Europe is facing its gravest security crisis not just since the end of the cold war, but the height of it. The tussles over obscure towns in eastern Ukraine are a harbinger of a catastrophe that could destroy the post-1991 European security order and the safety and prosperity which rest on it. The crisis is all the graver because the Western response has been so timid and confused.
On the surface, the West is responding to Russia’s behavior with a judicious mix of sanctions, diplomacy, and military preparedness. But this is pretense. In truth, we are not ready to take serious steps to punish the Putin regime for its land-grabs and subversion. Our fragile economic recovery matters more. Our big companies – notoriously BP in Britain – suck on the teat of Russian contracts and investments. If their profits go, so too do our pensions. These companies and their hangers-on are already bleating before Russia has even begun to apply counter-measures to the West’s limited sanctions. When Moscow does strike back, the howls will echo from skyscraper to skyscraper – and to chancellery after chancellery.
Greed is part of the problem. Cowardice and ignorance are another. Public opinion in most of the West is now neutralist. French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards and others have no desire to shed blood and treasure in a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, or even over the Baltic states. Nor do war-weary Americans. It is a sign of the times that Canada – a diplomatic byword for calm, non-confrontational security policy – is now one of the few hawks on Russia.
Political leaders will continue to pretend to be cross. They will dress their inaction in diplomatic process: in meetings, contact groups, road maps and ministerial councils. Russia will play along. It enjoys taunting the West, by signing up to deals, flaunting them and daring us to do something about it. Each time it happens, our credibility ebbs further.
Western institutions are buckling under the strain. NATO wants to do its job – to ensure the territorial defense of its most vulnerable members. But the politicians will not let it. They will not commit the troops needed to make deterrence credible. Even the modest reinforcements made so far have been bogged down in farcical squabbles about the timing and tone of the announcements. I am sure the Kremlin appreciates the nuanced difference between a statement actually issued on the White House website, and one e-mailed to journalists in answer to a query.
For the countries which are serious about defense, a mood of bleak realism is setting in. Poland in particular – the defense heavyweight of the region – is coming to terms with the failure of its top diplomatic priority in recent years: the wooing of Germany. To be fair, Polish-German relations are now the warmest in history. On EU issues, Warsaw is at the heart of decision-making. But on the crucial issue of hard security, Germany has shown that it cannot be trusted. Angela Merkel’s heart is in the right place, but German voters loathe the idea of a military confrontation with Russia. That might change if Germany’s vital interests were at stake. But they are not (Mr. Putin might be nasty, but he is not stupid). A secure, stable, prosperous united Ukraine matters far more in Warsaw than it does in Berlin. The Baltic States may be only a secondary concern for Poland – but they are a tertiary one, if that, for Germany.
Poland is also pushing hard for stronger Visegrád cooperation. But its allies do not inspire confidence. They spend nothing serious on defense. They do not see the threat. And they have other interests. Hungary, ominously, is taking its own path by showing understanding for Russia and impatience with the ever-critical West. Slovakia’s government does the minimum needed to show willingness on issues such as “reverse flow” – exporting gas to Ukraine backwards along the existing export pipelines. But Russian influence runs deep there, as it does in the Czech Republic, which yet again is under a government of questionable integrity and ability.
The immediate danger is that Poland loses enthusiasm for collective defense. It has been disappointed by America, Germany and its Central European allies; by two out of its three Baltic neighbors (Estonia is a shining exception); and by Sweden, which remains criminally irresponsible about its role in regional security.
It would not be surprising, therefore, if Poland follows other countries’ examples by paying lip-service to NATO, while putting its own security first. In a crisis, what is the virtue of deploying the most modern and mobile units of the Polish army to the Baltic States – an indefensible strip of territory where they can be isolated and unable to defend the homeland? In theory the argument is that Poland’s own defense will in turn be secured by large numbers of troops from allied countries, including the United States. Fine on paper -- but what happens if they don’t come?
Against this bleak background, policymakers need to move urgently to stop the unraveling of NATO. In an ideal world, the most powerful measure would be tough sanctions on Russia, with prudent precautions against any retaliation. Room for maneuver on this front, however, is limited.
Assuming that Russia is not deterred economically, then it must be deterred through security policy. Military deployments are part of this. Regardless of any eventual move in Sweden and Finland toward NATO membership, defense planners should be working hard on interoperability, joint exercises, prepositioning of fuel and munitions, air and sea surveillance, intelligence and counter-intelligence co-operation and more besides.
Russia’s clear military aim in the region is to make it impossible for NATO to reinforce the Baltic States in a crisis. That can be countered first by making sure that the Baltic States are reinforced now - not by token companies of temporarily deployed American soldiers but by all the kinds of land, sea and air forces needed to slow down a Russian invasion. Second, NATO needs to make sure that Russia’s area-denial weapons are countered. The alliance must be sure that in a crisis it has complete mastery of airspace and the sea. Given the strength of Russian air defenses, that is not a trivial task. But the alternative is defeat. It is also worth noting that in the event of aggression against NATO, Russia lays itself open to attack elsewhere. It would be well worth conducting some exercises in the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Black Sea to drive this point home.
But the big danger is not a full-scale military assault on the Baltic States or Poland, but that Russia creates conditions which render that unnecessary. The lesson of Ukraine is that Russia wages a new kind of warfare, where the target is not the enemy’s military muscle but his will power. An excellent new paper
by Latvian defense analyst Jānis Bērziņš highlights the way in which Russia tilts the odds in its favor through propaganda, intimidation, economic pressure, bribery, subversion and diplomacy until the adversary feels so confused and hopeless that they are unable to resist.
It is on this front that the greatest efforts are needed. Europe’s multilateral, rule-based and Atlanticist future will not be won or lost in Brussels or Washington. It will perish in depressed small towns, depopulated villages and grim housing projects in big cities in the Baltic States. They will be among those who fall victim to the frenzied scaremongering of Russian information-warfare. It will founder because demoralized officials have lost faith in their countries’ eventual convergence with European standards of prosperity and public administration. It will be sacrificed in sleazy deal-making in industries such as energy and transit by tycoon-politicians who cherish their business ties with Russia more than their country’s national interests.
Avoiding that is well beyond NATO’s remit but it can help partly by showing a robust physical presence to counter any idea that defeat is inevitable and also by reviving strategic communications and information-warfare to shore up morale (and even perhaps to launch some counter-attacks). The EU can do a lot more to bolster public services, infrastructure and living standards in the places most vulnerable to Russian mischief-making. Just imagine how useful it would have been had we spent a few billion dollars doing that in eastern Ukraine in recent years. But national morale is primarily the responsibility of national governments. As we have seen in Ukraine they can also easily fall, or be pushed, into a death-spiral of incompetence and unpopularity.
The gloom and doom gives a solid agenda for NATO’s summit in the fall. But Vladimir Putin does not work to the NATO calendar, but on Moscow time. His clocks tick fast and menacingly. Decisions at Cardiff, however good, may be too late.