Putin Against History
How His War Has Erased Russia’s Past—And Endangered Its Future
Many observers believe that the greatest damage Russia has done to U.S. interests in recent years stems from the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Although there is no question that Moscow’s meddling in American elections is deeply worrying, it is just one aspect of the threat Russia poses. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has embarked on a systematic challenge to the West. The goal is to weaken the bonds between Europe and the United States and among EU members, undermine NATO’s solidarity, and strengthen Russia’s strategic position in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Putin wants nothing less than to return Russia to the center of global politics by challenging the primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. He has undertaken a major military modernization designed to intimidate neighbors and weaken NATO, and he has resorted to the overt use of military force to establish new facts on the ground—not just in what Moscow calls its “sphere of privileged interests,” which encompasses all of the former Soviet republics, but also further afield, including in the Middle East, an area where the U.S. military has long operated with a free hand.
For some time now, “the Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode,” the Russia scholar Dmitri Trenin has observed, and Putin has been behaving like a wartime leader. Washington’s response to this challenge must be equally strong. First, it is critical to maintain transatlantic unity; divisions across the Atlantic and within Europe weaken NATO’s ability to respond to Russian provocations and provide openings for Moscow to extend its reach and influence. The alliance has responded to the new Russia challenge by enhancing its presence in eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and Russia has so far not threatened the territorial integrity of any NATO member state. But NATO must do more to bolster its deterrence by sending a clear message to the Kremlin that it will not tolerate further Russian aggression or expansionism. At the same time, policymakers must remember that the United States is not at war with Russia; there is no need for Washington to put itself on a war footing, even if Moscow has. Dialogue and open channels of communication remain essential to avoiding misunderstandings and miscalculations that could escalate into a war no one wants.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
After the Cold War ended, American, European, and Russian strategic objectives appeared to converge on the goal of fostering the economic and political transformation of eastern Europe and Russia and creating an integrated Europe that would be whole, free, and at peace. The military confrontation that had marked relations for more than 40 years rapidly and peacefully disappeared with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from eastern Europe, and the negotiation of far-reaching arms control agreements. Freed from the strategic logic of the Cold War, governments focused their energies on transforming eastern Europe’s command economies into functioning market democracies and on the task of unifying the continent.
In Russia in the early 1990s, economic “shock therapy” rapidly dismantled the state-controlled economy of the Soviet era but failed to produce immediate or widely shared prosperity. The Russian financial crisis of 1998 imposed significant costs on the population—including a sharp rise in prices for basic goods as a result of the rapid depreciation of the ruble—and helped set the stage for the emergence of a new generation of leaders committed to stability and order even at the cost of economic and political liberalization. By the end of the decade, a demoralized Russian public welcomed the arrival of a strong new leader; Putin, the former head of Russia’s security services, took office in late 1999, promising an end to chaos and a return to stability. By tightening his control over the state bureaucracy, Putin fulfilled his promise. And as rising oil and gas prices filled government coffers, he also managed to raise the standard of living of ordinary Russians. The focus during this time was on domestic renewal rather than foreign engagement, although Putin did indicate a desire for increased cooperation with the United States, especially when it came to confronting common threats, such as terrorism.
As Russia’s confidence and wealth grew, however, the Kremlin became increasingly concerned about what it perceived as Western encroachment in its sphere of influence, as successive countries in central and eastern Europe, including the three Baltic states, opted to join NATO and the EU. Putin chafed at what he saw as Washington’s growing power and arrogance, especially in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he gradually abandoned any thought of seeking common ground with the West.
The first signs of this shift came, unexpectedly, in a speech Putin delivered at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. He railed against NATO expansion and accused the United States of running roughshod over the sovereignty of other countries in its pursuit of a unipolar world. In Putin’s eyes, Washington aimed at nothing less than world domination: “One single center of power. One single center of force. One single center of decision-making. It is [a] world in which there is one master, one sovereign.”
Putin chafed at what he saw as Washington’s growing power and arrogance, and he gradually abandoned any thought of seeking common ground with the West.
And it wasn’t just Putin’s rhetoric that changed. That same year, Russia exploited internal disagreements between ethnic Russians and Estonians to launch a cyberattack against Estonia’s government, media outlets, and banking system. The following year saw the first overt military expression of Moscow’s new foreign policy direction: Russia’s war with Georgia, ostensibly designed to secure the independence of two breakaway regions but in fact meant to send a clear message that Russia was prepared to stymie Georgia’s ambitions to join the West.
THE PUTIN PLAYBOOK
Although Moscow achieved its objectives in the war against Georgia, the conflict laid bare real weaknesses in Russia’s armed forces, including failing command and control, a woeful lack of military training, and significant shortcomings in its military hardware. Some 60 to 70 percent of Russian tanks and armored vehicles broke down during the five days of fighting, and although Russia’s per capita military spending was 56 percent greater than Georgia’s that year, the heavy armor deployed by Tbilisi was far more modern and advanced than Moscow’s.
None of these deficiencies went unnoticed in Moscow, and the Kremlin immediately embarked on a massive military reform and modernization program. Between 2007 and 2016, Russia’s annual military spending nearly doubled, reaching $70 billion, the third-highest level of defense spending in the world (following the United States and China). Military spending in 2016 amounted to 5.3 percent of Russia’s GDP, the highest proportion since Russia’s independence in 1990 and the highest percentage spent on defense by any major economy that year. In 2011, Moscow announced a ten-year modernization program that included $360 billion in new military procurement. At the same time, the Russian armed forces began a wholesale restructuring and an overhaul of their training programs.
The effect of these improvements became clear in Ukraine six years after the war in Georgia. As Kiev was rocked by political upheaval over its ties to the EU, Putin—who had once told U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine was “not even a state” and claimed that the Soviet Union had given the territory of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as “a gift”—responded by invading and annexing Crimea in early 2014. Not satisfied with controlling this strategically vital peninsula, Moscow then fomented a separatist rebellion in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, home to a predominantly Russian-speaking population and to many of Ukraine’s heavy industries. Russia sent military equipment, advisers, and ultimately thousands of troops to the area in order to prevent Ukraine from securing control over its own territory.
The thrusts into eastern Ukraine were straight out of the Putin playbook, but the Crimea operation represented a qualitatively new effort by Moscow to get its way. Crimea was not just invaded; it was annexed and incorporated into the Russian Federation after an illegitimate, rigged referendum. Putin wanted Russia’s “gift” back, even though Moscow had agreed to respect the territorial integrity of every former Soviet republic when the Soviet Union broke up, in 1991, and had explicitly reiterated that commitment in a legally binding memorandum negotiated with Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom in 1994. For the first time in postwar European history, one country had annexed territory from another by force.
The operation in Crimea also demonstrated a whole new form of Russian military prowess. Stealthily deployed special forces took over key facilities and organs of the Ukrainian state. Sophisticated cyber-operations and relentless disinformation diverted attention from what was happening. And the speed of the operation meant it was completed before anyone could mount an effective response. Russian special forces, dressed in green uniforms without identifying patches, suddenly appeared at strategic points throughout Crimea and effectively took control of the peninsula. Simultaneously, a large-scale propaganda operation sought to hide Moscow’s fingerprints by suggesting that these “little green men” were local opposition forces that reflected the popular will to reject the political change in Kiev and reunite with Russia instead. This, in short, was no traditional military invasion; it was hybrid warfare in which goals were accomplished even before the adversary understood what was going on. It represented an entirely new threat for which neither Ukraine nor NATO was prepared.
Moscow justified the invasion and annexation of Crimea with arguments based on a new form of Russian nationalism. From the outset of the conflict, Putin had maintained that Crimea was rightly Russia’s and that Moscow was fully within its right in retaking it. Moreover, Russia claimed that it had to act because Russian-speaking people in Ukraine were being attacked by a violent mob of “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” who had carried out a coup in Kiev. Later, Putin went further, pronouncing a new doctrine aimed at defending Russians anywhere. “I would like to make it clear to all: our country will continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means.” And Putin was adamant that he was not talking about just Russian citizens, or even ethnic Russians, when pronouncing this absolute right to defend them anywhere. “I am referring to those people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.” To many, these words echoed claims made during the 1930s that Germany had a right—and an obligation—to protect Germans in other countries, such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continued fighting there have exacted a huge toll on the country. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 10,000 people have died since mid-2014, nearly 25,000 have been injured, and some 1.6 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced. Every day brings exchanges of fire and more casualties. Yet the incursion into Ukraine represents only one part of the expansion of Russia’s military footprint, which stretches from the Arctic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.
The operation in Crimea demonstrated a whole new form of Russian military prowess.
Russia’s military buildup is both vast in scope and strategically significant. In the country’s far north, Russia has reopened former military bases near the Arctic Ocean, establishing a position of military dominance in a region where peaceful cooperation among the Arctic powers had become the norm. From there, Russia has bolstered and modernized its military presence in its western territories, which stretch from the Norwegian border in the north to the Ukrainian border in the south. Moscow has also beefed up its presence in what is already the most heavily militarized piece of land in Europe, the Kaliningrad exclave—just under 6,000 square miles of Russian-controlled territory sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. More than 300,000 well-trained troops are deployed in Kaliningrad, equipped with modern tanks, armored vehicles, and missile batteries, including a nuclear-capable short-range missile system—posing a significant military threat to Poland and the three Baltic states.
A similar buildup has occurred farther south. Since the war in Ukraine began, Russia has sent additional brigades to the Ukrainian border and announced the creation of three new divisions that will face in a “southwest strategic direction”—in other words, toward Ukraine. In addition to deploying 30,000 troops to Crimea, Moscow has positioned 30 combat ships, five submarines, more than 100 combat aircraft, and more than 50 combat helicopters, as well as long-range antiship and antiaircraft missile and radar systems, on the strategically vital peninsula, giving Russia the ability to dominate the Black Sea region. It also has deployed thousands of troops to occupied areas in eastern Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—as well as some 5,500 troops to Armenia, which are there with the consent of the Armenian government in support of its claim to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, Russia has enlarged its air and naval presence in Syria in order to better assist the endangered regime of Bashar al-Assad, effectively ending NATO’s uncontested control of the eastern Mediterranean, a strategically pivotal area that includes the Suez Canal. Although many analysts worry about the Russian threat to the Baltic states, the more dramatic shift has been in the Mediterranean, where Russia’s navy now boasts missiles that can threaten most of Europe.
Russia’s enhanced military presence has been matched by increased military assertiveness. This trend started with the invasion of Ukraine but did not end there. In Syria, Russia has increased the tempo of its military operations in support of the flailing Assad regime and employed long-range missiles fired from naval vessels in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. It has flown fighter and bomber missions close to or even within the airspace of NATO member states and other European countries. It has deployed nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles from its northern ports to the Atlantic. And it has engaged in often dangerous air and naval activities, including buzzing NATO naval vessels and aircraft, flying military aircraft with their transponders turned off, and intentionally failing to monitor emergency communications channels. Meanwhile, the Russian military has significantly enhanced the scale and scope of its training exercises, launching many without any notice. In 2014, days before the invasion of Ukraine, a snap exercise mobilized 150,000 troops near the Russian-Ukrainian border; in September 2017, Moscow conducted its quadrennial Zapad exercise, mobilizing up to 100,000 troops in western Russia, Kaliningrad, and Belarus and requisitioning enough rail cars to transport 4,000 tanks and armored vehicles. At the same time, Russia is modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad, building new long-range missiles, submarines, and bombers to maintain a nuclear force that is at least the equal of the U.S. arsenal.
Russia’s military buildup and posturing have provided Moscow with renewed confidence—a sense that Russia once again matters and that the world can no longer ignore it. In the Kremlin’s eyes, Russia is again a great global power and therefore can act as global powers do. Not surprisingly, the buildup has caused concern in the Pentagon. Calling Russia’s behavior “nothing short of alarming,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, concluded in 2015 that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.”
How should the United States and its European allies respond to this threat? To date, the combined NATO response has been impressive. But Washington and other NATO allies must work harder to thwart the challenge Russia poses to security and stability in Europe and beyond.
For years, the NATO allies had been divided in their views of Russia, with some (such as France, Germany, and Italy) insisting that the alliance should seek a strategic partnership with Moscow, and others (such as Poland and the Baltic states) warning that Russia still posed a threat. The Russian invasion of Ukraine ended much of this internal debate, and NATO responded with actions designed to leave no doubt about its commitment to defend all its members against a possible Russian attack. The alliance created a new 5,000-member joint task force that can deploy within 48 to 72 hours, sent four multinational combat battalions to Poland and the Baltic states, and established command-and-control headquarters in all its eastern European member states, including new multinational headquarters in Poland and Romania. NATO has also increased the number of exercises it carries out in central and eastern Europe, made infrastructure investments to enable reinforcements to arrive at their destinations more quickly, and ramped up its naval and air presence in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
As the alliance’s strongest and most important ally, the United States has taken the lead in many of these activities. It heads the new combat battalion in Poland and has added an additional combat brigade, which deploys to Europe from the United States on a rotating basis. Beginning this year, it will also begin forward-deploying tanks and other heavy equipment for a combat division in order to allow for the rapid reinforcement of NATO’s eastern territories. Annual spending on this European reassurance initiative has risen from less than $1 billion two years ago to a budget request of nearly $5 billion for the coming fiscal year. Together, these steps amount to the largest reinforcement of NATO’s collective-defense efforts since the end of the Cold War. But they are not enough.
The steps taken by NATO countries since 2014 to strengthen deterrence have halted the alliance’s decline in overall capabilities, but the response has been too slow and too limited. These steps must be backed by real improvements in the overall capability of NATO’s military forces, as well as significant investments in land, air, and naval infrastructure to enable the rapid reinforcement of the alliance’s eastern European member states. Unfortunately, for over a decade, most European countries have cut their defense spending and failed to invest sufficiently in maintaining, let alone increasing, their armed forces. Meanwhile, distracted by conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the United States has steadily reduced its overall military footprint in Europe.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO leaders finally agreed to stop cutting defense spending, and all members committed to spending at least two percent of GDP on defense by 2024. That target is hardly onerous—in fact, it is too modest. In 2000, just a decade after the Cold War ended, European NATO countries were spending two percent of their combined GDP on defense; by 2014, that number had fallen to 1.45 percent. Given the magnitude of the threat and the pressing need to demonstrate every ally’s commitment to the collective defense of NATO’s territory, NATO should move more quickly and push all members to reach the two percent target by 2020 at the latest.
NO LONGER OBSOLETE
Speaking almost a decade after Putin lambasted NATO and the United States at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev returned to the same podium last year to lament that “we have slid back into a new Cold War.” But the current confrontation is very different from the actual Cold War, an ideological clash that extended to every part of the world. Huge armies were deployed on either side of the Iron Curtain, many thousands of nuclear weapons were ready to launch at a moment’s notice, and proxy wars were fought as far away as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today’s confrontation lacks the intensity, scale, and ideological divisiveness of that earlier, deadlier conflict.
Moreover, the biggest threat today is not a deliberate war, as it was then, but the possibility of miscalculation. One worry is that Russia might not believe that NATO would actually come to the defense of its most exposed allies—which is why strong statements of reassurance and commitment by all NATO countries, and not least the United States, are so vital. Improving the military capabilities and extending the forward presence of NATO forces are important signals of resolve, but they need to be backed by words that leave no doubt of the intention to use these forces to defend allies if they are attacked. That is why it was so important for U.S. President Donald Trump to publicly recognize the centrality of NATO’s Article 5 commitment to collective defense, which he did by noting, in April, that NATO is “no longer obsolete”—reversing his earlier claim that it was—and by explicitly stating, at a press conference in June, that he was “committing the United States to Article 5.”
Another possible miscalculation could come from the failure of NATO or Russia to understand the other party’s true motives and intentions. Doubts are fed by snap military exercises involving large numbers of troops near borders, a lack of transparency in deployments, and dangerous military activities that simulate attacks and threaten the safety of opposing forces. At a time of rising tensions, actions like these contribute to an uncertain climate and increase the possibility of accidents and escalation.
Whatever the growing differences between Russia, the United States, and NATO, they all share one crucial common interest: avoiding a major war that no one wants. The most pressing priority is to encourage direct dialogue, at both the political and, especially, the military level. The NATO-Russia Council, forged in more optimistic times but still a body that brings Russia and all 29 NATO members together under one roof, is well suited to this task and can help devise rules and procedures that will reduce the likelihood of confrontation. Rising political tensions have sidelined the council and turned it into a venue for debating differences rather than finding common ground. Yet it provides a forum for discussing ways to increase transparency, build confidence, and ensure communication during crises, which are all necessary to avoid miscalculation and escalation.
Today, Russia poses a threat unlike any the United States and its allies have faced since the end of the Cold War. It is a challenge the United States and its European allies can meet only through unity and strength. If they fail to unite and bolster NATO’s defense capabilities, Europe’s future stability and security may well be imperiled.