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:
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.
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.
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.