BY: SENIOR FELLOW ALAN DOWD
SEPTEMBER 2017 — “The resurgence of Russia on the world stage…poses a major challenge to the United States,” DIA Director Gen. Vincent Stewart recently concluded, labeling Russia one of the top five military threats facing the U.S. The following is the first of a two-part series exploring the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the military-political-diplomatic response offered by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Let’s start in Moscow, where Putin hatched his plan to reverse the settled outcomes of the Cold War and redraw the borders of Europe. That’s not an overstatement. Putin’s Russia has invaded Ukraine and Georgia, annexed Crimea, and signed a treaty of integration with South Ossetia, effectively annexing the region away from Georgia. Putin calls Ukraine “Novorossiya”—a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. Putin has strong-armed Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into a “Eurasian Union,” with Russia at the helm. He describes the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical disaster” and ominously notes that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots” are “outside Russian territory.”
As General Phillip Breedlove, former NATO military commander, bluntly concludes, Putin is “blatantly attempting to change the rules and principles that have been the foundation of European security for decades.”
He’s been able to do so because of heavy investment in the once-decimated Russian military. According to a DIA report, Russia’s military outlays have mushroomed by 125 percent since 2006, and Russia’s military budget now consumes 4.5 percent of GDP—up from 2.4 percent of GDP in 2006.
Although today’s Russian military is a shell of the Red Army, it is better equipped, better trained, more cohesive, more adaptive and more capable of force projection than anything Moscow has fielded since the early 1990s. And it is led by a man more willing to use military force and more willing to take military risks than Gorbachev, Yeltsin or Medvedev. In short, Putin’s Russia is arguably more worrisome and more threatening than anything NATO has confronted in Moscow since the 1980s.
The number of provocations and aggressive actions Putin has taken is matched only by the variety of provocations and aggressive actions he has employed. In fact, Putin’s Russia had been threatening NATO interests and NATO members for more than a decade:
In 2001, Russia laid claim to half the Arctic Circle, disregarding the interests of the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland—NATO members all—and underlining its claims in a brazen military context. By 2016, Russia had stood up six new bases above the Arctic Circle, opened 16 ports and 13 airfields in the region, and deployed sophisticated surface-to-air missile batteries in the Arctic.
In 2003, Russia promulgated its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which rationalizes the use of nuclear weapons to (somehow) de-escalate a conventional conflict.
In 2007, Russia launched a series of cyberattacks against NATO member Estonia. Dubbed “Web War I,” the attacks crippled Estonia’s communications infrastructure; targeted the mobile-phone network and largest bank; knocked out government websites; and even raised the possibility of a NATO Article V response.
It was around this time that Russia revived the Cold War-era practice of testing NATO airspace and air defenses. (NATO was forced to scramble fighter-interceptors in the Baltic region 110 times in 2016, 160 times in 2015 and 140 times in 2014.)
In 2008, Russia invaded and dismembered NATO aspirant Georgia. That same year, Russia’s military practiced an invasion of NATO member Poland, complete with mock nuclear strikes.
In 2009, in the dead of winter, Russia began using energy supplies as a weapon against Central Europe, shutting off natural-gas flows bound for Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece (all but Ukraine are NATO allies).
In 2014, Moscow began violating the INF Treaty, which prohibits deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The treaty was a building block for East-West trust at the end of the Cold War and a cornerstone of post-Cold War stability. Moscow also is violating the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, has withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program, and has increased by nearly 200 the number of warheads deployed on ballistic missiles, in spite of obligations under the New START treaty requiring a decrease in warhead counts.
Also in 2014, Putin ordered military forces scrubbed of insignia into Ukraine, annexing Crimea in the process. Putin’s anonymous, ambiguous, asymmetrical war against Ukraine has claimed at least 10,000 dead. It’s not unthinkable that the Baltics or Poland could be next. As Putin himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.”
In 2015, Putin provided diplomatic and military cover for Assad’s beastly war in Syria. Russian military forces have “bolstered the Bashar al-Assad regime, targeted moderate opposition elements, compounded human suffering, and complicated U.S. and coalition operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” reports Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, military commander of NATO. After Russia’s surprise military intervention in Syria in October 2015, President Barack Obama predicted “it won’t work” and would end up with Russia “stuck in a quagmire.” Less than two years later, Putin has achieved his primary objective of rescuing a puppet regime, while reasserting Russia’s role in the Middle East, checking U.S. influence, and securing Russia’s long-term presence—and influence—in a region where it had neither since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, Assad recently agreed to double the size of Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, expand a Russian airbase near Latakia, and grant Moscow the right to deploy Russian forces in Syria for the next 49 years. Putin’s intervention in Syria was anything but a quagmire; it was a victory.
In 2016, Putin reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a large armored force based in western Russia equipped with 500 main battle tanks—the latest evidence of Russia’s rearmament under Putin. Russia’s 2015 military outlays were 26-percent larger than in 2014, and 5.9 percent higher in 2016 than in 2015.
Also in 2016, Russia hacked into the U.S. political system and used “weaponized leaks” in an attempt to sway the outcome of the presidential election. Russia has conducted similar operations against the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany and Britain. Plus, an EU investigation revealed that Russia used disinformation and so-called “fake news” campaigns to influence political outcomes in France. According to Scaparrotti, Russia has “overtly interfered in the political processes of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro” and “is taking steps to influence the internal politics of European countries” in order “to create disunity and weakness within Europe.” In 2016, as Defense News reports, officials in Montenegro revealed a Russian-funded plot to disrupt elections and “set up a new administration loyal to Russia.” Freedom House adds that Russia tried to influence a referendum in Italy and has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through…theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.”
Finally, in 2017, we learned that Russia is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan and supplying North Korea with jet fuel (filling the void created after China cooled relations with Pyongyang).
Putin rationalizes his belligerence by arguing that NATO started it—that NATO’s eastward expansion violated agreements at the end of the Cold War. The problem with Putin’s version of history is that it doesn’t correspond with reality. As Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
In other words, the alliance didn’t double-cross its way to the Russian border. In fact, NATO grew through a transparent process that allowed East European states to pursue membership on their own volition—a process that encouraged political, institutional and economic reforms that actually diminished tensions with post-Soviet Russia. But intent on changing the settled outcomes (and borders) of the Cold War, Putin won’t be confused by the facts.
All of this underscores why NATO is so important today—a topic we will address in the next issue.