When will Vladimir Putin come to his senses? That is the big question among policy-makers and officials in Western capitals. They simply cannot make sense of the Russian tactic of sending warplanes, submarines and ships to probe and provoke neighboring countries. Surely Russia realizes that the Cold War is over? Surely Russia realizes that it is in no shape to mount a full-scale military confrontation with the West? Surely Russia realizes that this sort of behavior is counter-productive. Nothing is more likely to make Western countries raise their defense spending, or to persuade Finns and Swedes that they need closer ties with NATO?
I spend a lot of time talking such officials. Their puzzlement exemplifies the difficulty Westerners have in dealing with the Chekist mind-set and why we have been losing to Russia. Mr. Putin is not out of his mind. He just thinks differently to us. He works from different assumptions, with different information and with different priorities. These are not secret – they are displayed for all to see in his answers to questions at his big set-piece press conferences, interviews and phone-ins.
His approach was on display on Thursday at his annual set-piece press conference. Russia’s economic difficulties are temporary. There may be some painful times ahead, but the Russian people will withstand them – they have endured much worse in the past. The real weakness is in the arrogant, hypocritical West.
Once you think yourself into Mr. Putin’s head (not a very pleasant experience, but well worth doing) you can see why he is doing these things. He thinks that NATO and the West generally is menacing Russia. We want regime change. Fine, well he will menace us. He knows that we do not have a stomach for a real fight. We may be stronger in absolute economic terms, but he has stronger will power. A small man who is willing to fight can intimidate a much larger adversary who is scared of being punched.
We are that larger but somewhat cowardly man. Our politicians do not want a military confrontation with Russia – indeed in some countries they explicitly rule it out. They believe, with religious conviction, that dialogue is the way forward. If we have a difference with Russia, then we should sit down and talk about it. After all we are neighbors. Sweden’s foreign minister believes that the answer to problems is a “feminist” foreign policy. Men cause rows. Women sort them out. Poland’s Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz seems to think the same. Russia does not need to fear that the West is going to provide a firm, decisive and united military response to the provocations. If that did happen, Russia would then complain that the West was engaged in outrageous militarization and that its own arms spending was entirely justified.
So the intrusions into our air space have numerous advantages for the Putin regime. They create a major psychological problem for the West. We refuse to believe what we experience, because it does not fit into our framework of analysis. If Russia is trying to confront us, then the answer must be more dialogue, not resistance. So the pressure grows in some countries for a deal over Ukraine: the authorities in Kyiv must forswear any aim to join NATO, and if they will not do that, then NATO must tell them firmly that there is no prospect of membership. That would be a huge strategic victory for Russia. It is also quite a good return on a bit of jet fuel.
The incursions are first and foremost an expression of presence. They show that Russia is back and needs to be taken seriously. Western countries such as Denmark, which assumed that territorial defense went out with the end of the cold war, are hurriedly rethinking their assumptions. It is the same thinking as a badly behaved schoolboy flicking ink pellets at the teacher in order to provoke a reaction, or a local hoodlum, who likes to see people hurrying inside and locking their doors when he swaggers down the street.
Reconfiguring national defense is costly and controversial. Some policymakers are aware of the threat. Others are not. Russia’s propaganda machine claims that the real fault is Western military presence in the Baltic States. Russia is just responding, mildly and belatedly, to an unconscionable escalation on its borders.
The incursions are a good way of wearing Western nerves too. Exactly what level of provocation gets the adversary into the air? Scrambling fighter jets is expensive in fuel and in the effects on the munitions that the planes carry. From a purely military point of view, the incursions are also useful. They provide data about Western reaction times and capabilities. How fast can the other side scramble. What decision-making process happens first? Electronic intelligence collection boosts the harvest too; it is interesting to see what happens on the airwaves.
Russia also sees benefits in highlighting NATO’s military weakness. The mighty American armed forces, and the strategic nuclear arsenal, do indeed hugely outweigh anything Russia can deploy. But America is overstretched, distracted and also irritated by European refusal to carry a fair share of the defense burden. Is the United States really willing to risk World War Three to protect the Baltic States? Probably. But also, perhaps not. And anything Russia can do to sow doubt about that opens the way to a great strategic prize, of ending the Atlantic alliance and restoring a soft regional hegemony.
Against that background, probing European countries’ airspace makes a lot of sense. During the Cold War, peaceniks in the West used to “better red than dead.” Ultimately they did not want to risk nuclear obliteration in order to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Now the question to the Westerners is a bit more complicated. Russia is showing that it has real military forces, including nuclear weapons, advanced precision munitions, planes, ships and subs with stealth capabilities, and much more besides. They are in the right place, well-drilled and battle-ready. Are you really willing to spend a lot of money, and risk a serious military confrontation, in order to preserve the credibility of NATO? That is the question Russia is posing with its military stunts and provocations. And I do not know what our answer is.