How can the West deal with the increasing military and non-military threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
This question was the focus of the first panel of the 8th CEPA Forum, moderated by CEPA senior fellow Janusz Bugajski and featuring Michael Carpenter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia; Janis Kažociņš, national security adviser to Latvia’s president; Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland’s deputy minister of national defense, and Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, commander-in-chief of the Estonian Defense Forces.
Kažociņš noted that the generations of Europeans who lived through the horrors of World War II are dying out—making the concept of war “almost conceivable” and therefore much more dangerous.
“We’ve forgotten what the EU was for: to stop the wars of the 20th century from repeating themselves,” he said. “If we forget that, then we are in deep trouble.”
The Latvian official noted that while Russia is clearly capable of occupying the three Baltic states “on very short notice,” he doubts whether it actually intends to do so.
“But that can change in the blink of an eye. Russia’s aims are quite different in the Baltics than they are in Ukraine,” he warned. “From their point of view, Ukraine is the little brother that wants to be close to Big Brother. But the Baltic states were always seen as part of the West, even during Soviet times. The aim there is much more likely to make us into client states— maybe still members of NATO and the EU, but following a foreign policy in conjunction with that dictated by the Kremlin.”
Yet Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas are not necessarily models for what Putin might do in eastern Latvia, which—like Estonia—has a substantial Russian-speaking minority that could be used to undermine the state. Meanwhile, he said, the Kremlin utilizes information warfare to create an impression of inevitability; no matter what the Baltic states do, they will eventually “go back to the fold of Mother Russia.”
Estonia’s Terras agreed, though in a way he said Putin’s adventures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have inadvertently served as a wakeup call for all three Baltic nations.
“This is not only bad weather; it is climate change,” he said. “It has changed NATO’s mindset. I think that’s the one place where Putin completely miscalculated, because I don’t think Putin expected unanimous decisions in Wales and Warsaw.”
He stressed that, given Russia’s heavy investments in nuclear capability, NATO “should still put a lot of emphasis on the nuclear deterrence, and in that regard, the UK’s decision to build nuclear submarines is very important.”
Indeed, suggested Szatkowski, “we will have to relearn some lessons from the past. We cannot underestimate the nuclear dimension. The Russians are lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. We have to reach out with some efforts to provide verification measures.”
To that end, NATO’s 2014 Summit in Warsaw saw the unveiling of measures “to enhance both the deterrence and defense of the alliance,” according to Carpenter. In his talk, the Pentagon official speculated that Putin might become even more aggressive as Russia’s oil export-dependent economy continues to deteriorate.
“Russian leaders have undertaken nuclear saber-rattling over the last couple of years. All of this combines to create a threat of a revanchist Russia that challenges the very basic norms of the international order the way it’s operated since the end of the Second World War,” said Carpenter. “Within NATO, I think our actions have spoken very clearly about how seriously we take the threat.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is seeking $3.4 billion from Congress in 2017 for the European Reassurance Initiative—quadruple this year’s allocation. This, he said, will fund five specific areas to support NATO’s enhanced forward presence including an increased force posture in Europe and an airborne and strikers combat brigade team that will “enhance the deterrence of the alliance by leaving the Russians guessing.”
The imminent admission of Montenegro as NATO’s 29th and newest member underscores the alliance’s commitment to the western Balkans, a region being “deeply destabilized” by the Kremlin, said Carpenter.
“Beyond NATO, the threat Russia poses is not confined to NATO’s space but also includes Georgia and Ukraine,” he said, describing the Pentagon’s $335 million program to train five land-forces battalions and one special-forces battalion. He said “substantial” U.S. military aid is also flowing to Georgia, which seeks entry into NATO.
Yet Carpenter said that allocation pales next to the overall $583 billion U.S. defense budget request “to enhance our own defense and deterrence capabilities” while “maintaining our qualitative military edge and investing heavily in innovative new technologies and nuclear modernization.”