Trip Wire: NATO's Russia Dilemma


Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York, is a foreign policy analyst, author, geo-strategist, and Principal, Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks.

MORAN: Hello, and welcome to Episode Three of Diffusion: Focus on Russia. I’m your host, Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week, with US-Russian relations at a post-cold war low point, we consider Russia’s complex relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO.

In this episode, an expert on the Russian military who spent decades studying and sometimes directing US security policy toward post-Soviet Russia. Michael Kofman is a global fellow at the George F. Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and an expert on the Russian military.

Michael, since the fall of the Soviet Union NATO has admitted as members many former Soviet allies as well as three Baltic nations once part of the USSR itself. Russia’s recent conduct in Ukraine has raised fears among NATO nations bordering Russian territory about the willingness of the alliance to honor its obligation to come to their defense. NATO has responded by pledging to station troops in the Baltic states, but doubts remain. This, not surprisingly, is characterized as provocative by Moscow.How do you view the recent deployment of NATO forces along Russia’s border? Is this an effective response to Baltic concerns?

KOFMAN: In short answer, no, NATO cannot take measures to sufficiently deter Russia in the way that it would like to without it leading toward what’s referred to in the field as a security dilemma. But, it’s important to add that NATO is not trying to do this.NATO’s initiative is to set up a rotating multi-national force of four battalions perhaps numbering 1000 troops each, although they will likely not number that high. The bulk of this force is really about reassurance. What NATO is essentially doing, and what it has been doing for the last two years, is setting up forces that provide assurance. They’re not really about deterrence, because these forces don’t have real war-fighting capability and they don’t change the balance of forces in the region. What they do is provide very concerned NATO allies assurances that the alliance has skin in the game and might come to save them in the event of a military contingency. The problem is that, and this is not a very politically savoury thing to say, from a pure military science perspective the Baltics are not defensible and they never were.

MORAN: So we now have European and US troops rotating through the Baltics, and no one suggests they are there in sufficient force to actually go toe-to-toe with a Russian invasion. So are they, Michael Kofman, like the US troops that have spent over a half century in South Korea - a trip-wire force?

KOFMAN: Yes, that’s actually exactly what we’ve done. The United States has forces in the Baltics – they’re on permanent rotation and constantly exercising. We have tanks in the Baltics too. Their job is really to be trip-wire troops. You don’t need many forces for trip-wire troops. To quote an old Cold War adage – when Herman Kahn, the Cold War nuclear strategist was asked how many U.S. forces have to die for the United States to be involved he said, “Only one.” What NATO can do, and, more important, what the United States can do and is working on doing is substantially increasing the credibility of deterrence by punishment – meaning the fact that it would actually arrive to the fight, that it has the mechanisms and the logistics and the command relationships in place to actually fight a conflict in the European theater against Russia and to be able to start bringing punishment and retaliation fairly quickly to the fight. I think most people understand that deterrence by denial is not possible in the Baltics and is a foolhardy pursuit. That’s the kind of deterrent that we have in South Korea. That’s the kind of deterrent that we had in Europe. I want to highlight this next point – all Baltic scenarios share one comical thing: None of them explain what’s in it for the Russians. There is no clear purpose to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. There is no assertion that has ever been made by Russia that they wish to retake the Baltics or that it doesn’t believe in NATO security guarantees. In fact, most people who talk about this will concede that the entire history of our interaction with Russia in the post-Cold War period indicates that Russia takes NATO security guarantees very seriously, which is why it bothered to invade Georgia and Ukraine: to prevent them from joining NATO. Russia has been very consistent about trying to keep specific countries out of NATO and has gone to great lengths to do it precisely because it values U.S. security commitments. The median view, the one that seems most defensible to me, is that the Kremlin is opportunistically ambitious. Which is to say that Putin and the Kremlin elite are not hell-bent for leather. We’re not talking about Adolph Hitler here, but we’re also not talking about Neville Chamberlain and the guy who’s scared of his own shadow. I think that even the innocent explanation of the Ukraine incursion is that Putin is opportunistic. If somebody’s opportunistic and potentially willing to use military force, then you shouldn’t provide them with an opportunity where they might rationally that as a profitable avenue. I actually think it is possible that we could find a mutually tolerable, stable relationship with Russia. Obviously our political relations are going to be bad for at least the immediate term, unfortunately. It also seems that the Russians are uninterested in resolving the Ukraine conflict. There’s going to be bad blood. But, if we can avoid outright military conflict, then that would be great for everybody, for humanity, for our future, and so forth.

MORAN: So, is Russia following a plan – a grand strategy so-to-speak – or is this just what Putin’s advisor Sergey Karaganov calls “tactical surprise?”

KOFMAN: I see very few places or actions where I could say that Russia has a deliberate plan. Much of what happened in eastern Ukraine is quite indicative of the fact that there was no deliberate plan, and that a lot of these things were improvisations and reactions.

MORAN: That concludes Episode 3 of Diffusion: Focus on Russia. Join me next week when we talk about Russia’s security relationship with NATO and the United States with Matthew Burrows of the Atlantic Council and Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins SAIS. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.