BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
NATO is broken…and it is unlikely to be repaired any time soon. Fact is, the bonds that united the “most successful military alliance in history” have been stretched to their breaking point. While it’s easy to blame former U.S. President George W. Bush and his Iraq War fiasco for this (and, to be sure, that played a substantive role), we must never forget that the transatlantic alliance has always been fraught with division. The difference between the early decades of NATO and today? The Soviet Union and the scourge of Communism globally. Today, no such global threat exists (no matter how much Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, may yearn for a return to those geopolitical “glory days” for Russia). Absent a unifying threat, NATO will continue its turgid existence–becoming more of a multinational bureaucracy and less of a multilateral defensive alliance–until it simply implodes.
And, unfortunately, that means that NATO’s most vulnerable members (presently those facing down the uncontrolled migration issues emanating from the south of Europe and those facing the slightly resurgent Russian bear in the east) are in danger as never before. Ignoring the apparently unsolvable migration problem that Europe faces from its south, the Russian Bear is making grumblings again. In fact, former CIA analyst, Paul Pillar, recently penned an opinion piece in Foreign Policy outlining his belief that Russia will attempt to take the small (and vulnerable) Baltic state of Latvia in the next two years. Looking at the current geopolitical environment, this assertion is likely correct.
Pillar rightly assesses that Vladimir Putin’s present foreign policy to his west is all about dividing Europe; breaking apart the multilateral institutions–such as the European Union, but more importantly, NATO–so that the Americans lose an easy way of “controlling” their European wards. If President Putin can publicly prove that the common defense clause–Article V–of the NATO charter isn’t worth the paper that it’s printed on, then NATO’s legitimacy will have been destroyed. Latvia is a NATO member state. Unlike both Georgia and Ukraine (previous targets of Russian aggression), Latvia is automatically entitled to the mutual defense clauses within the NATO charter. However, there is ample evidence suggesting that neither the Americans nor European states outside of the Baltics would risk a war with the Russian Federation (which, if Article V were invoked, that is precisely what would happen). Putin’s postulation is simple: take Latvia, place the onus of defense on NATO, and watch as they refuse to come to Latvia’s aid–and you’ve just ended NATO.
Yet, there is no way that NATO could be depended on to come to Latvia’s aid. Hardly any of the primary NATO members have sufficiently invested in their militaries. This has gone on for decades. They have relied on the United States to take up the considerable slack they’ve created. Unfortunately, the United States can no longer be relied on, given the complex–and more important–challenges that the U.S. is facing elsewhere in the world. Even if the Europeans had spent the last few decades ensuring that their military capabilities remained robust, getting the French or Germans to agree to collectively defend Latvia from Russia–or any other Eastern European state from Russia–is about as likely as getting pigs to fly. Then, of course, there is the American factor. As in, most Western European states are inimical to the United States. And, under the current leadership of the United States, the U.S. government will be (rightly) disinclined to risk its money and manpower fighting for the defense of an ungrateful Europe from a nuclear-armed Russia.
This cuts down to the core of the problem today: European integration is no longer a sine qua non of American national security policy. In geopolitics, great-state relations should be valued above all else. While France and Germany are powerful states, they are mid-sized states and their priority in American foreign policy should reflect this reality. Without the NATO or EU imprimatur, they cease being the powerful countries they believe they are. Russia, for its part, is a great power if only because of its geographical size and its massive (and growing) nuclear arsenal. However, as I’ve argued repeatedly, Russia is also a great power in terminal decline. Thus, maintaining amicable and healthy relations with Russia is likely more important for the American grand strategy than subjecting our country to another useless war–in which the benefits will be negligible and the costs would be onerous (and one-sided–Americans would be paying for it). This is doubly true for an even smaller, less important state to American foreign policy as Latvia.
If anything, the mindless “double expansion” of NATO and the EU has created many of the problems in Russo-American relations today. Russia’s inability to prevent the wave of liberation that washed across the former Soviet states following the end of the Cold War (or to even have meaningful input whatsoever into that process) effectively emasculated the Russian leadership. While such a concept may seem anathema to the post-modern Western liberal, a country like Russia has leaders who are deeply ensconced in a masculine worldview–especially since Russia has little left other than its “rich” and long history of having been a great power. Concern over a united Europe being a threat to Russia is even more important because Russia’s leadership throughout history has been obsessed with the threat of foreign encirclement, invasion, and dismemberment. For Russia’s leadership, then, the concept of an American-backed expansion of European unification–without seriously including Russia into that new politico-economic (and military) endeavor–was not only threatening to them, but it was also hugely humiliating.
Never forget that most wars are the result of human pride, ambition, fear, and other irrational behavior.
After 30 years of “double expansion” in Europe, after 30 years of no one in the West taking seriously the complaints of the Russian leadership, the Russians have taken action to bring about their desired geopolitical reality. Obviously, what the Russians have done in places like Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine in 2014 (and what they may still yet do in Latvia and throughout the Balts) is wrong and illegal. However, we must understand why the Russians have behaved this way. Today, Russo-American relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. European integration has been a leading cause of this animus. It’s time for the United States to take a step back from Europe and leave European defense to the Europeans.
As for Latvia and the Baltic States: the Visegrad Battle Group remains their only hope. The United States may have to take a step back from Europe lest it risk a wasteful–and lethal–war with nuclear-armed Russia, but it should not throw the Eastern European states to the Bear. Recently, the Trump Administration made the correct choice of sending lethal arms to Ukraine, to allow for the Ukrainians to defend their homes from the Russians. Similar actions should be taken by the United States with the Baltic countries. Latvia should combine its armed forces with an integrated Visegrad Battle Group, and the U.S. should give Poland the military equipment and training necessary for self-defense–including nuclear arms and ballistic missile defense systems. Otherwise, Russia will run roughshod over the Baltic states.
Right now, Vladimir Putin is doing what every Russian leader since the earliest tsars have done: they are probing Western defenses. The reason is political: whenever a new leader arises (particularly in the United States), Russian leaders probe to see where the “red lines” will be drawn. By announcing a new plug-and-play model to European defense–whereby those who can help with the defense of a particular area of Europe (in this case, Eastern Europe) should pitch in, and leave other members disinclined to defend Eastern Europe (like Germany or France) alone–the United States is saving the NATO alliance, by keeping solidarity with those countries that actually believe there is a threat emanating from Russia (whilst avoiding getting directly pulled into a major war in Europe against Russia).
Also, by relying on the Visegrad system rather than NATO, we would be avoiding the pitfall of placing NATO at odds with Russia. Such a move would feed into the image that Russian foreign policy is “working” (without it actually working). If Putin looks like he’s a strong leader to his people (even if the U.S. is preventing him from truly achieving his foreign policy goals of totally dividing Europe because the U.S. would be arming Putin’s Baltic targets to the teeth), it might make Putin more amenable toward dealing with the West. This could be a pretext for greater levels of diplomacy with the Russians.
Strengthening and hardening the defenses of the countries most likely to be threatened with Russia outside of relying on the NATO alliance, whilst moving closer to Russia diplomatically would be instrumental in mitigating the threat that Russia posed to Latvia and the other Baltic states. Russia wants to be respected; they want to be perceived as a great power on the world stage again. It would be far less costly to treat them as such as opposed to pretending as though they are a “nothing” country that can be stepped on and pushed around.
Fact is, despite being a declining power, Russia is still strong and pushing them around would be akin to backing a dying but rabid animal in a corner: their claws will come out and hurt you in unexpected ways.
The best path forward, therefore, is diplomacy, stronger trade relations, and a hardened military defense of Eastern Europe that placed indigenous militaries at the forefront and kept American forces over-the-horizon.