Playing Smart With Russia’s Dangers to NATO

Russia expert Dr. Mark Galeotti published an article last Wednesday in which he seeks to calm down a Western foreign policy community anxious over the challenges that Russia poses to Western security through so-called “hybrid warfare.”

Russian hybrid warfare, as demonstrated by the past two years of Russian military action, uses a combination of media subterfuge and manipulation, special forces missions, and “volunteer” armed units unmistakably trained, armed, and commanded by Russia. These tactics have allowed Russia to achieve battlefield victories while using trappings of plausible deniability of Russian involvement to confuse, obstruct, and delay the adversary’s response. Dr. Galeotti argues against over-reaction to the possibility of Russia launching such operations against Baltic NATO allies, both because Russia has no clear interest in doing so and because the West has many non-military means of retaliating against Russian military aggression.

Dr. Galeotti lectured for a special colloquium on Russia in December 2014 during my final year at Tufts University, and he quickly became one of my favorite experts for his measured, insightful reading of Russia’s geopolitical and intelligence tea leaves. Dr. Galeotti consistently offers a sober appraisal of the unsavory characters in the Russian security state while also being an essential voice of restraint in a notoriously excitable policy community. However, I have some fundamental disagreements with his latest article.

The central worry about Russian military ambitions in the Baltics is not that Russia is likely to realize our fears of hybrid warfare in Latvia or Estonia. Rather, it is that Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical calculus is very strongly linked to his domestic political situation and that Russia’s President goes hunting abroad when (to paraphrase my mentor and former boss, Dr. Leon Aron) he needs to bring back satisfying red meat for the Russian population at home. Domestic developments in Russia may, in the coming years, turn the Kremlin very suddenly and unpredictably hungry. With the Euro-Atlantic order already under such serious strain, and with such serious concerns about NATO’s viability as a mutual defense organization laid bare in the past few years, Putin might see the ‘liberation’ some of the ethnic Russian populations in Estonia and/or Latvia as a critical opportunity to slake the homefront’s hunger for a purpose to their suffering. While this move makes no geopolitical sense now, it very well may to a Kremlin several years (or even months) from now seeking to stave off its doom with a quick, galvanizing foreign policy win.

After several years of productive, amicable engagement between Russia and the West during the period of President Obama’s “reset” of US-Russian relations, Vladimir Putin and United Russia faced a terrible scare during the 2011-2012 election season. Despite friendly vote-rigging and corruption, United Russia failed to win an absolute majority in the 2011 State Duma elections. Worse still, almost half the vote went against Putin in the 2012 presidential election despite an utter lack of viable opposition candidates. The election season saw the largest street protests since the 1993 Constitutional Crisis and spurred the greatest ever organized opposition against Putin.

Free Russia Foundation THINK TANK lavrov

As explained by former Ambassador Michael McFaul and prominent Russia scholar Stephen Sestanovich, the Kremlin responded to this episode by charging into a clash of civilizations of its own design against the West. This campaign blames Russia’s stagnating (now deteriorating) living standards, endemic and overwhelming corruption, and repressive police state on unsubstantiated American conspiracies of subversion and sabotage. It spawned Russia’s “foreign agent” and “undesirable organizations” laws that cripple and criminalize the liberal NGOs which were indispensable facilitators of bilateral engagement and opportunity for young Russians, as well as guardians of Russian conscience and historical memory.  It drove the 2013 “gay propaganda” law which cast LGBT people as agents of seditious Western decadence wrecking the moral fiber and patriotic piety (and perhaps the precious bodily fluids?) of Russia’s youth, unleashing a wave of violent homophobia across the Russian-speaking world. More critically, it is behind Russia’s armed annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbass; themselves set to a chorus of virulent hostility and (generally) libelous characterization of the Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution and its adherents. The Kremlin distributed these succulent cuts of xenophobia, militancy, and jingoism to shore up support and pride in an otherwise hopelessly kleptocratic and incompetent government, to ensure that Russians place blame for their troubles on pernicious Americans and decadent Europeans instead of their own authorities, and to satisfy the bloodlust of the robust, well-organized, and now combat-hardened (after doing much of the fighting for the pro-Russian side in Ukraine) far-right Russian nationalist crowd (which played a prominent part in the 2012 electoral protests and poses a considerable threat to the unity of the multinational, multiconfessional Russia which Moscow tries to hold together).

The Kremlin’s appetite for red meat from abroad is erratic and mercurial. Over the past two years, Putin’s hunting expeditions—in Crimea, in Donbass, and in Syria—have caught the Western political leadership and foreign policy commentariat unprepared and scrambling to react.

The West can indeed retaliate against Russia through non-military means, and Dr. Galeotti’s article enumerates the most effective ways to do so. Blocking Russia from SWIFT and seizing the ill-gotten, Western-based riches of Russian oligarchs would seriously hurt the Russian government and its clan chieftains while cyber attacks on critical electronic infrastructure and pushing other countries to block trade with Russia would inflict far more widespread pain. However, Dr. Galeotti himself explained in his Tufts lecture how Putin has dramatically narrowed the circle of oligarchs and strongmen whose grievances and interests have his ear, and that Putin holds sufficient leverage over his oligarch enablers to force them to endure whatever pain Western sanctions might inflict. Dr. Galeotti dismisses “[t]he old stereotypes of the fatalistic Russian peasant willing to endure any hardship for the motherland,” but I am unconvinced. Russians have suffered through worse for the sake of geopolitical combat and regime survival before, and Putin has laid a police state infrastructure well-equipped to coerce Russians’ obedience through the pain. Indeed, the idea of Russians as the Christ-people on history’s cross being led to victorious redemption by a benevolent autocrat against the evil, godless foreigner is one of the defining tropes of Russia’s national mythology and political identity.

But suppose non-military retaliation does force the Kremlin into disgraceful retreat (while facing severe, destabilizing repercussions at home), or squeezes it straight into collapse. What then? Do we face an aftermath in which our NATO allies must recover from the terrible toll of a Russian assault and the political divisions wrought by Russian separatist agitation? Do we reckon with a collapsing (or at least panicking) Russia? Do we take another chance at coping with a crumbling nuclear-armed state while having far less command of global security than we did last time in the 1990s? Are these, too, not terrifying prospects?

Dr. Galeotti rightly counsels us against panic over Russian hybrid warfare threats. We must not over-commit resources, attention, and anxiety at the cost of neglecting more grave and proximate security challenges, and certainly not at the cost of the freedom and liberal democracy that define the goals of the Euro-Atlantic order in the first place. But as Russia expert Robert Legvold explained in October 2014 (lecturing the same class as Dr. Galeotti), the US must make clear to the Kremlin that there is no winnable military option against NATO. Putin must know that however desperate he and his posse become for crowd-pleasing morsels of military victory, he will find no quick salvation on the battlefield against NATO. This strategy requires a NATO presence in Eastern Europe with the armor, artillery, air support, and logistics to rapidly and seriously respond to a Russian attack or hybrid operation. Making these provisions is not a sign of panic, but an essential investment in deterrence that will impede the Kremlin’s distant (but still worryingly open) paths towards war. It significantly diminishes the likelihood of having to deal either with defeat by Russia or with a defeated Russia, and it puts us in a far better position to clean up the geopolitical mess in the still-plausible event that Putin decides to go hunting in Europe and Russia’s shared backyard.

While I usually don’t trust Russia Insider, (it is shamelessly pro-Kremlin and financially backed by a pro-Kremlin oligarch), a recent article of theirs compellingly argues that the American missile cruiser buzzed by Russian aircraft a few weeks ago was engaged in long-range reconnaissance of Russian coastal defenses in Kaliningrad. I see this as a good thing. The US is making clear that it is willing (and, most of all, prepared) to go toe-to-toe with all of Russia’s local military resources should Vladimir Vladimirovich come knocking with tanks and little green men in a NATO country.

check other materials