Thursday, December 15, 2016

Closing A Window of Vulnerability

When I was in Montreal last month, I learned of a key window of vulnerability for NATO and of opportunity for Putin: that the effort to deploy NATO troops in the Baltics would be taking place later than I expected, several months after Trump takes power.  Given Trump's statements about NATO and his many ties with Putin, I was worried that Putin would take advantage of the months in between Trump's inauguration and the arrival of NATO troops to cause problems, to test NATO.  I was also worried that Trump might delay sending the troops, just as he has delayed releasing his tax returns, for the foreseeable future.  So, I blogged/tweeted/pulled other alarms to encourage the US and Canada to move the troops sooner rather than later.

It turns out that I was not the only one worried about this.  Obama, who knows more and is far smarter, is on it.  In yesterday's news, it was announced that a US Brigade Combat Team was beginning its deployment early to Poland.  The Estonians are thrilled, even as the troops are mostly headed to Poland.  The US commitment was to Poland, Canada to Latvia, Germany to Lithuania, and the UK to Estonia with other NATO countries filling in the various formations.  I don't know the timetables of the non-US contributors.  I urged Canada to speed up as well, but haven't seen or heard any changes in the Canadian schedule.

My basic point has been and remains: the presence of US/NATO troops in the region raises the costs for any Putin adventures, and that Putin is an opportunist.  Denying him easy faits accompli must be the first thing we do.  There is other stuff that should also be going on
  • the European Union should be dumping cash into the parts of Latvia and Estonia with large Russian-speaking populations to remind them that living on this side is desirable.  So that they don't go along with any rabble-rousing/little green man hybrid stuff that Putin cooks up.
  • more pressure should be placed on Estonia and Latvia to do a better job of incorporating the Russian-speakers into the political, economic, and social systems.  These countries tended to raise barriers when they became independent.  And they got into the EU despite only partially reducing these barriers.  Time to make these countries better democracies and again reduce the ability for outsiders to play games.
Some have raised concerns about brinksmanship--that we are saber rattling and all that.  That is a valid concern, but Putin has acted aggressively when NATO and the US have reduced their forces.  So, the question is: does the risk of antagonizing Putin do more damage than the risk of providing him with open windows of opportunity?  Which is more provocative?  Sending troops or providing an open door?  I very much think the latter is more problematic based on the past few years.

The key, as always, is what kinds of forces are being deployed.  The numbers are so small that they present no offensive threat towards Russia.  They can't stop a Russian invasion, but they change the situation to one where the onus for escalation is now in Putin's hands.  Sure, there is no guarantee that the West would respond to a Russian attack by escalating, but putting Americans (and others eventually) will be in harm's way is "the threat that leaves something to chance."  That is, any escalation by Putin increases the probability that this thing would get out of control, and that should be sufficient to deter.

H/T to Dan Drezner for reminding me of this scene in some of his posts.

And, no, I don't really believe this deployment is happening because I shouted about it.  I am self-centered but not that self-centered.


LFC said...

Don't the terms of the NATO treaty require all member states to respond if another is attacked? So if there is an unambiguous attack by Russia on one of the Baltic countries, won't that pretty much necessarily trigger a response? The exception wd be, I suppose, an action in the grey zone of 'deniability' (which you wd probably be better positioned to spell out the details of than I am).

But my pt is I would think the fact that the Baltics are members of NATO is itself an element of deterrence, irrespective of exactly what the disposition of NATO forces to them is. Ukraine/Crimea is not a good analogy, since of course Ukraine isn't in NATO.

p.s. I see you retweeted a D. Trombly tweet referring to H-6 "nuclear" bomber and "Gotland remilitarization" (I don't have a Twitter acct myself but anyone can view most tweets, account or no). I have no idea what Trombly is referring to, and if I want to know i have to search on the phrases, b/c 140 characters is not enough to explain. This is why I find Twitter frustrating. Blogs are better, imho.

Steve Saideman said...

There is nothing automatic about Article V. A decision would have to be made by the members of the organization AND even if a decision is made, nothing binds any member to do anything. The key language in the treaty is that each country would respond as each deems necessary. See my book with David Auerswald for more on exactly this issue.

LFC said...

Thanks for the reply.

LFC said...

So when I wrote in my recent Duck of Miverva guest post (of 12/6/16) that "As long as NATO exists...then Putin would have to assume that an attack on the Baltics would trigger a NATO response," I was apparently being too categorical.

I suppose I could put a qualification/correction in the comments to the post, but I prob. won't bother since, among other things, relatively few people seem to be reading this series of guest posts (at least judging from the small number of comments).

Steve Saideman said...

Comments are not correlated with reading.... People don't comment as much as they used to so don't infer too much from lack of comments.