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Yesterday I wrote on the speech Vladimir Putin gave on March 18, on the occasion of accepting Crimea’s request to be annexed by Russia. In it I posited that Putin announced two clear objectives. First, he intends to regain for Russia the territory comprised by the former Soviet Union, either by direct occupation or by browbeating small countries into a political and economic alliance operating under Moscow’s direction, and he intends to crush NATO. In the speech, Putin says:
“But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.”
The NATO membership of the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia clearly constitute both “backyard” and “historic territory” of Russia.
Putin, with the annexation of Crimea, has already taken a significant step in restoring what he deems to believe the natural geographical boundaries of Russia. For all intents and purposes we should consider the brutal kleptocracy in Belarus to be a part of Putin’s administration in all but name. Moldova will inevitably lose the Transnistria region to annexation. It would also be safe to bet that in the very near future the “independent” republics Russia created in Georgia after the 2008 Russo-Georgia War, the Republic of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia, will also ask to be annexed. Eastern Ukraine seems in line to be made into a region where Russian troops will ensure the rights of ethnic Russians.
In all these cases there are indigenous Russian majorities and a near proximity of Russian bayonets. In light of the feckless behavior of the Obama administration and utter cravenness of large numbers of alleged conservatives, it is safe to say these constitute a done deal.
The touchier problem is how Russia goes about bringing the Baltic States back into its orbit. To do this he must force them out of NATO and do so without precipitating a crisis that Putin can’t be sure of winning. While I’m sure the Obama administration and our alleged conservative isolationists would not go to war over some place chock full of foreigners who don’t speak English being invaded, Putin probably can’t believe that is true.
For that reason I think a direct military action is off the table but I think that is an inconvenience, not an impediment.
So you don’t think I’m engaging in nutbaggery, indulge me by reading what follows. Back during the Cold War, the inter-German frontier was divided into Corps areas assigned to various NATO armies. See the map below:
The stationing of US military units in Germany comported with this arrangement. US V Corps was headquartered in Frankfurt/Main and US VII Corps in Stuttagart.
Sometime around 1975, a young major at the US Army Command and General Staff College wrote a paper hypothesizing how the USSR could take a huge chunk of West Germany without starting a nuclear war.
His theory was that the West would not mobilize and set off a world war when the USSR had not launched an attack.
Everyone knew that Germany was pretty much weak sister. They’d had enough of war by 1945, they weren’t all that keen on having nukes popped on their territory and they would probably go along with anything that would prevent a thermonuclear war starting, including losing territory to East Germany.
The paper caused some consternation and by 1978 a new US armored brigade had been deployed to Germany. If you look on the map below you can probably figure out which one it was.
The mission of 2nd Armored Division (Forward), strangely alone up north in Garlstedt, was to ensure that if any Warsaw Pact forces crossed the frontier in northern Germany that they would be engaged, undoubtedly suffer casualties, and force NATO action regardless of what the Germans wanted.
The most obvious target for a Russian adventure on the Baltic is Estonia. Estonia is small and weak. Estonia is on the direct seaward approach to St. Petersburg. It borders Russia. Its regular army numbers about 4,000. It has a large, ill-tempered Russian minority (see the picture at the top of this post for example).
About a third of Estonia is ethnic Russian (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian. see my post from yesterday about the flavors of Russians) but that population is not evenly distributed. Green indicates the percentage of Russian speakers. The darker the green, the more Russkies.
Estonia’s Russian population is unhappy and Russia has repeatedly made provocations directed at Estonia, not the least of which were cyberattacks that crippled the country in 2007. Russia has expressed concerns over the treatment of Russians in Estonia.
Russia signaled concern on Wednesday at Estonia’s treatment of its large ethnic Russian minority, comparing language policy in the Baltic state with what it said was a call in Ukraine to prevent the use of Russian.
Russia has defended its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula by arguing it has the right to protect Russian-speakers outside its borders, so the reference to linguistic tensions in another former Soviet republic comes at a highly sensitive moment.
Will NATO go to war over this? No. Not under the titular leadership of Barack Obama. Not with a Western Europe that is so needful of Russian oil and gas and drunk on Russian petro-dollars. NATO would grumble but accede to the fait accompli.
One can see how Estonia would jettison NATO membership. It not only did not help stave off Russia, it actually cost it territory. Latvia, which has a similar Russian problem, would probably bolt to prevent its Russians from declaring independence.
Lithuania could conceivably be the firewall. If Estonia and Latvia were neutralized NATO would no longer be on Russia’s borders. However, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad would remain sandwiched between to NATO members. Odds are Russian attention would turn to finding some way to destabilize the pro-West government and replace it with one more to their liking. Would Poland hold? Probably. But once we’ve shown the smaller members of NATO that we have no intention of protecting them the alliance becomes rather shaky.
Those on the isolationist fringe of the conservative movement are misunderstanding the threat. Vladimir Putin has not accepted the end of the Cold War. Even a bulb as dim as John Kerry knows this. But his refusal to accept the fact that the USSR lost the Cold War when coupled with the catechism-like insistence of the Obama administration that there won’t be another Cold War and their simultaneous refusal to act virtually ensures that with a relatively short period of time Europe will again be divided and the West and Russia will be aiming ICBMs as each other.
To avoid the war that no one wants, we must take action to stop Putin’s adventurism. The flaccid response to the act of wanton thuggery carried out in the Crimea makes war more, not less, likely.