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Why NATO says it's time to stop hugging the Russian bear

After the cold war, America hoped that European security was permanently solved, but Russia's recent forays into Ukraine and Syria have been followed by a shift in US rhetoric.

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    NATO's supreme allied commander, US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove (c.), at the start of the NATO ministerial meeting on the south, partnerships, and defense capacity at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dec. 1, 2015.
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In little-noticed remarks this week, NATO’s supreme allied commander, US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said that for too long, the United States has “hugged the bear” of Russia. But now, he said, it’s time to get tough.

This toughness should come in the form of more US troops to Europe, he said, and more “high end” training to prepare American forces for a potential battle against the former cold war foe.

The remarks, made while Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was visiting Europe this week, have struck some as a bit alarmist. True, Russia has invaded Crimea and used agents provocateurs, covert operations, and even some of its own Red Army forces in Ukraine. 

Defense officials do not believe, however, that Russia is poised to run its tanks through the Fulda Gap – the lowland corridor in Germany where the US military was prepared to intercept a surprise attack from the Warsaw Pact during the 4-1/2 decades of the cold war.

Still, the comments of General Breedlove and others mark a shift in thinking, argues John Herbst, ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and former director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University in Washington.

“I think it’s fair to say that six to eight months ago, if Breedlove had headed off in this direction he would have been walked back by the White House,” and told to tone down his rhetoric. “But not now,” says Mr. Herbst, who briefs US military commanders, “there’s been an evolution in attitudes, among our military but within the administration as well.”

Much of this is due to Russia's recent intervention in Syria, as well as its aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, in which it made use of undercover Russian soldiers in unmarked army fatigues, known as "little green men," to wreak destruction on the ground. 

This marks a notable shift since the end of the cold war, when the US quickly began operating on the assumption that European security was solved.

“We thought we could check that box, focus on other things – that Europe would become a provider of security, rather than a consumer of it,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The US view of Russia has changed dramatically – and quickly. “We went from that to ‘Russia is a defeated enemy,’ and not only that, but they’re in total collapse,” says Christopher Harmer, who served on the Pentagon staff developing strategic plans for Europe, NATO, and Russia from 2005 to 2008.

“We thought we could love them into the NATO alliance, and hug them into being responsible state actors,” adds Mr. Harmer, who is now a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Even given Russian intervention in Crimea and Ukraine, as well as Syria, a move such as rolling Russian tanks into the Baltics would be “extremely risky” and would be the kind of move on Russia’s part that would be “low probability,” says Dr. Mankoff. 

Yet the rhetorical arguments that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine “could apply equally well to the Baltic states,” says Herbst, who is now director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. The populations of Estonia and Latvia, for example, are roughly a quarter Russian, and that subset has in the past complained that those countries are treating them badly. 

Russia might invade in the guise of protecting Russian citizens, or send undercover military personnel in civilian garb and begin some sort of hybrid war. “I don’t think it’s likely, but I’d put it at a 5 to 15 percent possibility,” Herbst adds.  

“The kinds of things you need to be more worried about are agents provocateurs – which are more likely but less escalatory – as well as different kinds of intelligence operations involving little green men,” Mankoff says. “That’s where the challenge really lies.”

The question is how to counter these moves, particularly those that appear to be remote possibilities. Breedlove has suggested that the answer lies in more US troops in Europe, lauding the recent decision by the Army to rotate a brigade-size unit to Europe. 

This could contribute to good, old-fashioned deterrence, Mankoff says: “I think the logic of deterrence that existed throughout the cold war is still relevant. We’re less likely to fight if Russia understands that we have the capability and willingness to fulfill our obligations to our NATO allies.” 

But troop resources in the US military are scarce and commanders fight over them, even if the Defense Department is the most lavishly funded in the US government.

“Breedlove won’t say this publicly, but he really is engaged in a resource struggle with the other combatant commands,” notes Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War. “At the same time Europe wants more forces to counteract Russian shenanigans, I can guarantee you that Pacific Command is saying that, ‘At least the Russians are predictable bad actors,’ ” but the Pacific Command needs the forces because it has to grapple with a volatile North Korea. 

Likewise US Central Command, which runs the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, would probably say, “That may be all well and good, but we’re fighting an ongoing war,” Harmer says. “They are all patriotic enough not to have that fight publicly, but the fight is going on every day.” 

But Russia doesn’t simply present a military challenge, Mankoff says. “It’s much broader than that.” The potential solutions, too, go beyond the military, and involve “promoting resilience in potentially vulnerable countries, by making their networks more resilient to penetration, by shining light on dubious financial flows that are potentially undermining financial institutions in these countries, or by revealing parties or movements that may have hidden agendas.” 

What’s more, it’s important to keep in mind that the problems the US currently has with Russia are not necessarily long term, Herbst says. 

“I think domestic problems in Russia are growing, and it’ll lead to changes in their very aggressive foreign policy,” he says. “Elites in Moscow are getting very unhappy” with Mr. Putin’s policies, particularly as the domestic economy contracts, he adds.

In this case, “Either the policies will change, or the leadership will.”

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