Why you should care
Because nobody wants another Cold War.
Alexander Motyl, a politics professor at Rutgers University-Newark, briefly was confused while watching an interview with a Russian soccer hooligan in Marseille this summer. When a journalist asked why he was violent, the thug said it was to show that “Russia was back,” and for a brief moment, Motyl wondered whether it was a hooligan being questioned — or Vladimir Putin.
Many analysts suspect that Moscow is gearing up to show more aggression — not outside soccer stadiums — in the near future. With the Russian economy in recession, an altercation abroad might be just what the country needs to distract civilians from their daily hardships while boosting domestic support for Putin. Telltale signs include hundreds of airspace violations, continued skirmishes in Ukraine, the firing of Baltic fleet commanders and military retooling — not to mention increased vitriol in the Russian press. And that’s just what we know.
In the last couple of weeks, there has been a plethora of articles in the Russian media about how Georgia needs to be taught a lesson.
Paul Goble, “Window on Eurasia” blog
Russians are good at stirring up trouble, says Victoria Kelly-Clark, an analyst at London-based Global Risk Insights. Kelly-Clark claims Putin is in the process of “securing Russia.” Experts say the Russian president’s ultimate aim is to maintain a sphere of influence over the former Soviet Union, and with NATO encroaching farther into Eastern Europe, “you could have a flash point anywhere,” Kelly-Clark says. Among the obvious targets — the Baltics, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine — there are some that are more likely than others.
Most doubt that Putin would march blatantly into Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia — all three are NATO members — but that doesn’t mean a storm isn’t brewing. Motyl warns that “Putin could test the West’s resolve very easily by staging some kind of liberation struggle in northeastern Estonia.” That could be done through a fabricated terror attack by Estonian “fascists” against Russians or Russian speakers, he explains, sparking a local liberation movement that requests Putin’s “assistance,” not unlike in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. “All Putin would have to do is express regret over the emergence of fascism in Estonia, and, at the same time, several hundred Russian volunteers would rush to the assistance of their beleaguered brethren in Estonia,” Motyl explains. And there’s no telling how the West would respond to such a hybrid aggression.
While NATO’s Article 5 says “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” it doesn’t require an armed response — and, in fact, it leaves the ultimate decision to individual members. Not responding to a flagrant Article 5 violation would render NATO a paper tiger, analysts agree, but it remains unclear how the alliance would fare by ignoring a subversive violation like the one Motyl suggests. Kelly-Clark believes that Russian actions in the Baltics are more likely to take the form of Putin’s war games in response to NATO’s Operation Reassurance, with missile testing, operational maneuvers and other military activity.
But Putin’s sights may be set farther south, in the Black Sea or even the Caspian region. Kelly-Clark points to Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine as areas that should be concerned. “There’s not a history of Western intervention in those areas,” she warns. Paul Goble, a former U.S. State Department official who writes the “Window on Eurasia” blog and pores over 200 Russian online outlets daily, believes Russia will soon act out again, but he too doubts it’ll be a direct use of force in the Baltics. Georgia, on the other hand, is a good candidate for military action, he says, noting how “in the last couple of weeks, there has been a plethora of articles in the Russian media about how Georgia needs to be taught a lesson.” Kelly-Clark and Goble also point out that the Moldovan government recently told NATO it considers the Russian presence in Transnistria — a self-declared republic on a strip of land alongside the Dniester River in eastern Moldova — to be an occupation. Previously, Moldovan officials were “very careful not to say that kind of thing,” Goble explains. He believes Putin “sees doing things in Moldova as ultimately being about Ukraine,” where both he and Kelly-Clark agree a further push could also come. By creating problems in Moldova, Putin can pressure Ukraine along its western border, as well as in the eastern part of the country.
Motyl believes Putin is essentially trying to reestablish the former USSR, this time as an expanded Russian federation. That “would mean at least adding Ukraine and Belarus,” he says. Putin already controls part of Moldova, in Transnistria, and part of Georgia. He also has influence in Armenia, Motyl explains, noting that Azerbaijan could fall into Moscow’s sphere easily enough due to its relatively small size. Then there’s Kazakhstan, which Goble calls a “mess,” where Motyl says another Donbass-style crisis could be fomented because more than a third of the population is Russian, and they’re mostly in the north.
Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank, believes the likelihood of Putin playing bully again will depend on how his economy fares. If it keeps weakening gradually, “he might be more dangerous,” Kaplan says. But if it worsens dramatically, “I would think he’d be less dangerous.” Putin is often wily and cagey, he says, but not self-destructive. Others disagree, noting that Russia’s military buildup has only intensified in recent years, despite the downturn in oil prices and the application of Western sanctions.
Some also believe Putin will play his cards before January 2017, when the next American president takes over, in anticipation of a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy. “I can’t tell you it’s going to happen next week or next month, but we’re going to see displays of Russian power,” Goble says, adding that it’s likely to happen before the year is out.