European Affairs

Perspectives: Misreading Putin: New Concerns from NATO and the British House of Lords     Print Email
By John Barry, Former Defense and National Security Correspondent at Newsweek Magazine

johnbarryThrough the past year, German Chancellor Merkel and President Obama – architects of the West’s responses in Ukraine -- were united in choosing to see Putin’s actions as less threatening, his ambitions less expansive.  That was the bedrock of their partnership on the issue.  Ukraine was a discrete problem, of no more than regional significance, amenable to a political settlement, not to be escalated. 

But Europe finds itself now facing a potential confrontation so freighted with risk that NATO’s deputy military commander warned two weeks ago that “the threat from Russia, together with the risk it brings of miscalculation resulting in a slide into strategic conflict, however remote we see that as being right now, represents an obvious existential threat to our whole being…”

General Sir Adrian Bradshaw even laid out what the military see as Putin’s likeliest challenge:  “Russia might believe that the large-scale conventional forces she has shown she can generate at very short notice -- as we saw in the snap exercises that preceded the takeover of Crimea -- could in future not only be used for intimidation and coercion, but to seize NATO territory.”  

"Escalation Dominance"

And if Putin did that?   “After which the threat of escalation might be used to prevent re-establishment of territorial integrity.  The use of so-called ‘escalation dominance’ was, of course, a classic Soviet technique”.    (That’s true.  Moscow threatened it if the West intervened in Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, Warsaw in 1981-82.)       

Bradshaw was addressing the most venerable military think-tank in London (indeed, the world).  The Royal United Services Institution (founded in 1832 by the great Wellington, victor over Napoleon) looms majestically in Whitehall opposite those tourist-magnets, the picturesque sentries notionally guarding the cobbled entryway to Horse Guards Parade.  RUSI’s venerable pedigree might invite suggestion that Bradshaw was merely some general sounding off to a dozing gathering of retired military.   Not so. RUSI is far from an old buffers’ club; and Bradshaw’s text would have been cleared through multiple levels in NATO:  certainly Brussels, certainly London, almost certainly Washington.  Word of his upcoming address was publicized.  Finally, that Bradshaw, a Brit, sounded the alarm rather than his superior, NATO SACEUR Gen. Philip Breedlove, an American, is unlikely to have been an accident.  Throughout the crisis, President Obama has sought to avoid turning it into a Washington-v.-Moscow duel.

Nobody can doubt what Bradshaw was referring to:  the threat of a Russian surprise assault on one or more of the three small Baltics states --- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania --- on its north-west frontier.   Only a day before Bradshaw’s ‘breakfast briefing’, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon warned that Putin represents “a real and present danger” to the Baltic nations.  “I’m worried about Putin,” Fallon told a gaggle of reporters flying him on a foreign trip.  “I’m worried about his pressure on the Baltics, the way he is testing NATO.”

Putin’s “geopolitical catastrophe”

Why Putin’s eyes are on the Baltics is not hard to grasp.  All were annexed by the Soviet Union in World War Two.  All were liberated by what Putin has termed the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the Soviet disintegration.   All are now NATO members: the only NATO members directly bordering Russia --- a propinquity Putin has consistently declared an unacceptable security threat.

Speculatively, his most potent motivation to act is to re-assert Russian dominance over eastern Europe.  Putin needs to demonstrate that NATO is a paper tiger, an alliance toothless when it matters.   How better than a no-notice invasion of the Baltics, followed by threats of nuclear war if NATO were to dispatch forces to drive back the Russian divisions?

That was General Bradshaw’s message.  Putin’s potential threat to the Baltics has been a preoccupation of NATO since last fall.  A beefed-up force of NATO aircraft fly a ‘Baltic Air Patrol’.  At least one NATO attack submarine lurks in the Baltic.  The Scandinavians across the way have stepped up their surveillance of Russian naval movements.   Contingents of American troops exercise in the Balts as a “permanent rotational presence”.  Vastly increased monitoring -- satellite and electronic --- seeks to keeps track of military preparations across the border in Russia’s Western Military District.  (Headquartered in St Petersburg, the WMD has responsibility for action in the Baltic.)

Broader steps by NATO are in train.  Small contingents of NATO troops are to be stationed in every vulnerable east European state. “Force integration units” they will be called.  Their immediate mission will actually be as eyes-and-ears on the ground, though another function will indeed be to prepare local facilities and units for the urgent arrival of another NATO response: a new brigade-size “rapid reaction force”.  That’s to be based somewhere in eastern Europe, able to respond to a Russian attack within 48 hours.

This new force won’t be up-and-running until 2017, though.  Right now, 2017 looks a very long way off.

 Between now and then, what gamble might Putin decide to take?    Are the fears of NATO’s military commanders, as broadcast by Bradshaw, plausible?   The prudent answer has to be: Yes.  At every yes/no turning point in the unfolding Ukraine crisis, Putin has doubled down. 

A couple of Russia’s combined-arms artillery/armor/SAM divisions could drive to the Baltic coast in less than 48 hours.  That was the outcome of NATO table-top war-games played through 2003-2004.  The only significant constraint on Russian forces was how many casualties they were prepared to inflict, how much damage they were willing to visit upon the Baltics’ historic capitals.

That would be open warfare, though.   A more pressing concern is that Putin would select subtler means.   An assault on the Baltics would surely employ the ‘hybrid warfare’ he practiced so successfully in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine.  The progression is clear enough:  Fomenting “unrest” by the Baltics local populations of Russians (sizeable in Estonia, dominant in its north); broadcasting of grievances; accusations of repression; GRU operatives quietly inserted to coordinate local “resistance”; acts of sabotage; explosions; passionate demonstrations by rival factions:  all culminating in the sudden appearance of “little green men” dressed uniformly, toting weaponry they clearly know how to handle, but without identifying insignia.  Putin would blandly deny, as he did a year ago, that these were Russian special forces.  

 A rerun of Crimea, in sum.  Followed, as then, by the swift insertion of Russian conventional forces --- tanks, rocket artillery, tracked SAM batteries --- all argued as necessary to protect ostensibly endangered Russians.  Or even as peacekeepers, yet.   (Russia, ignoring agreements it signed, retains some 1200 troops in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway eastern slice of Moldova, the nation just to the west of Ukraine. They are “peace-keepers”.) 

Bradshaw clearly had this ‘hybrid war’ scenario in mind when he pointed to “the difficulty of identifying clearly the hand of a hostile state government in the subversive destabilizing effects they bring to bear in the early stages of such a strategy”.

Faced with a Russian fait accompli in one or more of the Baltic states --- each has its particular vulnerabilities to ‘hybrid war’ tactics -- would NATO governments really ignore Russian threats of escalation if NATO responded?    Bradshaw – aka NATO’s military leaders --- clearly fears that they would not.

Precautions in Belarus

As a step towards an insurance policy, of course, NATO might usefully encourage the Baltics to follow Belarus.  Its president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was so alarmed by the success of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’ against Crimea that, as of February 1, Belarus has enshrined in law a new military doctrine.   The appearance on Belarusian soil of foreign military personnel, even if they do not wear uniforms or identifying badges, will now be considered an attack threatening the sovereignty of the nation.   Even the massing on Belarus’ borders of forces with any indication of hostile intent will now suffice to trigger martial law and the mobilization of its defense forces.  Lukashenko is a wily old pol: he knows Putin up close, and he isn’t disposed to take chances.

How did we get into this mess?

As the crisis unfolded from February last year, Senator John McCain was the earliest political heavy in Washington to point to Putin’s overarching goal.   Even as Russian special forces were moving to take over Crimea just a year ago, McCain told TIME:  “Putin wants to restore the Russian empire.  That’s his ambition.  He’s stated it many times.  Therefore no one should be surprised.   I predicted it, and I’m not a genius.  But I know Putin.”

House of Lords Committee Report

McCain was correct.   A long (123-page), meticulous, exhaustive  -- and ultimately scathing --- report was published recently in London. Titled “The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine”, it’s the work of a committee of the upper chamber of the British Parliament charged with monitoring EU affairs.

It is, to date, the most comprehensive inquiry into the Ukraine crisis.  The committee took evidence from more than fifty witnesses, Russians officials and non-official experts among them.  Many witnesses had been participants in the events they described.

The inquiry’s basic conclusion was that Europe’s attitudes towards Russia over the past decade, especially, have exhibited “a strong element of ‘sleep-walking’ into the current crisis”.    Primary cause, the committee said, was a “catastrophic misreading” of President Putin’s intentions.  Behind that, however, lay the “optimistic premise that Russia has been on a trajectory towards becoming a democratic ‘European’ country.”  This, the committee says, “has not been the case”:  Europeans “have been slow to reappraise the relationship and to adapt to the realities of the Russia we have today”.
 
The parliamentarians tackled head-on the issue of differing European views on Russia.   As one of their expert witnesses put it, Russia has “always been one of the most divisive issues” in Europe, with states “holding different visions of their relations with Russia and pursuing their own business interests”.   Another witness, a former British ambassador in Moscow, viewed Europe’s attitudes towards Russia as a spectrum.  At one end “Germany and Italy have huge economic stakes in a good relationship with Russia”; at the other end “Estonia and Poland are deeply suspicious of a resurgent Russia.”

Energy was obviously a factor.  Over the last decade, one witness claimed, Russia has “exploited [EU] member states’ vulnerabilities  stemming from Europe’s dependency on Russia’s oil and particularly gas exports.”

The most comprehensive analysis came from Dr. Lila Shevtsova, at the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow outpost.   She “suggested that Russia had ‘proved tremendously and very able and deft in dividing Europe’,” the committee recorded.  In Shevtsova’s view “Russia had pursued bilateral relations with different ‘tiers’ of EU member states.  Tier one included Germany, France and the United Kingdom, while tier two comprised the Mediterranean countries.  The third tier was made up of the ‘Trojan horses’ – weaker states that could ‘easily be subjugated and harassed’.”
   
These divisions -- or so Britain’s Minister for Europe, David Lidington, claimed – “contributed to our strategic European approach to Russia not being as strong as I would like it to be.”

What does their report pinpoint as the trigger of the crisis?   Europe’s failure to grasp just how important Ukraine is to Putin (and to the Russian people);  how threatening he found Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ through the 2004-2005 New Year, when massive civic action forced a re-run of presidential elections;  how he regarded as further proof of western conspiracy last year’s Maidan revolt when street demonstrations swelled into a revolt that brought down a pro-Russian president.  That his successor, President Poroshenko, then signed Ukraine’s ‘’association agreement” with the European Community – the ousted leader’s last-minute rejection of this having triggered the Maidan revolt -- Putin took as proof of western conspiracy.  (A detail not in the report: a document leaked to one of the few remaining independent Moscow newspapers quotes one of Putin’s oligarch cronies advising him that Maidan was the work of the Polish and British secret services.)
In characterizing as “sleep-walking” Europe’s failure to respond to a decade of Russia’s increasingly evident turning away from the West, the report --- as its literate authors will undoubtedly have known -- evokes a ground-breaking study Cambridge history professor Chris Clark published in 2012.  In “The Sleepwalkers” Clark amasses a swathe of evidence to argue that the catastrophe of World War One was set in motion not by anything so simple as one nation’s desire for conquest; rather, because none of the great European powers adequately evaluated -- even recognized -- the threat that other powers would perceive in their actions.
 
That‘s the take-away from the British parliamentarians’ comprehensively researched analysis.   Europe --- their critique implicitly applies to America too --- failed utterly to grasp the importance Putin attached to Ukraine.   An importance that Russian history explains, and to an extent justifies.
  
More generally, the West failed to take on board Russia’s post-Soviet embrace of a nationalist/religious historic identity very distinct from Europe’s.   Most commentators have chosen to see Putin as leading this shift.  The report sees him responding to it.   A former British ambassador in Moscow told the committee that Putin had delivered a “feeling of national pride and self-confidence”, which the Russians regarded as “part of the birthright”.     He added:  “Putin is the President the Russians like.”
  
The parliamentarians excoriate multiple political failures.  Structurally, the committee criticizes the lack of political input, let alone control, on multiple questions of how the European Commission bureaucrats handled relations with Russia. Which they did, in the committee’s view, so unimaginatively and myopically as to explain why “bureaucracy” is a term of abuse.
    
The committee pointed also to “a loss of collective analytical capacity [which] has weakened member states’ ability to read the political shifts in Russia…”   Well, yes.  European capitals  (and Washington) have indeed allowed over twenty years “a loss of collective analytical capacity” in Russian affairs in their foreign and intelligence services.  (The CIA’s Russia desk is a shadow of its Cold War self, both in numbers and accumulated expertise.  Electronics pick up clues and fragments.  But coherent information about Putin and his shrinking circle of advisers comes now overwhelmingly from Moscow insider-gossip harvested by Russian oligarchs in exile in the West, mostly London or Switzerland.  International bankers are the main secondary source.)
 
The underlying notion here is that expert analysis was needed to recognize Putin’s revanchist ambitions.   That’s baffling.   As a legendary British politician once remarked of his opposing party’s intentions:  “Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?”

Russia and the WTO

To borrow a phrase from kindergarten, Putin’s Russia doesn’t play well with others.  This seems to be true across the board.   Take the World Trade Organization, the body with the task of coordinating  --- and if possible liberalizing --- the terms on which nations trade with each other.   It took 19 years of negotiation before Russia was finally admitted to the WTO in August 2012.   The outcome so far has not been a happy one.  One expert witness told the British parliamentarians that Russia was “recklessly arrogant and in breach of WTO standards”; another testified that he “had never seen, after a recent accession, a member being in such breach with the WTO rules”.
 
As the Ukraine crisis gathered momentum, Sen. McCain was the first political leader to point out that Putin, far from cloaking his ambitions, has made no secret of them for years.   Nobody wanted to listen to McCain, just as they chose to ignore Putin’s actions.   The upshot, the British parliamentarians concluded, is that European nations now “face a strategic question of whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today”.  
 
What we confront is an abject failure of political will far outweighing any incapacities of Western intelligence analysis.   So serious has this failure been that it’s worth examining frankly.   What lessons should we learn from this?   What other foreign policy challenges are we choosing to ignore because to act upon them is too difficult, too unwelcome, too disturbing to comfortable ways of thought?