A Language Putin Understands

Following Russia’s overt intervention in eastern Ukraine late last month the rhetoric from Kiev has dramatically shifted in favor of peace, with President Petro Poroshenko himself pushing legislation to grant the rebellious areas a high degree of autonomy. Vladimir Putin has been largely victorious, for he has accomplished his objective of weakening Ukraine, stalling its integration with Europe and keeping it subservient to Moscow. Aside from the hopelessly outclassed Ukrainian military, the only opposition faced by Putin has been a mild and entirely ineffective sanctions regime. With a ceasefire apparently holding, European leaders will hasten to remove even these limited sanctions and resume normal relations with Moscow. The liberal understanding of foreign policy that informs most EU and NATO capitals does not equip them for dealing with an outlier like Putin, who understands the world through a vastly different paradigm. The debellicized nature of European policymaking has denied the West political instruments that had the potential to resolve the Ukraine crisis on much more favorable terms. Instead of surrendering the initiative to Putin by responding to each aggression with token sanctions, the US and Europe should impose costs on Russia asymmetrically. Two possibilities come to mind immediately:

1. Transnistria

h/t The Economist

h/t The Economist

This small, heavily industrialized sliver of land east of the Dneister river achieved de facto independence from Moldova following a brief war in 1992 when Russian troops intervened on the side of Transnistrian separatists. Still host to a small garrison of Russian troops, Transnistria’s economy has major steel, agricultural, textile and criminal sectors. It also has very long and open border with Ukraine. The enclave is completely isolated from Russian territory, though the recent annexation of Crimea has closed the distance significantly. Conceivably, Ukraine could threaten to occupy the entire territory. Short of that, it could attack Russian forces in the territory, forcing them to surrender and thus giving Kiev a major bargaining chip against Moscow.

2. Kaliningrad

A thorn in NATO's side

A thorn in NATO’s side

The speciousness of the Russian pretext for intervening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (protection of Russian minorities from neo-Nazi hordes in historically Russian territory) is thrown into sharp relief by Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic coast that was historically German before being conquered by the Soviet Union in World War II, whereupon the population was decimated and expelled. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO eastward, Kaliningrad is now completely surrounded by NATO states. If 3 to 5 NATO brigades were to deploy to Poland for “joint exercises” near the Kaliningrad border, the Kremlin would be forced to redeploy assets away from Ukraine in order to respond and its propaganda would be undermined.

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In the last six years Russia has destabilized, invaded and dismembered two Western-leaning states along its frontier. There is a very real possibility that Putin’s next confrontation will be with NATO itself. It need not be overtly military in character; the modus operandi for revisionist powers in the 21st century is a campaign of incremental actions, each action falling below the threshold that would provoke response, which cumulatively results in a change to the status quo. Putin’s most likely course of action is to subvert the Baltic states by covertly mobilizing their ethnic Russian minorities to agitate for special political rights and possibly autonomy. Open rebellion – like what occurred in eastern Ukraine – will not be necessary. Protests, demonstrations, strikes and rioting should be sufficient. The objective is to force the Baltic capitals to grant political concessions to their Russian minorities without NATO invoking Article 5 or otherwise responding in a significant fashion. If NATO does not back them up and the Baltics capitulate, the credibility of the alliance will be shattered and the states of eastern Europe will begin aligning themselves with the Kremlin out of self-preservation, thus reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence.

The threat to NATO is significant. Pro-Russian placards and sit-ins on the streets of Tallinn will not seem a threat to most observers, but what is at stake is the future of the European order. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared to move things up the escalatory ladder, beyond the level that Putin is willing to accept.

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Arms Control at its Worst

On Monday, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Originally signed during the waning days of the Cold War, the treaty placated both the Soviet Union, which was eager to restore tactical nuclear superiority on the Eurasian landmass, and the Western European allies, who preferred that any NATO-Soviet war quickly escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, which would exhaust the main belligerents but leave Europe itself intact [in theory, at least]. The United States, however, ended up sacrificing a valuable class of weapons (such as Pershing II) that gave it a measure of tactical nuclear parity with Soviet forces. The accusation stems from Russian testing of two different systems, beginning in 2007. The first is the RS-26, an authorized ICBM, but Russia has been testing it at intermediate ranges, a circumvention of the INF Treaty. The second is the R-500 cruise missile, which can be deployed from existing Iskander launchers. There is evidence that the latter system has already been deployed, menacingly, opposite the Baltics.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

On the face of it, Monday’s accusation seems appropriate, given the clear evidence of violation and Russia’s current belligerence over Ukraine. Obviously, the Russians disagree:

The statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Washington of airing old grievances and using ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to try to score political points during the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the Russian statement is closer to the truth on this issue. Take another look at the timing: evidence of prohibited testing has existed since 2008, and the White House was facing Congressional criticism for inaction as far back as 2012. And yet, only now, after Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign Ukrainian territory, sponsored an insurgency that has torn apart eastern Ukraine, made predatory glances toward the Baltics, and been complicit in the destruction of a civilian airliner, does the Administration bother making an official report of a treaty infraction. The problem is not that the accusation is false or unwarranted, but that, just as the Russians suggested, the Obama Administration considers it just another arrow in a weak quiver of diplomatic sanctions against Russia. Presumably, the US is willing to drop the issue – along with the other sanctions – when Putin scales back his involvement in eastern Ukraine. If the US was serious about enforcing arms control treaties, it would have reported the infraction years ago, when conclusive intelligence on the testing became available. Apparently, it avoided doing so to maintain the possibility of future agreements; it’s hard to sell Congress on a new arms control treaty when the current ones are being violated. Far too often in American history, arms control has been pursued not as a legitimate objective of national security, but as a legacy project for the incumbent President. The more agreements signed, the higher his place in the cosmic pantheon of peacemakers. When combined with the operative motto of most Western arms controllers – “a bad agreement is better than no agreement” – this ambition has left America with a long list of disadvantageous treaties, including INF, that have unnecessarily weakened its strategic position. It is extremely unlikely that Russian will return to compliance with INF. China and India are not party to the treaty. By acceding to the agreement in this strategic environment, the US is piously martyring itself before the altar of the False Trinity: arms control, disarmament and world peace. A more sensible course of action is a strategic reassessment concerning the role of the INF Treaty in US national security. Ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges are very relevant to the US position in east Asia: an offshore balancer attempting to deter China from a handful of small island bases.