If Conflict Comes to Europe, America Should Go "Covert"

A plan of action if the worst-case scenario in Eastern Europe unfolds.

Russian actions in Crimea—and possibly soon in eastern Ukraine—point to Moscow returning in force to the game of great-power politics. For its part, the United States and its NATO allies are stuck in a psychological, political and military paralysis, like a bystander who suddenly witnessed a horrible car crash.

Clearly, Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers from no such paralysis. Over the last several years, Putin has begun the process of trimming down, professionalizing, and modernizing Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces while NATO has been sleeping. While American and European elites pranced about with delusions of a blissful democratic peace reigning supreme in Europe and the world, Putin was rebuilding the means needed to restore what he saw as Russia’s rightful place on top of the regional and world balances of power.

Putin has shown himself as a shrewd statesman, knowing that the true nature of international politics has not changed in millennia, despite how the Western elites boast about the merits of international law, norms and democracy. It remains the same as it was at the time of the Peloponnesian War when Thucydides captured the stark realities of power in the Melian dialogue. As the Athenian expedition sent to conquer the Spartan colony on the island of Melos told its victims: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Putin masterfully orchestrated a modern rendition of the Melian dialogue with his capture of Crimea and his military preparations to forcibly take more territorial chunks out of Ukraine. Putin must have enjoyed a good laugh after hearing American Secretary of State John Kerry’s school teacher-like reprimand: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” Putin probably split his sides with laughter at President Barack Obama’s attempted barb that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness.” With Russian forces sitting on Crimea and facing eastern Ukraine, no one in the world today, save Obama, sees Putin as weak.

Putin rightly assesses the political and military weaknesses of the United States and its NATO allies. While in 2013, NATO proudly conducted its largest live-fire exercise in seven years in the Baltic states and Poland with some 6,000 personnel, the Russians flexed more impressive military muscles with an exercise the same year that fielded some 70,000 troops in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and around the Baltic states and Poland. Putin knows that NATO’s ground forces today are in pathetic shape. The United States, which provides the most capable army units to the alliance, does not even have one measly army division in Europe. That is a far cry from the estimated 40,000 Russian troops prepared to strike Ukraine. NATO airpower can only partially compensate for the alliance’s ground force inferiority to Russian forces.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and possible preparations against the remainder of Ukraine adroitly blend guile, deception, propaganda, intelligence and elite military forces. At the same time, Russian diplomacy has brilliantly sowed confusion among credulous Western statesmen and diplomats by concocting political narratives to mask Russia’s true intentions behind military preparations along Ukraine’s border. In response to growing Western anxiety about the large build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was publicly emphatic: “We have absolutely no intention of—or interest in—crossing Ukraine’s borders.” At hearing those lovely words, far too many Americans and Europeans breathed sighs of relief, and foolishly believe that the crisis has passed.

It is very possible Russia will soon be turning its political-military sights onto the Baltic NATO countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Putin has the opportunity there to thoroughly humiliate the West, whose officials since the Berlin Wall’s fall have gloated and touted NATO as the “most successful alliance in history.” He will be sorely tempted to give NATO another Melian dialogue lesson, as the Baltics are vulnerable to the preponderance of Russian military power. Russia could easily turn off its gas lines to the Baltic states during winter months to destabilize these energy-dependent and vulnerable countries. Russia, moreover, enjoys secure and short lines of communication to support invasions of the Baltic states, each with armies that would be little more than speed bumps for Russian forces. For ground force soldiers, Estonia has 5,300, Latvia has 1,137 and Lithuania has 8,200. NATO, in contrast, would have to support long and vulnerable lines of communication to make good on its Article 5 security guarantee to these Baltic State alliance members. The odds of NATO successfully defending the Baltic states against Russian invasion with minimum risks and acceptable costs, sadly, are slim. NATO would have a more feasible task defending Poland, given its tighter lines of communication to other NATO countries and distance from Russia, to make Russian lines of communication to Poland more vulnerable to NATO airpower.