The last few days have brought depressing developments for those who care about European freedom. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande went to Moscow to present a Ukraine “peace plan” that actually had been suggested to them by Vladimir Putin. Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere and Merkel has already pronounced that there is no military solution to the Russo-Ukrainian War, a message that was amplified by the Munich Security Conference, Bavaria’s best-catered talkshop, where the lack of Western resolve to confront Russian aggression was made abundantly clear. In Munich, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a rare European NATO leader who has a clear picture of events, told Merkel that the choice was “surrender or arm Ukraine” — to no effect.
To be fair to Europe, Washington, DC, has hardly been telegraphing resolve either. My proposal to send Ukraine defensive weaponry, which looked like it might be in the offing, by this weekend looked dead, though this White House sends so many mixed messages one can never be exactly sure. Late this week, the Obama administration unveiled its new National Security Strategy, amid less than fanfare, with the execrable Susan Rice explaining in “remain calm, all is well!” fashion that things are really much better globally than they look. This White House’s new foreign policy mantra is Strategic Patience, which seems to be the been-to-grad-school version of “don’t do stupid shit.” Since nobody inside the Beltway is taking this eleventh-hour effort to articulate Obama’s security strategy seriously, it’s doubtful anyone abroad, much less in Moscow, will either.
It’s therefore unsurprising that European leaders are in full-panic mode about what Putin will do next. The serious possibility that the Chekist-in-Charge in the Kremlin will seek more provocations, and possibly a major war, to achieve his strategic aim of establishing Russian control over the former Soviet space and therefore dominance over Eastern Europe, is reducing weak-willed Western leaders like Merkel and Hollande to political incoherence.
It seems to have never occurred to them, nor Obama and his national security staff either, that crushing the Russian economy with sanctions might bring more, not less, aggression from Putin, even though that was an obvious possibility. Jaws dropped this week when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who until recently was NATO’s civilian head, stated that it is highly likely that Russia will soon stage a violent provocation against a Baltic state, which being NATO countries, will cause a crisis over the Alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective self-defense. Rasmussen merely said what all defense experts who understand Putin already know, but this was not the sort of reality-based assessment that Western politicians are used to hearing.
There are two core reasons for Western collapse of will before Putin’s decidedly modest aggression in Ukraine. The first is that Western and Central Europe have so substantially disarmed since the end of the Cold War. Hardly any European NATO countries spend the “required” two percent of GDP on defense, and no amount of American scolding about it seems to make any difference. As a result, European NATO militaries, with few exceptions, possess a mere shadow of the combat power they had two decades ago. Several of them have abandoned tanks altogether, while even Germany has so cut back its combat power that there are only four battalions each of armor and artillery in the whole Bundeswehr.
Not all the fault for this sorry state of affairs lies in Europe. Here America has played an insidious role too, encouraging spending on niche missions for the Alliance at the expense of traditional defense. Hence the fact that Baltic navies have considerable counter-mine capabilities — this being an unsexy mission that the U.S. Navy hates to do — yet hardly any ability to police their maritime borders against intruding Russians. To make matters worse, since 2001 the Americans have encouraged NATO partners to spend considerable amounts of their limited defense budgets on America’s losing war in Afghanistan.
But the moral collapse of Europe is even worse than the military collapse. All the armaments in the world do no good when the will to use them is absent. Since the Cold War’s end, Western Europeans have convinced themselves of many things that simply are not true. Their optimistic worldview, which really is the highest form of the WEIRD Weltanschauung, abandoned any notion that monsters might still exist, and many Europeans, including most of their leaders, seem unable to accept the new reality that Vladimir Putin has forced upon them. Yet denying that Russia aims to change the European order, and will use force to do so, will not stop Kremlin misdeeds, actually it will only encourage more Russian aggression.
To be blunt, I see little evidence to date that major European leaders are willing to wake up to this new reality. In the event of Russian provocation against NATO, which is highly likely soon, it’s very possible that the Atlantic Alliance will unravel completely. Putin may achieve his strategic victory with hardly a shot fired. In such an event, I have no idea how Obama, or any American president, could send U.S. troops to die to defend a Europe that is so flagrantly unwilling to defend itself.
Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu counseled that “the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers,” and Putin is doing exactly this. He has no need to undermine NATO strategy, since none exists in reality, while he continues to hack away at the foundations of the Western Alliance through Special War, particularly espionage and subversion.
It’s significant that, just after Greece elected an openly pro-Russian government, whose defense and foreign ministers are major Putin fans, the rising left wing in Spain announces that, should it come to power, it will take Madrid out of NATO altogether. Cyprus’s announcement on Friday that it will offer its military bases to Russia should be seen in proper strategic context. If this chipping away at the foundations of European security by the Kremlin continues, there may be no big war for Russia to have to win.
Which is good news for Putin, since what makes craven European conduct towards Moscow so appalling is the fact that Russia is winning from a position of profound political, economic, and especially military weakness. In military terms, despite the shortcomings of European NATO, Russia lacks the ability to win any major war against the West. Moscow frankly would have a tough time subduing Ukraine quickly, much less marching westward with haste.
Outside the nuclear realm, where the Kremlin likes to rattle radioactive sabers, terrifying Europeans, Russian military strength is not especially impressive. Moscow is in the middle of a big military modernization program that will not be complete until the early 2020’s, and at the moment its ground, air, and naval forces can be assessed as far from ready to win any major war in Europe.
A look at Russia’s ground forces is revealing. Far-reaching reforms of the whole bloated army, which spent nearly two decades languishing in semi-Soviet mode — from organization to training to manning, everything — that commenced in 2007-09 are bearing fruit, but significant challenges remain. On paper, the active Russian army looks impressive, with slightly over forty maneuver brigades, many with modern weapons. But many of those brigades consist of conscripts who are not trained to NATO standards, and this army must face not just Ukraine and the West, but guard the vast border with China, while keeping a lid on the Caucasus and providing post-imperial order in parts of Central Asia.
In other words, Putin cannot engage in a major war without a substantial recall of reservists to flesh out the order of battle, and that may not be popular. The Russian population has endured the economic downturn, blaming the West rather than Putin for the collapse of their currency and much of the economy, and the Kremlin’s anti-Western stance is supported by most Russians. Yet this has something to do with the fact that Putin has kept truly painful costs low so far. Soldiers killed in Russia’s not-very-secret war in Ukraine are professionals. If bigger numbers of teenaged conscripts and thirty-something reservists start dying, Putin may find his war of choice is suddenly less popular.
For all the Alliance’s military shortcomings, NATO can deter Putin’s aggression until 2020 at least, with current forces. However, deterring the Kremlin’s Special War, which I have long counseled the West to get serious about, may prove a more serious challenge. The West has the ability to keep a rampaging Russia restrained. Sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine would be a wise start, while so is bolstering NATO forces on the Alliance’s vulnerable frontier, well beyond the modest efforts now, finally, being undertaken. What no defense budget or military strategist can provide, however, is political will. If Europe cannot regain enough self-confidence to resist Putin, it will lose everything, sooner than you think.