Graham Allison, an entirely reputable scholar of International Affairs at Harvard University, and Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, recently published a piece reminding us that Russia is a nuclear power “capable of literally erasing the United States from the map.”
And while most Americans dismiss the possibility of a US-Russian war, they do not:
we are more concerned about the drift of events than at any point since the end of the Cold War. We say this having followed Soviet and Russian affairs throughout the Cold War and in the years since the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. And we say it after one of us recently spent a week in Moscow talking candidly with individuals in and around the Putin government, including with many influential Russian officials, and the other in China listening to views from Beijing. We base our assessment on these conversations as well as other public and private sources.
The authors are particularly concerned that Putin “relies on a very narrow circle of advisers, none of whom is prepared to challenge his assumptions,” and that “Russia’s political environment, at both the elite and public levels, encourages Putin to escalate demands rather than make concessions.”
What’s more, they write, “ordinary Russians may have gone further in their truculent views than Putin himself.” Putin, they suggest, is in fact the moderate:
At the elite level, Russia’s establishment falls into two camps: a pragmatic camp, which is currently dominant thanks principally to Putin’s support, and a hard-line camp. The Russian public largely supports the hard-line camp, whom one Putin adviser called the “hotheads.” Given Russian politics today, Putin is personally responsible for the fact that Russia’s revanchist policies are not more aggressive. Put bluntly, Putin is not the hardest of the hard-liners in Russia.
Nor are the authors optimistic about the effect of sanctions:
Counterintuitive though it may seem, Russia’s weakening economy is also unlikely to create public pressure for concessions. On the contrary, the damage to an already-stagnant Russian economy suffering from low energy prices is actually reducing Putin’s foreign-policy flexibility. Russia’s president needs to show that his country’s suffering has been worth it. Retreat could severely damage Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong man—a style Russians have historically appreciated—and alienate his hypernationalist political base. They resent sanctions, which they see as hurting ordinary people much more than Putin’s entourage, and they want their leaders to resist, not capitulate. For many, Russia’s dignity is at stake.
The authors speculate that the hardliners’ goal is to suck the US deeper into the conflict in Ukraine:
Russia’s comparative advantage in relations with Europe and the United States is not economics. Instead, it is deploying military power. Europeans have essentially disarmed themselves and show little will to fight. Americans undoubtedly have the most powerful military on earth and are often prepared to fight. But even though they win all the battles, they seem incapable of winning a war, as in Vietnam or Iraq. In Ukraine, the “hotheads” hope, Russia can teach the Europeans and Americans some hard truths. The professionally executed operation that annexed Crimea virtually without a shot was the first step. But the deeper the United States can be sucked into Ukraine and the more visibly it is committed to achieving unachievable goals like the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the better from this hawkish Russian perspective.
The goal? To demoralize–and ultimately peel away–the rest of Europe. And to this end, the authors remark, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, are “the Achilles’ heel of the NATO alliance.”
They are protected by its Article 5 guarantee that an attack upon one will be regarded as an attack upon all. Thus, the United States has an unambiguous and undeniable responsibility to deter and defend attacks on the Baltic states. Given their size, proximity to Russia and substantial Russian-speaking minorities, this is a daunting requirement. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which either U.S. or Russian action could set in motion a chain of events at the end of which American and Russian troops would be killing each other.
The authors game out a number of scenarios in which these states could come under Russian stealth attack. (Edward Lucas sketches out similar scenarios in this article, titled “What if Putin gets what he wants?”) “If you want to either dumbfound or silence a table next to you in a restaurant in Washington or Boston,” they write,
ask your fellow diners what they think. If stealthy Russian military forces were to take control of Estonia or Latvia, what should the United States do? Would they support sending Americans to fight for the survival of Estonia or Latvia?
So, Ricochet, what do you think? Would you support sending Americans to fight for the survival of Estonia or Latvia?