Putin's Next Steps: Why He Does Not Fear NATO

First: Russia is not a country, it is an empire.

Exactly 300 years ago, Russian forces first took Latvia and Estonia and called them their own. Seven years later, Peter the Great officially proclaimed Russia an empire and himself its emperor. Today, the Russian Federation contains 83 federated states, 23 of which are nominally autonomous constitutional republics.

Historically, countries were kingdoms, and kings were appointed by God. And emperors told kings what to do. Even when constitutionally prevented from being Russia’s prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Vladimir Putin still directed Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's actions. Putin is, in his mind, Russia’s emperor.

Second: Russia has a love-hate relationship with Europe. It considers itself European, but hates that Europe doesn’t see it that way. Geographically, Europe is indistinct from Asia. It is a single landmass whose only boundary is a cultural one that exists along an amorphous line drawn somewhere between the Vistula River and the Ural Mountains. Just last month, you saw evidence of this continental divide during the Olympics: Russia considers the Caucasus, the mountain chain that played host to the Winter Games, to contain Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. Yet most Western Europeans consider Mont Blanc, on the French-Italian border, to be Europe’s tallest mountain, even though it is nearly three-thousand feet shorter than its Russian cousin.

Simultaneously being excluded from Europe in the minds of many Europeans, while recognizing that Europe’s cultural traditions are often superior to its own, Russia has cultivated a long-running inferiority complex. The further west the Russian Empire pushes its boundary, the more indisputable its claim that Russia is a European power and the greater it is able to demonstrate Russian superiority to Europeans.

Third: for much of the last century, Western Europe was incidental in a global contest between Moscow and Washington. Germany, France, and England, even if united, were all underlings incapable of self-protection without American might. The Soviet Union could easily have dominated Europe (or so they thought) were it not for those pesky Americans.

NATO, therefore, has always been a sore spot for Russia: it is the one entity that has been able to keep together the formerly warring West European tribes for more than sixty years. They still see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as its first secretary general did -- a means of keeping “The Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” And since Germany was allowed into NATO in 1955, only the first two of its original three goals of NATO still remain.

This means that if America is out, Russia is in. Or at least, that’s the hope of Moscow. NATO has to die if Russia is to take its rightful place as a major European power. And, furthermore, if without NATO, Berlin, Paris, and London resume their triangulating ways, imperial Russians believe that Moscow becomes Europe’s preeminent power. NATO is the immediate obstacle to the Russian Empire’s long-hoped for subjugation of Europe.

Do not mistake that to mean Russia intends to conquer Europe militarily. Better than any other country, Russia understands the tyranny of distance, and knows that it can no more hope for a successful military conquest of the Continent than could Napoleon or Hitler hope to hold Moscow. Imperial Russia simply wants to call the shots, just as Putin told Medvedev what to do for four years.

Since NATO stands in the way of the Russian Empire, Putin has spent much of his reign chipping away at it. With the 2008 invasion of Georgia, he effectively stopped NATO’s growth. Between 1989 and 2009, NATO grew from 16 to 28 countries, with six of its new members coming from the former Warsaw Pact, and three (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) coming from the former USSR itself. When in 2008 Georgia was promised future membership, it portended NATO’s deepest penetration yet into the Russian sphere of influence.

While Putin viewed that expansion as a threat, he also saw it as an opportunity. The South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia are ethnically Russian and nominally Georgian. Militarily, taking it would be easy -- especially since one of Georgia’s five infantry brigades (and its best trained one) was then engaged in the Iraq War. Putin recognized that the ethnically Russian provinces offered an opportunity for Russia to be seen as liberators at home while portraying NATO abroad as unwilling to support its friends and future members.

Ukraine took notice. The traditional “bread basket” of Russia was on its way to being the next new NATO member after Georgia. A year-and-a-half after NATO’s non-response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, Ukraine -- which had been on the verge of kicking the Russian Navy out of Crimea -- signed a 25-year lease allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to base in its country.

While the treaty was narrowly ratified with 52% of the vote in the Ukrainian parliament, it was proof that NATO’s promises carried less weight than Russia’s threats. Four years later, NATO has continued its non-response to the Russian re-aggregation of ethnically Russian exclaves.

So what’s next?

Belarus is ripe for Russian re-acquisition. Its corrupt and autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, has presided over an economic catastrophe, has few friends in the West, and possibly even fewer at home. While the country is ethnically distinct from Russia, Lukashenko’s authoritarian style and collapsed economy may create a situation where Russia is “invited” back. While this would do nothing to directly counter NATO, it would push the Russian border directly up against NATO’s border on Poland’s east.

The eastern Moldovan province of Transnistria is another ethnically Russian region where Russia could reassert control. Such a move would surely inflame relations with Ukraine. But not necessarily locally -- its immediate boundary with Ukraine is via its province of Odessa, which is almost half native Russian-speaking. In fact, Odessa itself is strategically important for being home to the mouth of the Dniester River, and for providing an open port to the otherwise landlocked Transnistria. It too might invite Russian re-acquisition.

There are several other regions of Ukraine itself where Russia could likely exercise control. Aside from Crimea, where it has already won, the eastern provinces of Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk are all ethnically Russian.

To the south, Kyrgyzstan offers another location where Russia could blacken NATO’s eye. The air base at Manas is a major supply hub for NATO activities in Afghanistan, and requires Russian participation in order to access. However, the way things are going in Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that NATO will have much use for Manas after the end of this year. Besides, the former Soviet “-stans” are Asian distractions from Russia’s European goals.

There are non-territorial issues which Russia might try to exploit. Chief among these is Russia’s petrochemical dominance. Europe depends on Russian gas exports to heat itself. That could quickly change if France developed its own vast shale oil deposits, if Germany kept open its nuclear plants, and if America expanded its natural gas export capabilities.

It is well within the current technological capability of the West to push the price of a barrel of oil below $60. This would devastate the energy-based Russian export economy, just as the fall in oil prices in the 1990s played a large part in the Russian economic collapse of 1998. However, in all three Western countries, those plans are under relentless attack by a network of environmental agendas.

As Russians have a long history of covertly cultivating left-leaning useful idiots, fellow travelers, and fifth columns, it will undoubtedly continue to exploit environmental groups worldwide in order to maintain its regional energy hegemony.

Furthermore, since that 1998 economic collapse hastened Boris Yeltsin’s demise, and because he is an astute student of historical power politics, Putin will do whatever it takes to ensure that that energy prices do not fall below a level at which Russia can sustain itself.

If that means fomenting unrest in Syria, Iran, and Israel, then surely he will do so -- especially since such unrest distracts America from NATO and demands even more of its limited treasure.

So what’s next is likely to be most, if not all, of the above. And then what?

Ultimately, if NATO does not dissolve on its own (an event which is increasingly likely the longer NATO attempts to stay in Afghanistan), Russia will have to directly confront NATO in an attempt to destroy it.

The most likely venue for such a confrontation will be Narva, the easternmost point of Estonia. Long fought over in the centuries-long conflict between Russia and the West, Narva is four-fifths ethnically Russian. This is a result of the same kind of post-war forced deportation and Russian repatriation that the Soviet Union employed when it turned the former Prussian city of Königsberg into the very ethnically Russian Kaliningrad. Narva is a Russian city inside the borders of Estonia, and that makes it a tantalizing target if Vladimir Putin thinks that NATO will not respond.

Next week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will celebrate its 65th birthday. Conceived as a means to save Europe from the Soviet Union, its central feature is Article V, which obligates all parties to respond to an attack against any signatory nation. Yet for the last 25 of those years, it has lived on without a purpose.

Can there be such a thing as a mutual defense treaty in the absence of an enemy? Surely, as in the case of the United States and Canada, two geographically and culturally linked countries, one could make the argument that such a treaty has merit. Belgium and Luxembourg, likewise, would seem to have enough historical and geographic commonalities to justify a mutual defense treaty even without an enemy.

The irony of NATO’s last 25 years is that its most recent entrants are its most enthusiastically pro-NATO, and yet they offer the least reason to the other members to justify a united response in their defense.

They know the danger of Russian expansion. They’ve lived it. But the further east NATO expands, the less danger the fall of those regions represents to the more western members. While Albania understands the value of America’s defense, is there anybody who thinks America is going to risk a nuclear war with Russia to save the likes of Albania?

For twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, until the Russian invasion of Georgia reminded them of what a mutual defense treaty really means, Americans forgot that NATO wasn’t a clubhouse. It was an actual club -- the kind with which you beat an opponent to death. And by admitting new members, you agreed to swing that club if any one of the members was attacked.

Today, NATO is a club made of glass. The power of a glass club is in the threat of its swinging, but once it makes contact, it shatters. Arguably, NATO is already shattered, the fault of which lies at the feet of America’s last president, who shortsightedly used its one-time power against a non-existential threat in Afghanistan. President Bush could have received the help of most NATO nations in Afghanistan even without the NATO imprimatur, and without swinging the glass bat. After all, he did so in Iraq. Most of the 28 NATO nations gave all they could give over the last 13 years in Afghanistan. There is no more they can reasonably expect to extract from their populaces.

Knowing all too well the real costs of warfare makes countries less inclined to intercede when there appears to be no real immediate importance to the threat. Because the memory of World War One was so fresh in the minds of the Allies, Hitler was allowed to re-arm Germany, march into the Palatinate, annex Austria, and forcibly annex a portion of sovereign Czechoslovakia, all without Western Europeans lifting a finger to stop him.

And that was after a war that the Allies won.

After the thirteen-year muddle of Afghanistan, there is even less likelihood that all 28 nations are going to sign on to the task of poking a Russian bear, unless they really see that the bear is bearing down on them.

When Putin’s Russia invades tiny Narva, and says that it is doing so to protect Russian lives from Estonian transgressions (and there will be just enough merit to the claim to cloud the argument), how will NATO react? Will it rush headlong into war, obeying its mutual defense obligations just as the Central Powers did after the assassination of a minor royalty in 1914? Or will NATO react with a shrug, just as war-weary Europeans did when Hitler marched unopposed into Vienna?

I’m guessing that Russia knows NATO is an already shattered glass club, and that it will pursue the latter course, in which case Vladimir Putin can finally record the hour of NATO’s death. Then Europe’s only emperor will go about exercising greater authority over European affairs without American interference.