Vladimir Putin has never accepted the post-Cold War order, writes Richard Cohen. NATO countries, including Canada, need to increase their defence spending in order to demonstrate resolve in the face of the new Russian assertiveness.
By Richard Cohen, May 8, 2017
Vladimir Putin is on a roll.
He’s annexed Crimea, created a Russian mini-state in Eastern Ukraine and reasserted Russia’s role as a regional and world power by his intervention in Syria and growing influence in the wider Middle East. He’s frightened his neighbours and sent a chill through Europe and across the Atlantic. And, most recently, he’s thrown the American electoral process into confusion as well as possibly those of some of its major allies. All this on the back of an economy one sixth the size of the US and with a declining population.
Putin’s adventures have been achieved by the carefully targeted use of military power combined with a strong element of cyber and (dis)information warfare. Russian armed forces have been modernized and improved and sent into battle at a breathtaking pace. New tanks, aircraft and ships, state of the art anti-aircraft systems, new cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced submarines and world class electronic and cyber warfare capabilities have all been fielded in an incredibly short time. Russian long-range aircraft, ships and submarines patrol aggressively near NATO coasts. There are now reports that Russia is even planning to build a huge nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Most importantly, Putin has restructured the Russian armed forces and restored a sense of purpose and pride to a force that for years was written off as demoralized and incapable of effective operations. Russian defence spending is now reckoned to rank 3rd in the world behind the US and China. It’s eerily reminiscent of the period from 1933-1939 during which Nazi Germany reconstituted its armed forces for war and overwhelmed continental Europe and a large part of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s long term aim is clear. He has never accepted the post-Cold War order and certainly not that it marks the “end of history.”
What does Putin want?
Putin’s long term aim is clear. He has never accepted the post-Cold War order and certainly not that it marks the “end of history.” His goal is to overturn the dominance of US power and to replace it with a multipolar system, if possible with Russia as a first amongst equals. To achieve this he is working to destabilize NATO and the EU, which are seen as major threats and obstacles to Russian influence in Europe and further afield.
Putin’s mission is the restoration of Russian greatness and influence in the world, evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union – an event he’s described as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.
In the years following the end of the Cold War, I worked closely with senior military and civilian officials of nearly all the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Every one of them felt that they had achieved something hugely positive from the advent of the new world order. They yearned to be accepted into the fold of western democratic nations; all, that is, except the Russians. Almost every Russian parliamentarian, diplomat, military officer and academic I met, openly or more discretely, resented the “victorious” West. They felt tricked and betrayed. As a relatively junior KGB officer stationed in East Germany, Vladimir Putin witnessed firsthand the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and there’s no doubt that he harboured that same bitterness and resentment.
As a relatively youthful and vigorous man he looks forward to at least another decade as president, long enough perhaps to see Russia restored to its former “glory.”
Putin’s bottom line is also highly personal; he believes that he can reshape the world. To do so he must remain in power as long as possible. As a relatively youthful and vigorous man he looks forward to at least another decade as president, long enough perhaps to see Russia restored to its former “glory.”
Strategist or Tactician?
It’s not yet clear whether Putin is a master strategist or merely a skillful tactician. He may well be both. Does he have a detailed plan to achieve his goals or is he an agile opportunist prepared to exploit Western weakness when and where he finds it?
The Obama administration gave Putin the opportunities he was looking for. When Obama ignored his own “red line” in Syria, Putin sensed an open door. He could make bold and aggressive moves in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria with little risk of serious consequences. His “victories” have earned him the respect of despots around the world, from Syria and Iran to North Korea and Venezuela. Would-be autocrats in Turkey, Hungary, and other places are scrambling to befriend him. Even the new US president expressed admiration of his leadership…although this may be changing!
What is clear is that Putin is a man of action, prepared to take risks in pursuit of his goals. He is not afraid to jump into a vacuum where he finds it. One such vacuum, of immediate concern to Canada, is the Arctic. There, Russia is quickly establishing a powerful military, scientific, and economic presence while other northern countries look on in fascinated but apparently helpless bewilderment.
How can he afford it?
Of course, a huge military buildup and ambitious foreign adventures come at a big financial cost. How can Russia afford it? The country has dwindling but still sizeable reserves of foreign currency and gold built up during the oil boom of 2009-2014. As these run down, Putin could also “borrow” funds from his oligarchs who are totally dependent on him for their continued prosperity, and perhaps more importantly, for their personal safety and well-being.
But Putin may well believe he has a limited window in which to achieve his aims. The Russian people are long suffering and at the moment seem prepared to support him on the back of his foreign policy “successes.” He’s restored the pride of Russians in their country but he’s not improved their standard of living. And the extreme wealth of Putin and his cronies (including most recently revealed, Prime Minister Medvedev’s accumulated billions) has not escaped notice. How long Putin’s popularity will last is anyone’s guess but he must realize that at some stage people will be demanding more at home in spite of the well-orchestrated adulation of the Russian media.
To keep public support, Putin may indulge in even riskier foreign adventures which could push him into situations that he would otherwise rather avoid. This may be our biggest danger.
Will the NATO “tripwire” forces, including a Canadian contingent, really dissuade him? And if not, could we and other NATO troops become hostages, or worse, to hybrid warfare by Russia?
A potential flashpoint is the Baltic States with their sizeable Russian minorities. NATO’s “reassurance” mission in these countries is designed to deter Putin. But at the end of the day, if he feels compelled to act, he probably will. Will the NATO “tripwire” forces, including a Canadian contingent, really dissuade him? And if not, could we and other NATO troops become hostages, or worse, to hybrid warfare by Russia – perhaps followed by a massive military push across the Baltic frontiers? What would NATO’s Article 5 collective defence guarantee mean if Russian troops – or perhaps “little green men” – are walking down the streets of Talinn, for example?
Tripwires are only effective if there is something serious to trip! At the moment, NATO has little military punch in Central Europe to react to a serious Russian incursion. Although the US certainly outguns Russia on a global basis, American and allied military power on the ground in Europe are not up to a large scale military clash in the Baltics, especially when Putin threatens to play the “nuclear card.” Would the US and NATO be prepared to call his bluff?
“If you Desire Peace, Prepare for War”
A much safer alternative to a dangerous military showdown is to pre-empt Russia with a demonstration of real Western resolve. At the end of the day, we can only persuade Putin that we are serious about defending ourselves and our allies if we implement our own military buildup. Until now NATO nations have been very slow to increase defence spending and to significantly strengthen their military capabilities, even in the face of the new Russian assertiveness.
Canada is one of the worst laggards in terms of defence spending. Neither Stephen Harper nor Justin Trudeau ever had any intention of achieving the agreed NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP defence spending. A recent Senate of Canada Defence Committee report put our current number at 0.88 percent, above only Luxembourg in the NATO league table! As Andrew Coyne stated recently, “Canada’s history of welching on our NATO commitments [cannot] be anything but a source of national shame.”
But a real hike in military spending will only happen if ordinary Canadians are persuaded that the safety of their country and their own personal well-being are at risk unless we’re prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Concerned citizens groups, parliamentary committees, the media and other opinion makers can help but it’s the government that must lead a campaign to mobilize public support. So far there seems little hope of that.
Donald Trump will push and cajole us. But in the end it may be Vladimir Putin who finally shocks Canadians into taking the security and defence of our allies and of our own country seriously. And if and when that happens, it may be too late!
Richard Cohen is president of RSC Strategic Connections and served in the Canadian and British Armies. He was Professor of European Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and from 2007-2011, Senior Defence Advisor to the Minister of National Defence.