What if Putin gets what he wants?
by Edward Lucas
Scaremongering is bad, but so is the wishful thinking which has fuelled the West’s approach to Russia for decades. So it is worth pondering what a world would look like in which we lose, and Vladimir Putin gets what he wants.
For a start, having asked our weakest ally, Ukraine, to bear the greatest burden of the security crisis, we should hardly be surprised if it splinters under the strain. A war-weary population revolts against the hardships of reform. Russia mops up. Europe is faced with a resentful rump state, plagued by violence, hunger and extremism, a source of crime and refugees.
Invigorated by that success, Russia turns to the Baltic states. It challenges NATO with a series of provocations and stunts, none of which is enough to trigger the alliance’s Article 5, but each of which makes it ever-clearer that when it comes to other threats – crime, disorder, corruption, propaganda, subversion, energy supplies and cyber-security – Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are on their own. This pressure saps public morale and forces a change of government in one of the three countries, helped by agents of influence deeply embedded in politics and state agencies.
NATO is perplexed at this. The new government in (for example) Latvia has come to power constitutionally. What is the alliance supposed to do? Invade?
In any case, nothing much seems to happen as a result. Unlike in 1940, the Kremlin does not demand military bases, or stage plebiscites demanding annexation. A few prominent Atlanticists are removed from intelligence, security, law-enforcement and defence positions. The media becomes more docile. Some people emigrate. Laws on language and citizenship change.
The real change is elsewhere. Symbolic defeat leaves NATO’s credibility in shreds. Russia does not need to win outright in the Baltics. It merely needs to show that multilateral security is failing. It drives the point home by putting its nuclear forces on alert, and conducting repeated and ostentatious drills involving the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons. European governments, facing economic difficulty and political chaos (perhaps involving Greek or British exit from the European Union), with shrivelled defence budgets and a sceptical public, are in no state to counter Russia’s moves. The crucial point comes when American policymakers make it clear that they will not risk World War Three to defend a Europe that is unwilling to defend itself.
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