If the Kremlin’s propagandists get views and publicity by screaming about NATO expansion and color revolutions, the Western think tankies seem to build their careers on predictions about Russia invading the Baltic states. Curiously, they never seem to be able to articulate exactly why Russia would do such a thing. Specifically, they can’t explain what Russia gets out of this invasion that would offset the costs they’d inevitably incur. Costs which, incidentally, would inevitably and ultimately entail the destruction of Russia as a state. No, nobody’s going to use nukes. There’s no need. Just the economic warfare the West could wage against Russia pretty much guarantees a swift return to 1991, only worse. But think tankies need to earn their pay, so we end up getting crap like this.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a thorough dressing down, so if you’re new here, make yourself a bowl of popcorn and strap yourself in for a real treat. Here we go!
Four years ago, I predicted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Here’s my next prediction, which by now will strike many people as obvious: The Baltics are next, and will pose one of President-elect Donald Trump’s first and greatest tests. It probably won’t take the form of an overt invasion.
Right off the bat it’s nonsense. The author expects us to lend credibility to his new prediction because he supposedly predicted the war in Ukraine four years ago. While he includes a link to an article making that claim (I haven’t been able to read it), it’s not the same as linking to the original prediction. When you write about a prediction after the fact, you can easily weed out those parts of the prediction you made that don’t fit the actual events. What is more, do we know he literally predicted this as a likely scenario, or was it simply a hypothesis about how a conflict might possibly unfold?
For the moment let’s ignore that question, however. The truth is a lot of people “predicted” a war between Russia and Ukraine. Probably in late 2008, 2009 and the latest, I was predicting a revolution in Ukraine at some point. I also predicted this would lead to war with Russia. Of course if I told all the details about those predictions I wouldn’t seem so prescient at all.
What is more, plenty of other sources “predicted” the war in Ukraine. Back in the late 90’s I used to play a turn-based wargame called Steel Panthers II. It included one scenario about a Russian invasion of Ukraine. I did a little research and found that there’s a posthumously-published Tom Clancy novel that not only predicts a Russian war against Ukraine, but one that begins with pro-Russian nationalist protests in Ukraine. The novel was released in early December 2013, and of course Maidan had just started the previous month. Since Clancy actually died in October that year, it stands to reason that he’d started writing it earlier. Gee I sure hope Clancy left a manuscript detailing Russia’s plans for the Baltic states!
But let’s go ahead and ignore all of these facts and just imagine that somehow, the author Paul D. Miller got virtually every salient detail of the crisis in Ukraine right, from Maidan, to the annexation of the Crimea (which had been an issue since the 1990’s), to the Donbas (which had been an issue since the mid-2000’s). Even if he got all of this right, we still have no reason to take his prediction about Latvia seriously for the simple reason that attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO member are two vastly different things. Remember, just last year Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian military jet under extremely questionable pretenses. One of the pilots was murdered after ejecting. What was the result? Passive-aggression toward Turkish citizens and companies, some useless sanctions, hilariously hypocritical accusations that Turkey was supporting ISIS, and in about six months’ time the two dictators kissed and made up. World War III would have to wait yet again.
Putin wages war on countries like Ukraine and Georgia simply because he can. They aren’t NATO members and no NATO member seems willing to seriously go to bat for them. You can insinuate that Trump won’t uphold NATO’s obligations but the Obama administration hasn’t done much better in restraining Russian aggression against its neighbors. (Pssst! It’s because the West is capitalist and there’s money to be made working with Russia!)
So much for predictions.
So why does Miller believe Putin will attempt to invade and conquer the Baltics. Check this out, bro! Turns out he’ll do it because he wants to, because of his beliefs.
Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin (and, perhaps more so, his inner circle) isn’t merely nationalist. The Kremlin appears to be driven by peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism. In this narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith.
No. Just…no. Where to begin? First of all, Putin doesn’t seriously believe in anything beyond political survival. He knows that when he’s out of power, truly out of control, he’ll most likely be thrown to the dogs. If he’s lucky, there’ll be a sort of palace coup where he’s forced into early retirement, preferably with some kind of legal immunity. More likely he’ll be delivered up as a scapegoat and charged with all sorts of crimes real and imagined (when the archives are in someone else’s control, not much will need to be imagined). Worst case scenario for Putin- political upheaval and revolution. Either he makes it to the airport and there’s a friendly country willing to grant him asylum, or he ends up like Gaddafi. In short, a man in Putin’s position simply cannot afford to seriously harbor fantasies about Russia’s “destiny.” Sure, he can daydream or use ideology as a method of rationalizing his actions to himself and close confidants, but Putin is no ideologically-driven fanatic. His cronies even less so.
The absolute worst thing any Russia watcher can do is believe that Putin takes ideology seriously. Ideology in Russian politics is just about manipulating various groups of people. Putin can be spun as a nationalist, a revolutionary, even a liberal reformer- all that matter is you either support him or at least don’t oppose him. Your own political motivations are irrelevant.
Putin, as the author points out, is not rational, but he’s also not stupid. He’s fully aware of the fact that he cannot win a war with NATO. By the end of 2014, he no longer had the capability of winning a full-scale war on Ukraine, and he hasn’t regained it so far.
Now back to the bad analysis.
A truly rational Russia would not see NATO and European Union expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. But, for Putin and other Russians who see the world through the lens of Russian religious nationalism, the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.
In a sense Putin’s fear is somewhat rational. It’s just not a fear of a military invasion, per se. What Putin fears the most as he is forced to resort to more conventional dictatorial measures against a background of a failing economy is Russians being exposed to the rest of the world, and seeing that it works better than his system. That’s one of the biggest threats to Putin’s regime, which is an empire founded on a propaganda narrative. The more Russians go abroad and experience the differences in lifestyles, the more obvious his failure becomes. His media relentlessly portrays the West as a land of filthy degeneracy, but this is one cat Putin can’t stuff back into the bag.
It’s bad enough that Russians in Baltic countries enjoy better living standards in many respects than their brethren across the border, but if Ukraine managed to throw off a potential Putin-like figure and carry out sufficient reforms to join the EU? That would be an utter disaster for the narrative. Ukrainians, whom the Russian media says are just Russians, successfully hold their leaders accountable, then build a successful democratic country without a “strong leader” and an authoritarian state to guide them. That’s the kind of thing that would make Russians in Rostov, Kursk, and Voronezh start questioning the Russophobic official line that says that Russians are inherently corrupt and lazy and therefore require a “strong hand” to rule them. Plus, if Ukraine did join NATO at some later date (it would have to be much later considering how unpopular that idea was in Ukraine until very recently), Putin would not be able to sabotage its neighbor’s growth and development.
Keeping former Soviet neighbors poor makes Russia look better by default. It supplies cheap labor. It helps the Russian government make its claims that “all countries are corrupt.” It also helps strengthen the narrative that these countries all suffered because they foolishly rejected Moscow’s rule.
Put simply, Putin’s already lost the Baltic countries for all intents and purposes. Apart from monetary rewards for a few Baltic politicians or businessmen, Russia has nothing to offer the non-Russian titular nationalities in the Baltic states. Since nobody, not even the Russian community, believes they would be better off under Moscow’s rule, any and all cooperation will have to be bought, in some cases at steep prices. And remember this is going to take place during what is essentially a state of war between Russia and NATO.
Oh wait…Miller anticipated that!
Putin’s next step is more dangerous than the previous ones, because he is likely to move into the Baltics, which are NATO members. He will not send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border — even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion.
Instead, Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Perhaps Russian-speaking Latvians or Estonians (a quarter of Latvians and Estonians are ethnically Russian) will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, asking for “international protection.” A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear. A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. A low-grade insurgency may emerge.
Oh right! I forgot- Putin is the master of hybrid warfare. He used these hybrid forces for the sake of plausible deniability in Ukraine, and it worked perfectly. The NATO nations and their allies were totally fooled by Putin’s clever ruse and, believing that the war was in fact a local uprising, they declined to implement any kind of sanctions against Russia whatsoever, thus giving Putin a free hand. Oh…Wait…No. None of that happened. No country of any significance bought Putin’s laughable denials virtually from the very beginning. Having “local self-defense forces” outfitted in the latest Russian uniforms and gear might have had something to do with that. Even the International Criminal Court has now officially declared that there has been and still is an international military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Turns out disguising your invasion requires a little more trickery than having your soldiers remove their insignia. In short, nobody’s going to buy a “local insurrection.”
What is more, the whole world including the Baltic Russians know that this is the case. They know that Russia is experiencing sanctions for what they did in Crimea and the Donbas, even if they think their cause is just. And as I mentioned earlier there is little reason for Baltic Russians to participate in a Russian-organized insurgency beyond personal rewards, and Russia’s capacity to provide such rewards not only shrinks today, but it would fall sharply after attempting to wage warfare against a NATO member.
Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic conditions in Ukraine made Russia’s pseudo-insurrection possible, but even in that case local proxies had to be quickly reigned in or purged so that Moscow could control things more directly. It’s also worth noting that in the Donbas, many Ukrainians, some of whom work or have worked in Russia, believed that their territory would be quickly annexed into Russia as the Crimea had been. If you take a look at the Donbas some time, you can understand why some of these people naively thought they’d be better off in Russia. This simply isn’t the case in the Baltic countries.
Expect Russia to use their proxies in the Baltic states as nuisances to keep NATO off balance, but they’re not stupid enough to risk an invasion and World War III with NATO.
Still not convinced, let’s look at a few facts:
-Since the fall of Debaltseve in early 2015, Russia has made no serious attempt to retake any territory in Ukraine. If they aren’t willing to support an all-out offensive on Mariupol, they’re not going to invade a NATO country and initiate WWIII.
-Take a look at how Russian leaders react any time someone brings up the prospect of cutting Russia off from SWIFT. Basically they act like it’s a naval blockade and an act of war. If you’re afraid of being cut off from SWIFT, you’re not going to initiate WWIII.
-Look at how much time Russian leaders and the state press devote to the removal of sanctions. The most pathetic attempt occurred recently, when Putin tore up an agreement with the US on plutonium control, angrily demanding that all sanctions be removed. If they’re that flustered over relatively weak sanctions, how calmly would they receive new, sweeping sanctions all across the boards? Russia’s leadership is delusional but not necessarily stupid (okay some of them are stupid); they know that apart from military consequences of a war with NATO there will also be far more in the way of sanctions.
-The ability to travel, live, own property, and horde money in the West is one of the carrots the regime has to buy loyalty. Russia’s collaborators in the Crimea and Donbas were cut off from these benefits by Western sanctions. Anyone collaborating with a Russian campaign in the Baltics would face the same fate. More importantly, being sanctioned by the West is now no longer the worst thing that can happen to a collaborator. Just ask Alexei Mozgovoi, Pavel Dremov, Alexander Bednov, or Arsen Pavlov. Oh wait- you can’t ask them because they’re all dead, all killed well behind the lines, almost certainly by their own side.
These facts are too simply too salient to ignore. Claiming that Putin will ignore all of them because he’s an ideological fanatic is arguing against well-established facts. After all we’re talking about a leader who’s not only too afraid to make a move on Kharkiv or Sumy, but who won’t even risk a push toward Mariupol or even Kostantynivka. Mariupol would open the possibility of a land bridge to Crimea, and the latter would at least be a much-needed propaganda victory and a chance to instill more panic and doubt in Ukraine. But apparently Mr. Miller would have us believe that a leader who is too craven to attempt that, too cowardly to even admit his involvement in the war, would actually go ahead and initiate World War III with NATO in Latvia. Sure.
So what can be done to mitigate this World War III panic-mongering, especially in the wake of America’s Orange Revolution AKA Trump win?
One possible treatment involves listening to recordings of Mark Galeotti, the voice of reason, over a background of soothing New Age music. This will surely lower your heart rate and remind you that no, Putin is not going to restore the Soviet Union because his country has an economy on par with Italy and his military is a black hole in the budget that fell far short of its modernization goals.
Or you could read this article. The author might be a bit more qualified to speak on Baltic affairs. He was only the former president of Estonia, after all.