Russia-Ukraine war: Warning that Vladimir Putin could invade the rest of Europe
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “new world order” of greater Russian dominance in a speech to business leaders. Video/AP/Getty
Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. The deterrent has been overturned. Instead of preventing President Vladimir Putin from open aggression, the threat of nuclear war has shielded him from intervention.
Today, Europe worries that the aging autocrat aims to recreate the long-lost empire of Tsar Peter the Great.
It’s raw nerve that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to unleash as European leaders gathered to reset the future of the 30-member NATO alliance.
“This is the real goal of Russia,” he warned Thursday, calling for help to stop the Russian army in its tracks. “There will either be urgent aid for Ukraine – enough to win – or Russia’s postponed war with you.”
And that prospect, he intoned, could come sooner rather than later.
“Next year could be a worse situation – not only Ukraine, but also several other states. Maybe members of the alliance. The question is – who’s next?”
It is a very real fear.
Sweden and Finland – which maintained their neutrality throughout the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union – saw their applications to join the NATO alliance accepted this week.
They believe they have an urgent reason to join.
And Putin’s propagandists have repeatedly said his goals go beyond Ukraine.
Its apparatchiks threaten to invade Poland and Lithuania, members of NATO. Norway is another target of Moscow’s anger. And the United Kingdom and the United States were threatened by the specter of a nuclear strike.
There is a catch.
Any attack on a member of the NATO alliance triggers Article V: each member state must consider it an attack on itself.
“The Russian army does not want to stop in Donbass or somewhere in southern Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “He wants to absorb city after city. All of us. And then all of Europe that Russian leaders consider their property – not independent states. That’s Russia’s real goal.”
The desperate Ukrainian leader has every reason to talk about the threat.
But his words fall on fertile ground.
And the Kremlin seems to be doing all it can to validate his concerns.
This week, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Finland’s and Sweden’s decision to join NATO was a “strictly destabilizing factor”.
At the same time, Foreign Ministry officials were threatening “retaliation” against Norway for imposing sanctions on supplies transported through its territory to a Russian mining outpost. And Lithuania has been accused of an “act of war” after imposing a “blockade” on the Russian outpost of Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea.
Russia is free under international sanctions to resupply the two sites by sea.
Meanwhile, Finland feels exposed because its 1,325 km border with Russia is almost as long as that of NATO’s entire eastern flank. And Sweden is adjacent to Russian outposts on the Baltic Sea, with its coastline – especially the island of Gotland – vulnerable to amphibious assault.
Then there are Latvia and Estonia – states of the former Soviet Union that have been the repeated target of Kremlin threats and espionage.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas warns that the small NATO force currently deployed in the capital of Tallinn could quickly be “wiped off the map” by any Russian attack.
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry agrees. He says NATO needs to move away from a strategy of “forward presence,” otherwise known as “tripwire” deterrence by punishment, toward a strategy of “forward defense” — or denial deterrence. “We would like the adaptation of NATO’s deterrence and defense to take into account the geographical and geopolitical specificities of our region”, insisted a spokesperson for the ministry.
The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the dawn of a new era. The new – theoretically democratic – Russia has been declared a European “strategic partner”.
Things didn’t go so well.
Putin’s troops first marched into the restive Russian region of Chechnya. This was soon followed by parts of independent Georgia. Then, in 2014, he launched his first assault on Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea.
“The allies – mainly but not only Germany – have resisted calls over the years to call Russia an adversary,” said William Alberque, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “It has complicated defense planning in NATO, because how can you make military plans to defend against a partner?”
That has now changed.
“President Putin’s war on Ukraine has shattered the peace in Europe and created the biggest security crisis in Europe since World War II,” said NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
“Now, by referring to it as a threat, it means the Eastern allies have won the argument, and NATO can adjust its plans and policies accordingly to defend against what, in effect, is the NATO’s main threat,” added Alberque.
Member states attending the NATO summit in Madrid this week agreed to mobilize additional forces, increasing its rapid reaction force from 40,000 to 300,000.
US President Joe Biden has pledged an additional $450 million worth of rocket launchers and ammunition for Ukraine’s defense. He also announced a reinforcement of the American military presence in Europe.
Many of the new troops will form a new military garrison in Poland – the first such permanent installation in a former Soviet Union state. Other US military units will pass through Romania and northern NATO members. Two additional F-35 squadrons will be deployed to the UK. Two other destroyers will join those already based in Spain.
“We have reached a turning point,” retired German general Hans-Lothar Domroese said shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. “We now have China and Russia acting in concert, boldly challenging the United States for global leadership. In the past, we have said that deterrence works. Now we have to ask ourselves: is deterrence enough?”
Are tiny “tripwire” forces – backed by nuclear weapons – enough?
“In the context of what happened in Ukraine, this is politically suicidal,” a senior Baltic defense official told Foreign Policy newspaper anonymously.
“Engaging in a strategy where you accept that parts of NATO are occupied, even for a weekend, is a disastrous political strategy. No one can engage in it. So it is something that must be exchange.”
Now a former commander of US Army forces in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, and a former NATO director of defense policy, Timo Koster, have added their voices to the debate.
Writing for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), they say the West’s strategic thinking has been turned upside down.
“NATO operated for decades on the premise that its combined military might, underpinned by regular displays of unity and solidarity, would deter the bad guys from pursuing territorial ambitions. We were able to deny them success and punish them if the denial failed,” they said. write.
But the global response to the attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 has emboldened Putin.
“It is clear now that the threat of sanctions did not change Putin’s mind. It told him he could attack Ukraine without having to face military consequences,” they state.
Now NATO has expressed concern that any direct intervention in Ukraine will trigger World War III.
“Putin’s bold actions combined with threatening nuclear rhetoric have deterred us from taking decisive action,” write Hodges and Koster. “The problem is that a massacre is taking place in Europe, on our doorstep, and the most powerful military alliance in the world is staying out of it. We are discouraged and Russia is not.”
“Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO considerably reduces the risks of war in the East”, declares Alberque.
Finland has the third largest artillery force in Europe, behind Russia and Ukraine. It has new F-35 stealth fighters. It also has a well-trained and well-prepared defense force capable of mobilizing 200,000 troops.
Sweden contributes a modern and advanced navy to NATO’s Baltic Sea defenses and 207 aircraft.
“[They] have transformed Baltic and Nordic security, reducing the chances of any Russian adventurism to the point of implausibility,” adds Alberque. “They would lose, and lose a lot if they tried to approach Estonia, for example.
Russia’s ability to counter NATO expansion is minimal.
“I say that because number one, they don’t have the troops, frankly, to outfit substantial new bases in the area, and they probably won’t for some time if this war continues.”
And its ability to wage such a war is seriously in doubt.
Moscow has reactivated retired Cold War tanks to replace catastrophic losses in Ukraine. Gunship attrition has been high. And the expense of complicated – and expensive – guided munitions is excessive.
Analysts have argued that this proves that Russian military power is a hollow threat.
But does Putin believe it?
Hodges and Ambassador Koster are unconvinced.
“He can go even further, betting that a risk-averse alliance would be reluctant to defend smaller members, like the Baltic states. He could try to cut off the three small states using the significant capabilities accumulated in Kaliningrad. Thus, While our leaders are doing everything to convince us that the Baltic will be defended, the key question is whether Putin is convinced, and frankly, we don’t know.