25 October 2019

With Russia at the door, Nato must stand up for Europe

By Richard Rimkus

Russia is more than just a theoretical threat to Europe and Nato. Never has that fact been clearer since the end of the Cold War than it is today.

Under Vladimir Putin, it has gone from a diplomatically fractious and fairly difficult nation to a militarily aggressive state willing to engage in overt and direct acts on foreign soil, deliberate military provocation and encroachment as well as territorial expansion.

Putin’s Russia has annexed Crimea and has been heavily involved in the conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. It has again shown its willingness to carry out assassinations on foreign soil with its use of Novichok in Salisbury, and as many as 12 unexplained deaths of Russian exiles on British soil, with no concern for wider casualties. This is a Russian state that conducts military incursions into Nato airspace and waters on a regular basis.

Russian exercises like Zapad 2017 show they are ready to use military force at short notice in the Baltic arena and across a possible European front. These sorts of military drill are widely believed to be war-gaming for an invasion of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States or a wider war against Nato. This seems to be further confirmed by the recent joint exercises with Belarus along the borders of Latvia and Lithuania.

In the face of such an antagonistic nation Nato’s continued commitment to its easternmost members in the Baltics is of crucial strategic importance. Nato’s joint exercises and deployments in Eastern Europe; including Locked Shields, Spring Storm and Summer Shield, are therefore extremely welcome.

However, it is also clear that Nato is not doing enough. President Putin does not respect words unless they are clearly reinforced by obvious military capability. He does not fear international condemnation, but he does fear international co-operation and Russian isolation. Although isolation and encirclement suit his political narratives, the Russian President still has a realist outlook on geopolitics.

The annexation of Crimea was aimed at securing access to the Black Sea, and because Ukraine had started to move away from Russia and towards the EU and Nato. The Kremlin made the calculation that if it acted now, it would not face an EU or Nato military response, whereas doing nothing would make its Black Sea ports more vulnerable and harder to secure in the future.

Foreign policy also has a domestic dimension. Putin is under increasing pressure, as Western sanctions continue to bite, living standards stagnate and dissatisfaction with his government increases. He knows the value of appearing strong, and the takeover of Crimea gave him a popularity boost. There are a lot of people in Russia that want a return to its territorial heydays, and its regional dominance. However, further westward expansion will mean either directly challenging Nato or completely incorporating an ‘ally’.

That would mean Russian troops could easily penetrate hundreds of miles further into Europe and open up a far larger front, across the entire length of Lithuania and Latvia and Estonia and reaching Poland. But territorial expansion as a means of masking domestic pressures can only ever be a stopgap measure. Russia will eventually either need to engage with its domestic problems or use military force against Nato.

Ukraine’s weak military and lack of international treaty obligations always meant it was exposed to Russian aggression. That weakness can be seen in President Volodymyr Zelensky recent acquiescence to the Steinmeier formula, which hands control of the Donbas to Russia through its separatist proxies – that reflects the inability of Ukraine’s undermanned and ill-equipped army to quell the combination of separatist militias and regular Russian troops masquerading s volunteers.

Wariness of Russia is also why Georgia has been keen to conduct bilateral operations with Nato, including the joint exercise in March of this year and the 2014 Substantial Nato–Georgia Package. Georgia has seen the threat of a belligerent Putin and has taken steps to protect itself from similar aggression.

Individually, European nations are no match for Russia. The co-operation and mutual protection of Nato safeguards our countries against overt military aggression. However, we have also seen “deniable” actions like those in Salisbury and regular military incursions. Russia is testing Nato responses and prodding at boundaries. Nato must stand firm.

In order to do so, European nations must at the very least commit properly to the 2% of GDP defence spending target, if not go further.

As the closest Nato region to Russia, we must conduct more exercises in the Baltics. One possible step would be to create a land-based version of Baltops, which is an annual naval exercise in the Baltic Sea, rotating between the Baltic nations each year.

We may not share the same outlook as President Putin, but we must acknowledge his worldview. Nato is essential for maintaining peace in Europe and to do so, we must demonstrate our capabilities, resolve and strength. Anything less is a weak response to the realities of today’s geopolitics.

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Richard is a Lithuanian born businessman with an interest in the politics of the Baltic region.