With all of the attention surrounding the circus that is our presidential campaign season, it is possible to overlook other developments of significance. To my mind, one of those significant others is our increasingly deteriorating relationship with Russia.
As I wrote back in July when I focused on the role of NATO and the increasing belligerence Russia is exhibiting towards the Baltic States, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his role as the one individual that can, and will, restore Russia to its previous glory. Since then he has continued to create discord around the world. In particular, he has helped to further inflame conflict in Syria and Ukraine. Just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry pulled all of the United States’ negotiators from Geneva where they had been trying to work with the Russians to come up with a political solution to the civil war in Syria and thereby try to save some of the many civilians at risk in Aleppo and other areas of Syria. A cease-fire attempted last month failed when Syrian and Russian, or at least Syrian assisted by Russian, aircraft bombed an aid convoy trying to provide humanitarian relief to those trapped in the city. Since then negotiations aimed at restoring the cease-fire and creating more confidence building measures that might give a chance for a political settlement of the strife had been ongoing. Additionally, the United States had been working on an agreement to work with the Russians in a coordinated military effort against terrorism in the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as most people in the U.S. call it, ISIS). All of it went out the window when the Russians turned their full military might from the air on Aleppo in a brutal assault, even as negotiations were underway. What future course may be taken to alleviate the situation is up in the air, but it does lead to an increased probability that Russia and the U.S. will be working at cross purposes to fight terrorists in the area and increases the probability of Russian and U.S. military forces coming into contact with each other.
In retaliation for the United States withdrawing from the Syrian negotiations, the Soviets, oops, I mean the Russians, suspended a nuclear agreement signed in 2000 between the two nations that called for the disposal of each nation’s stocks of weapons-grade plutonium. While the Russian suspension of the treaty is mostly symbolic (both countries intend to continue to reduce their stockpiles) it does serve to show how the relationship has deteriorated and it also provided the Russian government an opportunity to complain about actions it believes the United States is taking to undermine Russia.
And what are those actions that so enrage Vladimir Putin you may ask? Foremost among them is the continuing deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic states and the enforcement of the sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In Ukraine last August, President Putin raised tensions as he claimed that the Ukrainian government was moving to attack Crimea, the area Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The tension persists and even though it is currently relatively quiet, nothing is totally quiet along the front as periodic fighting continues and lives continue to be lost. Further exacerbating the toxic atmosphere in Ukraine, Dutch investigators clearly linked the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014 to the Russian supplied separatists. All 298 people onboard were killed. Despite continued Russian denials, the investigation showed a missile battery moved from Russian territory into rebel held territory and then returned to Russia after the incident. Russian actions in the area continue to be a threat to the rest of Ukraine and Europe, and President Putin seems to be relishing his ability to turn conflict off and on. Keep an eye on developments there as the rest of the world becomes increasingly distracted by the U.S. presidential campaign, events in Syria, and the fight against terrorism.
What is troubling to me about President Putin is his world view. While we have competitors and adversaries in China, Iran, and other spots around the world (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seems to be gong off the reservation for example), they have a different world view than does President Putin. Most nations of the world know that they are economically tied to the global economy which is powered by the United States. This does not stop actions antithetical to our interests, but it does serve to temper them. President Putin on the other hand, sees the world and especially Russia’s relationship to the United States, indeed politics in general, as a zero sum game. Whatever hurts the U.S. helps Russia and vice versa. Add to this that his country is not doing well economically and like most dictators, he is creating international foes in order to distract the citizenry from their troubles at home. This makes him ever more dangerous.
In this context, I am amazed that more reporting is not being done on the breaches of cyber security that occur almost daily in the United States, and most especially, the hacks that impact our free and independent elections. Of particular note are the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the release of scores of emails concerning the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the attempts to get into the election processes of individual states, most notably Arizona and Illinois. Experts point their collective finger at the Russians as being responsible for these and other equally egregious cyber attacks.
While individual ballot boxes are not connected to the internet, and therefore cannot be hacked, there are other processes that are computer driven and may be susceptible to attack. Among these are voter registration lists. Imagine if large numbers of people show up to vote and are not allowed to do so because their names were expunged from the voting rolls or are otherwise tampered with so as to take away their ability to vote. Add to that one presidential candidate that is already talking about how the vote is rigged if he doesn’t win and that his supporters should go to the polls in urban areas to watch others vote to make sure that everything is on the “up and up” because “that would be one hell of a way to lose, I’ll tell you what.” (Incidentally, in study after study and in court cases concerning voter identification laws, there has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud changing or even slightly influencing the outcome of any national election, despite urban myths and legends to the contrary.)
I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not want to be misquoted so I will say up front, I do not think that the Republican nominee is in any way aiding or abetting or otherwise involved in the Russian hacking efforts, even though last July he famously invited the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent’s emails. However, I find it disconcerting that thus far, only Democrats have suffered the embarrassing revelations of the Russian hackers. I would be willing to bet that a number of Republican accounts have been similarly hacked, but clearly the Russian hackers are trying to influence the election in one direction. One could speculate as to why that is, or even if there is some kind of reverse bizarro world logic that it could backfire on the other candidate. I don’t know, but clearly there is an effort to influence the outcome. It is bad news for our nation when a foreign power attempts to influence our elections and we do not stop it.
Ultimately, whether or not the attacks are successful at actually changing ballots, the real effort on the part of the Russians is to delegitimize our election process, call into question the results and spread further hate and discontent in an already fractured election process. Besides being cyber warfare, it is most especially also classic psychological warfare aimed at undermining the United States, our policies, and our stature in the world. Vladimir Putin and his cronies are ready and willing to fill the void left by the United States should their efforts be successful.
Unclear to me is whether or not our own cyber warfare forces deployed to counter the Russians and/or to similarly attack them in a way that sends a signal to knock it off or suffer the consequences. It is a tricky situation for the U.S. It is generally accepted that the United States has superior cyber warfare capabilities, but to deploy them now, in the month leading up to an election, and risk a wide-spread cyber war that could impact the election results dramatically (not in vote manipulation necessarily but rather in a wide-spread crisis that impacts infrastructure, banking or some other target that causes far-ranging panic) is a tough decision. On the other hand, we do not know where or when the Russians (and possibly others) might strike anyway if not deterred from doing so. A difficult choice. Unknown, of course, is whether such a counter sign of our capabilities and willingness to punish the Russians in our own attack has already been demonstrated to the Russians by our cyber forces under a stringent top secret operation.
Regardless, our next president must be prepared to deal with the Russians and do so with eyes wide open. Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States and he never will be. He has one goal and one goal only — to turn his economically depressed country into a super power at the expense of the United States of America.
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.
It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea. (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here. If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)
It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda. He is serious. Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order. I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech. In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent. He is taking the long view — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech. Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands. (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.) He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.
He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union. In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back). It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow. He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west. This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.
In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act. To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea. It means that further actions in the same context are justified. Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness. He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.” In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.” Sound familiar?
A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO. This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia. Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view. As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”
Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded. Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged. The question is now what to do about it?
International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor. This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives. So what? Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem. Why? Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand. It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.
Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength. Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action. (See Syria: Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)
Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events. The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.
Where we do have the upper hand is economically. Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil. This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made. Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric. So be it. Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States. The problem is that few people take the long view. Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important. It’s cold so we need natural gas. We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK. (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov? I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)
Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat. They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.
What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions. (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)
Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature. Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical. We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences. Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.
Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear. Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again. I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it. Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously. We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments. In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.
Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues. As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.
Danger, Will Robinson. We cannot ignore it. I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions. We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check. Deterrence, not reaction is needed. Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.