Europe Under DuressPosted: January 25, 2022 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Baltic States, Cyber Attacks, NATO, Russia, Ukraine, USSR, War 3 Comments
As we are all undoubtedly aware, over the last two months Russia has increased the size, lethality, and capability of its combat and logistics forces along its border with Ukraine. Ukraine is now surrounded by Russian troops in Crimea (stolen from Ukraine), Russia, and Belarus, placing them under threat from the North, East and South.
There is much speculation as to what will unfold and as to Russia’s intent. There is only one person who knows whether Russia will attack and that is Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is entirely possible that even he does not know at this moment in time as to what he will do, but he has himself in a position of strength that gives him many plausible opportunities to achieve his goals.
We are at a moment in time where Mr. Putin sees his opportunity. The leading nations within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are facing domestic issues that help him with his plans. The United States is facing Congressional mid-term elections, France has national elections coming up, there is a new government in Germany that is still trying to find its way, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom is under considerable political pressure at home.
Negotiations are under way in Europe, with the US taking a leading role, to try and defuse the situation without abandoning Ukraine. To date, the Russians are making outrageous claims and are putting forward proposals that they must know are totally unacceptable to the West. Foremost among Mr. Putin’s demands is that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO — a condition that cannot be accepted if nations are to be sovereign, independent and allowed to find their own destinies. He is also demanding that NATO revert to its 1997 boundaries. This means withdrawing all troops and weapons in Eastern Europe deployed since then which leaves Eastern European and Baltic States dangling as current members of NATO. On its face this is totally unacceptable, which Mr. Putin must know.
Mr. Putin does not want any western or western leaning countries on his border. In his public pronouncements he likens it to our reaction if Russian forces were in Cuba or Venezuela — which he made vague threats to do if he does not get his way. He believes that all former Soviet Socialist Republics as a minimum should be in his sphere of influence and that no former member of the Warsaw Pact should be in NATO. The world has moved on, but he has not.
What motivates his undivided attention on Ukraine? Traditionally and culturally the area of Eastern Europe that is now known as Ukraine was part of Russia. Kyiv was the first capital of the Rus people in the 10th to 12th centuries. Following WWI a Republic was born which resulted in civil unrest and battles with the Red Army. These continued until the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1922, making it one of the three original members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukraine reclaimed its independence in August, 1991. Their independence became official when Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (the original founders) officially dissolved the USSR in December.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine stayed closely aligned with Russia. Starting in 2014, with considerable internal unrest, Ukraine began to move more towards western Europe. In that same year, Russia invaded Crimea (with stealth forces and special operations forces — the infamous “little green men” that Russia claimed were not theirs) and subsequently annexed it into Russia. Meddling in Ukraine continued as Russian operatives supported a civil war in southeastern Ukraine in a region known as Donbass. Fighting there continues to this day and has claimed about 15,000 lives.
Understanding the ethnicity and culture of Ukraine helps to explain some of the developments and may indicate where fighting could erupt, at least in the opening stages of military operations. Crimea is mostly populated with ethnic Russians, and large portions of eastern Ukraine (such as the Donbass) are heavily ethnic Russian. Central, northern and western Ukraine, including around its capital in Kyiv, are predominantly ethnic Ukrainians. There is a smattering of other nationalities throughout the country, especially Poles.
It is impossible for me to know his intentions but it would seem that Mr. Putin’s aim is to replace the current western leaning government with one within his sphere of influence. It would be a de facto puppet government, or at least one totally aligned with Russian interests. He is looking to dominate Ukraine as he does Belarus. Although Belarus is independent, their government makes no moves without at least tacit Russian approval.
Why do we care here in the United States? After all, we have plenty to worry about with the state of the pandemic and thwarting attempted coups. One reason is that there is the potential for the largest land war in Europe since WWII. Our lesson learned from the twentieth century is that our political and economic interests in Europe will inevitably pull us in to the conflict. NATO was formed as a deterrent to the USSR but also to bring together the fractious nations of Europe into a common cause. Further, we claim to honor the rule of law, the right for each nation to determine its own destiny, courses of action and affiliations, and to protect democracy.
It is unlikely that Mr. Putin will stop with Ukraine should he be successful. He has similar claims for the need to “protect” ethnic Russians in the Baltic States, Poland, and parts of other Eastern European nations. If successful in Ukraine, he will meddle elsewhere. If one thinks that a Putinesque leader is satisfied with “only” Ukraine, take a look at the developments in Europe in the 1930s leading up to WWII. Adolf Hitler was “just” protecting ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. There is no end.
There are many, many scenarios for Mr. Putin to achieve his ends. He does not necessarily have to invade with ground troops to achieve his goal, although the roughly 130,000 Russian troops from all over Russia that now nearly surround Ukraine certainly raises that possibility. His goal is simple, topple the current government and replace it. In recent days, public US and UK intelligence reports indicate that there are Russian operatives in Ukraine prepared to carry out “false flag” operations and other sabotage and that there are individuals in Ukraine or nearby that are set to take the reins of government. One scenario is that Mr. Putin gradually ups the ante. First comes crippling cyber attacks. Next, or simultaneously, take out energy and water supplies. If those actions are not sufficient to bring Ukraine to heel, then selected or even massive aerial attacks could ensue that take out culturally significant buildings and monuments and also aims to decapitate the existing government. These might be similar to the US “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq prior to the ground war. Sending troops across the border could be the last resort. As part of his plan Mr. Putin may even threaten Estonia, Latvia and/or Lithuanian or parts of Poland in order to take assets away from NATO that might otherwise provide support to Ukraine.
I do not envision that NATO will fight in Ukraine, but the member states can provide significant support. NATO is preparing to activate the NRF (NATO Response Force) designed to respond to threats to NATO members under the auspices of Article Five of the NATO charter where an “attack on one is an attack on all.”
The US and Europe are threatening very strong sanctions against Russia. However, there is little agreement as to exactly what those sanctions should be and should they apply before or after an attack? Does NATO deter or respond to Russian aggression? The biggest threat to Russia would be to cut off their petroleum exports. Unfortunately, the main source of heat in much of Europe is Russian natural gas and it is, after all, winter. To cut off those exports would devastate the Russian economy but it would also severely impact Europe’s economy and it would have a real impact on the rest of the world as well. No politician going into elections (which are coming up in the US, UK, and France) wants gas prices to go up just before an election.
One proposal is to block Russia from SWIFT. (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications — the Belgian based intermediary for all bank transactions world wide.) This would essentially cut off Russia from any international commerce — they would be unable to sell or buy on the international market. Economically, it is a “nuclear option” with unknown consequences.
The US already has about 70,000 military personnel in Europe with about 6,000 of those in Poland and the Baltic states on short term unit rotations. Yesterday, the US announced that an additional 8,500 troops were put on heightened alert (meaning able to deploy within five days of getting the word to go) in order to bolster the NRF or to respond to other NATO nation’s requests for additional forces. In military terms, 8,500 troops in Europe is a symbolic gesture, but in strategic terms, it sends a clear signal to Mr. Putin that the US is serious about protecting our allies and that we would respond, thus upping the ante for Mr. Putin. There are not significant troops (roughly less than a hundred for training of Ukrainian forces) in Ukraine and there is no intent to put any combat troops in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin holds all the cards. He does not care much about sanctions as it will not impact him personally. To be honest, he probably thinks that any severe sanctions would be temporary and he would still have been successful in Ukraine. He probably feels that he has already raised his stature in Russia by making it appear that Russia is a great power that all the other countries in the world must respect and come to him to meet on his terms. In military terms, because of the common border, he has internal lines of communication and can quickly move forces as needed. Additionally, he already occupies some of their territory.
It is possible that he is waiting for the right time to strike, including waiting for the right weather conditions. There is a window fast approaching where the ground will be frozen hard enough to support large tracked vehicles such as tanks and mobile missile launchers. If he waits too long, the spring thaw will make much of the ground too marshy to effectively use until late spring or summer.
I am out of the prediction game, but at this point, I do not see Mr. Putin backing off. The only thing that will change his mind about attacking Ukraine, in whatever form, is the total capitulation of the Ukrainian government. To date, the Ukrainians swear that they will not fold. As a result, some sort of physical action will be required on Russia’s part to subjugate the Ukrainians.
It is equally unclear how far the US and Europe are willing to go to help Ukraine. Particularly weak in the knees right now are the French and German governments, the heart of any coordinated European response to Russian aggression. A secondary Putin goal is to weaken NATO and if possible, to create the conditions to render it meaningless as a toothless organization. To that end he may have already failed as both Finland and Sweden, not currently members of NATO, have expressed interest in exploring the chance to join. Both border Russia.
The coming weeks will be tough ones for Europe and the world. History tells us that to unleash the hounds of war often leads to perverse and unintended consequences and hostilities can easily spread. In the end, Mr. Putin may decide that in his risk/benefit calculation a direct assault on Ukraine will be counterproductive. History also shows that once nations mobilize for war, they are hard pressed to back down. There is a certain “use it or lose it” mentality. Let’s hope that clearer heads prevail.
Regardless, the next several weeks are fraught with danger.
Cold War IIPosted: July 23, 2016 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Baltic States, Donald Trump, Historical Perspective, NATO, Poland, Russia, Vladimir Putin Leave a comment
Lost in all of the U.S. presidential campaign news, one may be forgiven for missing the increasingly worrisome activity in northern Europe where the Russian bear is flexing his muscles. While there have been numerous incidents of Russian military ships and aircraft harassing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other friendly nations’ aircraft and vessels, especially in and near the Black Sea, some of the most provocative have occurred in and around the Baltic Sea.
The number of incidents began to increase in the spring of 2014 and through out the rest of that year there were approximately nineteen serious or high risk incidents including a massive Swedish Navy search for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago and simulated bombing and cruise missile attacks against NATO countries as well as exercises perceived to be practice for invading the Baltic States. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there have been numerous additional close encounters with the Russian military, precipitated by the Russians and interpreted to be deliberate provocations. This includes this past April when two Russian military aircraft flew a simulated attack 30 feet over the guided missile destroyer USS Donald (DDG-75) while in international waters. A few days later Russian fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the Baltic. And the (very long) list of such provocations goes on.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at the height of the cold war, such incidents were frequent, and dangerous. In order to prevent misunderstandings which could lead to bloodshed and possible conflict, the United States and Soviet Union formulated the Incidents At Sea Agreement, signed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, and his Soviet counterpart Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. By providing specific protocols when U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft were in proximity to each other it was designed to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of much of its military back to the homeland, there was very little need for the agreement and it ceased to be useful. It may be time to update it and renew it.
The real question, however, is what is going on? Why are the Russians resuming their provocative maneuvers against NATO and other western powers? The answer may be found in one of two names, or more likely a combination of two names: Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and by that we mean that he is looking for good old-fashioned respect as a world and military power. The incidents are meant to remind the West that he is the major player in his part of the world and that he can (and may?) do whatever he desires. To paraphrase the old adage, “Russia is back!” In 2005 he made a major speech to the Russian people where he is translated as saying:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”
Remember that this was a large part of his justification for entering Ukraine and in annexing the Crimea. He argues that he is protecting Russian citizens and “ethnic” Russians and thus fulfilling his duties as head of the Russian state. During the time of the Soviet Union, many now independent nations around the periphery of the old Soviet Union were “colonized” by Russians and many also settled there for economic and other reasons. They and their descendants remain.
This background is important in understanding the current state of affairs in the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and to a slightly lesser degree, Poland. The Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union and Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.
Geographically they are at a strategic disadvantage. A look at a map reveals two important features. One is that between Poland and Lithuania is a part of the Russian state called Kaliningrad, a major Russian military outpost. Second is that the border between Russia and Poland and the Baltic States is mostly flat ground with no significant defensible geographic features that would impede a ground attack from rolling across the border and deep into the country under attack.
I had the pleasure of making a short stop in Tallinn the capital of Estonia recently. The people are very friendly, full of energy and eager to see their new nation become integrated into world affairs. They are also well aware that only a short time ago they were occupied by the Germans and then subjugated by the Russians as one of the republics of the Soviet Union. They became an independent nation in March 1990 despite resistance to their independence by the Russians. Their history is very fresh in their in minds and if they doubt the impact Russia can have on their new nation, they are reminded of it every day. Directly across from their parliament building sits the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in the late 1800’s as a Russian Orthodox cathedral during the time of Estonia’s inclusion in the Russian Empire. It was part of the Russification efforts underway at the time to assimilate the Estonians. It purposefully occupies the most prominent position in the Old Town on top of a bluff above the town. Although it fell into decay during the Soviet era, it was beautifully restored in recent years but is still considered by many Estonians to be a symbol of Russian oppression. It should also be noted that while Estonians consider themselves to be culturally different from Russians, approximately 25% of the population is Russian.
Needless to say, the combination of Putin’s desire to regain the “empire” coupled with his actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea makes the Russian military provocations in the Baltic area very meaningful to those that live there. The Baltic States and Poland are among the twenty-eight members of NATO. And that’s where it starts to get interesting.
Earlier this month, President Obama and the other heads of state met at a NATO summit in Warsaw. Many topics were covered ranging from Afghanistan to Ballistic Missile Defense to ISIS. But a major topic, the one capturing the attention of those following it closely, was a key decision concerning the Baltic area. For several years now, the United States and other members have rotated troops and fighter wings through the Baltic States as a reminder to Russia that NATO has a stake in their continued independence. At this year’s summit, those provisional deployments were made firmer. In response to Russian provocations, the NATO members decided to deploy ground forces (four battalions) on a rotating basis, but always there, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Additionally, air and naval forces will conduct periodic training in and near the area. The point is much the same as our stationing of troops in West Germany during Cold War I. Should the Russians make a move on one of these states, they will need to go through NATO forces to do it and thus risk war. To be clear, the numbers of NATO forces there are a drop in the bucket and would not meaningfully impede a Russian advance. They are there as a symbol of resolve. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (the creation of NATO) an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. It is the principal of collective defense that has helped to keep the peace in Europe and provided the foundation for a period of economic and political stability that has lasted for roughly seventy years. The first time in the history of NATO that Article 5 was invoked was following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
The idea of collective defense coupled with the military capability and political will to back it up has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II. There was never any doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO and our allies. It served as a major block to Soviet adventurism in Cold War I and is a serious warning to Putin’s adventurism as Cold War II begins to build. Never a doubt. Until now.
In a foreign policy interview published by the New York Times on 21 July, Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Manhattan) threw that commitment into doubt. You can read it for yourself using the link, but here is part of that interview:
SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.
SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
Regardless to say, this created a high level of anxiety throughout the capitals of our allies and seriously casts into doubt the viability of collective defense. To be effective, Article 5 has to be an article of faith for every member and for every potential opponent. Otherwise, it has little meaning. As Cold War II develops, I’m sure Vladimir Putin was celebrating.