATO itself noted during its 2014 summit that “Russia has breached its commitments” to a number of post-Cold War treaties. There can be no treaty or agreement where only one party follows the rules.
In addition, critics of a more robust commitment to NATO’s easternmost members worry about the remote location of the Baltics and strategic-depth issues. There are two answers to this line of concern.
First, few places were less defendable than West Berlin during the Cold War, which was literally surrounded by Soviet bloc armies. Yet despite the order-of-battle imbalance, the United States and NATO maintained forces in that remote outpost of freedom and faced down the Red Army.
Second, strategic-depth and resupply issues were a concern for NATO even when NATO’s footprint was much smaller and capabilities much greater. Because of its size and geographic placement, Russia will always have the ability to throw its weight around in Eastern Europe in ways America cannot, which is why credible military deterrence is so important. Until Russia is fully liberalized and fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community—which won’t happen as long as Putin is in charge—Europe will be wary of Russia, NATO will have a mission, and America will have an indispensable role in Europe.