Will Putin Flex His Muscles Again?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Russia has long been an insecure imperialist power.
By Robert Kaplan
The Cold War carved the world into camps for decades, and many thinkers have referred to recent Russian aggression and power plays on the international stage — from Crimea, Ukraine and Syria to its military buildup — as the start of a new Cold War. Vladimir Putin is hell-bent on maintaining a buffer between Russia and an expanding NATO. But are sanctions enough to keep him in check? Or is he planning more mayhem as the U.S. heads into its next presidential election?
We sat down with Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, to get some insights.
OZY: Do you believe we will see more aggression from Vladimir Putin in the months to come?
Robert Kaplan: Putin is a rational actor, and his economy is in deep disarray. He has acted boldly but within limits. He already has tens of thousands of troops relatively close to the Baltic states, and he also has a substantial naval presence in the Black Sea, which is one of the things that makes Romania and Moldova more nervous. But though he is in a position to make an Article 5 violation of NATO — demanding a response of collective defense — I don’t think he will. I think he will constantly probe and test, but I don’t see him trying to provoke a bigger response. His economy can’t handle that.
But he can use foreign adventures for bread and circuses for the masses — another great spectacle to stoke nationalism — which is always useful at a time of economic crisis. He just cannot provoke a level of incident that would lead to a Western military and economic response. He’s trying to get the sanctions lifted because of Ukraine. He may not succeed, but he’s not at the end of the road yet.
We should be very calm and low-key, but at the same time beef up our forces in the region.
OZY: Is U.S. foreign policy on a good course with regard to Russia?
R.K.: Yes, but remember that there has been a shift in the last year or so. In 2012, Obama withdrew two land combat brigades from Europe, and that was sort of his “Mission Accomplished” moment. He presumed that things were more peaceful than they were and withdrew forces. But in the last year or so, especially under this new defense secretary, Ashton Carter, the administration has been moving equipment — and, on a rotating basis, troops — back to Europe. They’ve been strengthening the alliance, so there’s been a shift toward a more robust policy against Russia.
OZY: Are you concerned that the U.S. presidential election could be used as an excuse or catalyst for more Russian aggression?
R.K.: It depends how the election evolves. I’m forced to conclude that Putin is aggressive but not irrational. He knows that the probability of a Clinton administration is significantly greater than the possibility of a Trump administration. So he knows he’ll probably be dealing with an administration of Hillary Clinton, which will be even more aggressive than Obama’s, and therefore, he’s liable to be very careful. The reason I say this is because if you look at the history of American administrations, even when there’s a change with the same party coming back into power, the new president tries as hard as he or she can to emphasize the difference between the new and the old administrations. So it’s fair to conclude that Hillary Clinton would try to emphasize the difference with Obama, and that would mean a more robust policy toward Russia. This could mean moving more troops on a permanent basis to Europe. I know the NATO Summit has led to a dispatch of a few battalions to the Baltic states, but that’s not really very much. They’re just symbolic, and they could do significantly more if the new president wanted to.
OZY: What worries you most when it comes to Russian relations?
R.K.: I’m not worried about the administration; I’m worried about Congress. Congress tends to periodically make irresponsible statements of aggression. We should not be daring Putin verbally. We should not be insulting Russia. We should be very calm and low-key, but at the same time beef up our forces in the region.
OZY: How would you advise the next president in his or her dealings with Russia?
R.K.: I would say to take into account that Russia has legitimate interests in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. It’s been an influential power in both of those regions throughout history. At the same time, the U.S. president has to make it clear that the Ukraine issue must be solved, and that Ukraine itself is not going to be taken back by Russia. I’m not talking about eastern Ukraine; I’m talking about Kiev. Russia has to stop trying to undermine and destabilize the regime in Kiev and also stop trying to undermine and use subversion to destabilize systems in Bulgaria, Romania, all the way up to Estonia. The more it can stop doing that, the better the opportunity there is for a good relationship with the West.
OZY: Are you worried about the state of NATO?
R.K.: My biggest concern is that the weaker the European Union gets, the weaker European cohesion gets. And the weaker that European cohesion gets, the harder it is for NATO’s collective security to really mean something. NATO, at the end of the day, depends on a united Europe. It’s called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — the emphasis was originally on the North Atlantic, the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. In a sense, because of Brexit, the words “North Atlantic” are more meaningful now, because Britain has to play a bigger role in NATO to have the same influence inside Europe. If you’re a British prime minister, you’ll have to say, “OK, the people have voted for us to leave, and we have to follow suit. But that doesn’t mean we have to loosen our influence in Europe.” There are things Britain can do to compensate, and one way is to strengthen its commitment to NATO.
- Robert Kaplan, Senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author most recently of, "In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond."Contact Robert Kaplan