Analysis

Russia Election: Putin Can't Hope to Match NATO in Strength, but He Has One Advantage

How long before he challenges NATO with the dilemma of whether to protect Latvia’s, Lithuania’s or Estonia’s sovereignty and risk war?

Members of a local election commission install a poster displaying presidential candidates, March 17, 2018, Simferopol, Crimea.
AFP / Stringer

Vladimir Putin, who is certain to be elected Sunday for another six-year term as Russia’s president, has already surpassed in his 18 years in office all but one of Russia’s leaders in the 20th century — Josef Stalin. The man who assumed power, virtually both within and outside Russia, on the last day of 1999 already has a significant legacy.

Putin stabilized Russia after its chaotic first post-Soviet decade, solidified his hold on power and suppressed any major opposition. He oversaw a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity and breathed into a muddled and divided society a rejuvenated sense of Russian patriotism.

Putin is no ideologue. Instead he has succeeded in fusing together the forces of “red” Russia — people who are still nostalgic for the Soviet Union — and “white” Russians who long for the old days of empire.

Having been a young KGB officer in the dying days of the USSR, he is fully aware of how the state he served had engineered its own collapse. Early on in his presidency he said that “anyone who doesn’t miss the Soviet Union has no heart. And anyone who wants it back has no brain.”

That doesn’t mean he was happy at its demise, which to him was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” It's just that he fully realizes the flaws of the communist system and has no interest in trying to bring back what he considers anyway a “German,” not a Russian idea.

A woman casts her ballot as other people line up to get their ballots at a polling station in the Russian Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, March 18, 2018.
Maria Borodina/AP

In the fascinating book “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin,” Michel Eltchaninoff divides the Russian leader’s program into three sections — Russian nationalism, or patriotism, conservatism and Eurasianism. The first two have largely been achieved. Now he’s working on the third — reestablishing Russia as a world power that controls its “near abroad” and doesn't let hostile organizations like NATO and the European Union encroach on its borders.

Putin is above all a realist. He knows that with a GDP equal to that of a medium-sized European country, with an economy held hostage to fluctuations in energy prices, and an aging population, Russia can’t rival the United States or China in raw terms of military spending. But he has had the good fortune throughout his time in office to have as his main adversaries in the White House men who allowed him to challenge the post-Cold War order.

George W. Bush, who had drawn his country and its allies into long and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in no position in 2008 to block Putin when he invaded pro-Western Georgia. Barack Obama, who believed in scaling back America’s global footprint and operating according to a rules-based foreign policy, did nothing to stop Putin annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine in 2014, or turning Syria into a Russian fiefdom in 2015.

Obama was also tragically slow in responding and calling out the Russian hacking operations that undermined the presidential election campaign in 2016. Whether or not this had any real effect on Donald Trump’s election victory, or whether Putin believed there was any chance it would, doesn’t change the fact that he now has in the White House a vainglorious and incompetent president who admires him and is unlikely to challenge him.

Against this backdrop, a former Russian double agent and his daughter were the victims of a nerve-agent assassination attempt in Britain two weeks ago, which carries all the hallmarks of a Kremlin-authorized hit. Britain is a NATO member in the process of uneasily detaching itself from the EU, the perfect opportunity for once more probing the Western alliance’s weaknesses. Britain in retaliation expelled 23 Russian diplomats and on Saturday Moscow responded with a similar expulsion, adding on a closure of the British Council, Britain’s cultural agency’s operations in Russia, and its St. Petersburg consulate.

Former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia Skripal.
REUTERS, Yulia Skripal/AP

The onus is now on Prime Minister Theresa May to try to find a way of punishing Russia for the Salisbury attack and motivating Britain’s allies to join her. It won’t be easy, and if she leaves matters as they are, or fails in mobilizing support, Putin will have revealed one more chink in the West’s armor.

What is enough for Putin? He can’t hope to match NATO in total strength. The alliance spends over 14 times what Russia does on defense. But Putin has the advantage of being one man in charge, against an organization of 29 states with often conflicting agendas. He can act faster and concentrate much more force, while NATO would need months to fully mobilize in defense of its most vulnerable members on Russia’s borders, the three Baltic states.

Russia has never accepted the fact that these countries have joined NATO and has already subjected them to cyberattacks and political subversion. How long before he challenges the leaders of the West with the dilemma of whether to protect Latvia’s, Lithuania’s or Estonia’s sovereignty, as they are committed to by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and risk war?

On Thursday, Putin held his last rally of the campaign in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea and for many Russians the place where Putin revived national pride by returning the peninsula to the Motherland. On Sunday it will all be about the percentage of support Putin receives in the polls and the turnout. Regional governors across Russia’s 11 time zones have their quotas and will make sure to bring out the vote.

On Monday, with another six years in power secured, Putin will once again look abroad. Is anyone standing in his way? Prime Minister May, struggling in London with a fractious cabinet and the contradictions of Brexit, is an unlikely challenger to his ambitions. Much will depend on her success in building a new alliance within NATO. Putin is betting she will fail.