Putin Ratcheting Up Tensions With NATO in High-risk Bid to Assert Russian Influence

To ensure that escalation remains an option and not an imperative in the world, Western resolve in the face of Russian aggression must be clear and credible.

Russian S-400 air defense missile systems.
AFP PHOTO/Kirill Kudryavtsev

The release by Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service of a report arguing that Russia is “mobilizing for war” is the latest in a growing list of documents detailing the expanding militarism of Putin’s government. Media warnings about World War III are vastly overblown, but Russia’s aggressive diplomacy is ratcheting up tensions with NATO in a high-risk bid to assert Russian influence on the world stage.

Crucial to understanding the modernization of Russia’s military is the difference between wanting to fight a war, and having the capacity to do so. As Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged last week America is the world’s only superpower. Should a conflagration erupt between the two nations, the outcome would either be an American victory, or a defeat for humanity if the conflict turned nuclear.

Russia does not want a war, but neither does the West. And so long as Western leaders see escalation in response to Russian moves as a choice, rather than an imperative, they will invariably choose to perpetuate the peace that underpins prosperity.

It is this line that Putin has become adept at exploiting. When Russian forces seized Crimea in February 2014, they did so because Moscow judged that Western governments would fail to respond, in spite of treaty obligations to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, because the risk of escalation was not considered to match the damage to Western interests that Crimea’s loss represented.

Russian Mi-35 military helicopters fly during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, above the Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2016.
Grigory Dukor, Reuters

Putin had used this tactic before in Georgia, and would do so again in Syria, where Russian planes bombed Western-backed groups, knowing that the West is not prepared to risk escalation in order to head the Russians off. And there is nothing to suggest that this mode of operation will not go on working, as the report by the Canadian intelligence service (CSIS) argues, although, “'more of the same’ is an unfashionable and risky conclusion for a foresight paper The main direction of Russian foreign and security policy is likely to remain consistent.”

The entire tactic, however, relies on the threat of escalation being credible; if the balance of forces is too lopsided, the risk is less acute.

The post-Soviet Russian military was in no shape to combat NATO, and in the wake of the First Gulf War in 1991, Russia’s vast armored fist lacked menace.

Putin’s 2010 overhaul of the military, to be concluded in 2020, set out to turn a mechanized behemoth into a muscular, agile and modern fighting force with effective command and control over integrated combined arms operations.

Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2016, June 17, 2016.
Simon Dawson, Bloomberg

Furthermore, the Kremlin addressed an imbalance in the sophistication of military technology by expanding the scope of conflict, threatening to shut down America’s power grid via cyber attack, and other branches of hybrid warfare.

The reforms are getting Russia in better shape to confront NATO, and a conflict would exact a much greater cost. Western leaders are therefore far more likely to avoid confrontation.

The mobilization that CSIS discussed was not the mustering of troops with the intention of fighting, but the rallying of Russia’s military to give Putin’s aggressive diplomacy credibility as the Kremlin exerts disproportionate influence on conflicts far beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

So long as Russia continues to be militarily assertive there is always the danger of miscalculation, where NATO finds escalation to be imperative rather than optional. There are indications – as with the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015 – that in such circumstances Russia would seek to avoid escalation, but to make sure that this is the case Western resolve needs to be clear and credible.

The challenge is to reduce uncertainty by setting out clear lines. President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own red lines in Syria, and the West’s brushing over its treaty obligations to Ukraine have undermined confidence to the point where even NATO members are uncertain whether the alliance will respond to Russian aggression against NATO signatories.

Exacerbating the uncertainty is that while Russia can act unilaterally, and therefore quickly, NATO decision making can take upward of three weeks, with a recent Chatham House report noting how “the lack of existential decisions meant that ‘complacency had become the norm’ within NATO headquarters.”

Recent reforms at NATO, and the creation of new forces in Eastern Europe, are an attempt to bolster the alliance’s deterrent credibility. This poses a painful dilemma for Western policy-makers, however.

In chess the fork is a move in which a player threatens two opposing pieces simultaneously, forcing the opponent to decide which he wants to lose. This is the position that NATO finds itself in today. The alliance must establish red lines, but where? The less confrontational approach would be to set those lines at a distance from Russia’s borders, and to acknowledge Putin’s Eurasian "sphere of influence."

This would establish clear limits to Russian influence, and would reduce the likelihood of miscalculation, but giving Putin what he wants would also vindicate Russia’s belligerent approach, and send a terrible message: that military might trumps international law.

The alternative is to state that NATO will stand by its treaty commitments to the utmost, and will continue to strengthen relations with Georgia and Ukraine, which as sovereign states are under no obligation to kowtow to Russian threats. This approach would require clear and substantive responses to incursions of airspace, the presence of "little green men" or serious hybrid provocation.

The danger of this approach is that if Putin is lured into a game of brinkmanship both parties could find themselves dragged over the precipice. Moreover this policy would likely cause NATO to be perceived to be the aggressor, and could vindicate Russia’s claim that NATO is seeking aggressive expansion, thereby ceding ground in the information war to the Kremlin.

The risk of war should not be exaggerated; it is not in the interest of either party. But in an increasingly unstable period, with growing isolationism in the United States and burgeoning military and diplomatic clout in China, Russia and Iran, the potential for escalation should not be dismissed, and complacency and ambiguity exacerbate those dangers.

In chess there are two ways of escaping a fork; putting your opponent in check and so regaining the initiative, or moving one of the threatened pieces so that taking the one left behind becomes too costly. Both of these options may be on the table if NATO is more decisive in defining or pursuing its interests. But so long as Putin continues to test the West’s resolve, the CSIS paper won’t be the last report warning of the potential for catastrophe.

Jack Watling is an investigative journalist and Ph.D. candidate, who was the former planning editor at NewsFixed. He has written for Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, Foreign Policy and other publications.