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.
If the above were to occur, all would not be lost. The United States and its allies would simply have to reach into their dusty Cold War playbooks. They would need to rapidly begin preparing for a covert war against Russian forces in occupied European territories. The plan would be straightforward: Moscow would have to be militarily bogged down and bled by covert support to indigenous insurgencies to prevent them from consolidating gains to enable the building-up of forces for further direct military expansion in Europe. The Ukrainians are in grave risk of losing their country, in part, due to incompetent political leadership matched with feckless military defenses. This should be a powerful slap in the face to other European leaders who, either lazily, arrogantly or naively, believe that the territorial integrities of their nation-states are, and will always be, assured.
If Russia’s militarily grabs the rest of Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers in exile and those remaining under Russian occupation ought to be given the means to redeem themselves and their country with arms, ammunition, communications, training and intelligence from NATO countries. During the Cold War, the mission of the American Army’s Special Forces—the “Green Berets”—was to organize indigenous guerrilla movements in the event that the old Warsaw Pact invaded. That mission atrophied during the Cold War and was even neglected after 9/11 as American special-operations forces focused on direct-action missions with SEAL and DELTA teams against Al Qaeda fighters and away from longer-term and patient Special Forces-type missions.
The Special Forces would need help, much like they did during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, from the CIA’s covert-action officers to get up to speed for running covert insurgencies in Europe. The CIA often has proven comparatively more nimble in the covert-war business than the bureaucratically mammoth and sluggish military. The Special Forces (and the CIA, too) would need to work fast to place guerrilla networks-in-waiting in Ukraine as well as in the Baltic states in anticipation of the ratcheting up of Russian military intimidation.
The West needs to be prepared for the fact that such a war, much like the covert war in Afghanistan against Soviet forces in the 1980s, would be “covert” in name only. At the same time, the West would have to constantly remind itself that these wars were not its doing. The West would be providing the means for conquered peoples to try to liberate themselves from a renewed Russian expansionism. It would be engaging in not-so-covert war to make the Russians feel pain over what they have taken and to paralyze them from taking more land in Europe. Covert sponsorship of European insurgencies, moreover, would buy strategic time to redress NATO’s woefully inadequate conventional and strategic forces for deterring Russian power over the long term. This is not the narrative that the American public wants to hear, but it is the responsibility of President Obama, as commander-in-chief, to use his “bully pulpit” to bring the public opinion to where it needs to be to defend the national interest.
Russia is back on the international playing field of power politics, and the United States, NATO and the West have to wake up to that tragic reality—and fast.
Richard L. Russell is the author of Sharpening Strategic Intelligence: Why the CIA Gets It Wrong and What Needs to Be Done to Get It Right (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter: @DrRLRussell.