As if timed to coincide with this week’s NATO summit in Wales, which could mark the most important gathering of Western allies since the end of the Cold War, US-based commentary this week took a huge leap forward in its assessment of the Russian threat — though not necessarily in a way that’s incredible rational.
Call it the ‘underpants gnome’ theory of understanding Russia today:
Russian aggression in Ukraine + ????? = World War III!
But even as a ceasefire takes effect today between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists based in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, based on a plan put forward earlier this week by none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin and brokered by talks hosted by increasingly nervous officials in Belarus, US writers are nevertheless openly contemplating the audacious notion of a potential Russian nuclear strike.
In Foreign Policy yesterday, Jeffrey Tayler writes that Putin could launch a limited nuclear strike on a peripheral NATO member. His reasoning is that Putin can neither easily withdraw from his standoff over Ukraine nor launch a conventional attack, because the Russian military would be sure to lose a conventional war.
That’s because the defending NATO member would presumably invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter — the ‘all for one and one for all’ article that states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members.
As David Frum wrote earlier this week at The Atlantic, US president Barack Obama’s speech in Tallinn on Wednesday established that the Article 5 principle extends to eastern Europe just as surely as it does elsewhere:
And he forcefully assured Estonians—and all NATO’s new allies—that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. “[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said. “Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.” This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested—and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that. Today, for the first time perhaps, Eastern Europeans have reason to believe it.
That, Tayler, writes, backs Putin into the corner of nuclear war:
That leaves Putin only one option: a nuclear attack. Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the “superior political will” to alter the geopolitical “status quo” and — most importantly — with the “greater indifference to values concerning human lives” would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be?
Tayler’s argument is that Putin is willing to call Obama’s Article 5 bluff. After all, would a tactical nuclear strike on Tallinn actually be the same as an attack on London? Would a war-weary United States be enthusiastic about fighting and dying for Estonians and Latvians and Lithuanians?
Tayler envisions a scenario whereby Putin starts stirring up trouble in a city like Narva, Estonia’s third largest city, where nearly 19 out of 20 residents is a native Russian speaker. If you look at a map of the Estonian-Russian border, it’s quite clear just how vulnerable a city like Narva might be to a potential attack:
Still, it’s noteworthy that Russian aggression in the Putin era has targeted non-NATO members like Ukraine and Georgia. If there’s a reason that NATO was hesitant to offer membership to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and to former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, there’s a reason why Putin hasn’t sent Russian soldiers and tanks headlong into the Baltic.
NATO’s expansion, while robust, has a much more delicate footprint than you might expect. NATO today includes just three former Soviet republics, the three Baltic states, all of whom joined in 2004. Between 1999 and 2009, however, eight former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact joined NATO: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Albania and Croatia. For now, however, NATO has been hesitant to extend membership to additional former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Georgia. Though they are forging closer ties with NATO, Sweden and Finland never actually joined the alliance. (Notably, fellow Scandinavian Jens Stoltenberg, the former social democratic prime minister of Norway, will become NATO’s new secretary-general on October 1).
Anne Applebaum, the typically thoughtful foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, and the spouse of Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, perhaps the most prominent (and understandably) hawkish voice in the European Union with respect to Russia, got the ball rolling last week. She suggested that, just as no one in Poland believed in the summer of 1939 that the annihilation of World War II was necessarily coming, it’s equally naive for Americans and Europeans today, in our integrated and globalized world, to believe that war with Russia is so far-fetched:
Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — the Russian member of parliament and court jester who sometimes says things that those in power cannot — argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries — “dwarf states,” he called them — and show the West who really holds power in Europe: “Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,” he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovsky’s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always “gets the party going.”
Zhirinovsky, however, is well past his sell-by date.
Back in 1996, when his LDPR (Политическая партия ЛДПР), formerly the Liberal Democratic Party (which was neither liberal nor democratic) was the second-largest bloc in the Russian parliament, he ran for president on a platform that Russia should extend south to the Indian Ocean. He’s one of a handful of politicians that now exist as the approved opposition in Putin’s Russia. Zhirinovsky, in March, suggested that Russia should annex all of central Asia, and even in the presidential ‘election’ in March 2012, he was rattling the nationalist saber against the Baltic states. (In that election, Zhirinovsky won all of 6.2% of the vote).
That Applebaum cites Zhirinovsky as a credible source of Russian policy intentions should be a caution sign that her analysis might be worth taking with a heap of skepticism.
Both Applebaum and Tayler draw from the writings of Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian mathematician and dissident who’s been highly critical of Putin’s ‘managed’ democracy. It’s Piontkovsky who has suggested the possibility of a limited nuclear strike. Piontkovsky argues that by calling Obama’s (and NATO’s) bluff with a very limited nuclear strike against a Baltic (or Polish) city, Putin could show that the Article 5 guarantee means very little. In the language of the Cold War, the logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’ has broken down today, because NATO leaders aren’t willing to start World War III over Narva or another Baltic city.
It’s true that late last month, Putin chillingly reminded the world that Russia remains one of the world’s leading nuclear powers:
“Russia’s partners…should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” said Putin, dressed casually in a grey sweater and light blue jeans. “Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
Nevertheless, launching preemptive nuclear strikes seems like a relatively risky step to take to make an academic point. If NATO won’t go to war for Narva or even Tallinn, it would certainly stand up to Russian aggression against Warsaw, especially now that Polish prime minister Donald Tusk will assume the presidency of the European Council in December. So “calling the Article 5 bluff” only goes so far as a credible strategy.
Undoubtedly, much of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine involves Russian domestic politics. In one of the most brilliant analyses to date on Putin’s motivations, Vox’s Max Fisher argues that Putin’s anti-Western, nationalist rhetoric has its roots in the December 2011 parliamentary elections, which took place in the context slowing Russian economic growth, marred by accusations of fraud, and met with widespread protests in Moscow and elsewhere:
Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.
That, in turn, propelled Russian mischief in Ukraine, which boosted Putin’s approval ratings at home, thereby massively increasing the costs for Putin to back down over eastern Ukraine:
In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.
In addition, Ukraine is one of the few countries in the former Soviet Union that’s developed a relatively strong, institutionalized form of democracy. Given that much of eastern Ukraine (and many of Kiev’s residents) are native Russian speakers, that makes Ukraine a particularly dangerous example of how democracy might work in Moscow as well as Kiev — in the same language that everyday Russian citizens speak.
But it’s not like Putin lacked strategic reasons to slow Ukraine’s turn back toward the West. When the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled office in February, it made sense that Putin would want to complicate and delay what felt like a whipsaw move from east to west. In part, it worked — his annexation of Crimea is now largely regarded as successful, and his tactics arguably resulted in the election of a more Russian-friendly president in Petro Poroshenko, who as recently as 2012 served as Yanukovych’s minister of trade and economic development. If, during the heart of the Cold War, the United States wasn’t willing to start World War III over Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1963, it makes no strategic sense for the United States to do so in 2008 over Georgia or today over Crimea — or even southeastern Ukraine or the breakaway coastal strip of Transnistria within Moldova, another non-NATO member.
Critics like Frum would also be more credible if they acknowledged that Yanukovych’s ouster, however justifiable on moral grounds, was undemocratic — Yanukovych was duly elected in 2010 with a majority of the Ukrainian electorate. It’s also true significant far-right and nationalist elements, including the newly formed Right Sector (Правий сектор) made common cause during the anti-Yanukovych protests over the winter, and many of their leaders held key roles, especially in defense, in the interim Ukrainian government.
Even today, as the ceasefire between Kiev and the rebels takes effect, it wouldn’t seem too difficult for Putin to declare victory in Ukraine — with or without taking more territory in eastern Ukraine, such as a ‘land bridge’ that links Crimea to the Russian mainland. I argued in July that the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 would actually bring Putin and Poroshenko closer to a ceasefire and, ultimately, a peace deal. As world opinion hardens against Putin, and US and European sanctions tighten against an increasingly flagging Russian economy, Putin has a pecuniary incentive to back down. Likewise, Poroshenko has both personal and policy reasons to prefer peace with the Kremlin, and Germany and other leading European countries have both strategic and economic reasons that are smoothing the peaceful option. Though Ukraine is still in crisis mode, it’s not such an existential crisis that there isn’t time for domestic politics, with parliamentary elections now scheduled for October 26.
Writing about the geopolitical forces that are causing the Ukraine crisis to smolder from flames into dull embers isn’t as sexy as World War III or unhinged nuclear strikes on Tallinn. But ultimately, that kind of talk is both irresponsible and a bit silly. While US commentators are forecasting doom, Europeans and Ukrainians are quietly getting on with the work of finding a peaceful solution to the Ukraine-Russia standoff.