The Russian press seems to have had a field day with the recent NATO conference in Warsaw. As is typical for them, they have portrayed NATO’s exercises and statements about the need for solidarity and responses to Russian aggression as “hysteria” and warmongering. This is rather amusing because at the same time many of these pundits are constantly screaming about “NATO encirclement” of Russia while ignoring the fact that Russia has far more troops on the border now than NATO does, even after the increases since 2014. But oddly enough, on a certain level they have a point. If you are not Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, you don’t really need to worry much about Russian aggression, at least not directly.
As some have pointed out recently, Russia’s strategy is based on appearing to be far stronger than it actually is. While half the time pro-Kremlin pundits point and laugh at the supposed alarmist tactics of NATO officials, Russian media often spends the other half talking about how powerful its military forces are and how they could easily conquer the Baltic countries and defeat NATO conventional forces. Sadly it seems some people pay attention to the latter type of propaganda and then fall right into the Russian trap.
I’m by no means the first person to point this out, but let me make it clear- Russia is not going to intentionally go to war with NATO. They are not going to invade the Baltic states. All the while these same pundits talk about how close we are to WWIII, but when a Russian military plane was actually shot down by a NATO member state last year, what actually happened? We got roughly six months of impotent buttrage and then Vladimir and Recep kissed and made up so Russia can get tomatoes and Turkey can get drunk Russian office plankton on its beaches.
Here’s why Russia isn’t going to invade the Baltic states- it has nothing to gain and everything to lose. In the case of Ukraine, it was a neutral country already within their sphere of influence. The economies of both nations were extremely intertwined, and when you look at the role Ukrainian firms played in Russia’s defense industry, at a time when Russia’s military standardization and modernization reforms were in full swing, you can understand why they were willing to gamble so foolishly on an attempt to maintain this relationship.
Putin and his cronies probably never expected any sanctions or at least serious repercussions from the West at the time. Why would they? The West is where these men hid their stolen fortunes, whether in banks, holding companies, or real estate. While Putin’s claim that Crimea represented “holy land” for Russians was laughably spurious, the holy land for Putin’s elite was no doubt London and various other pricey Western locales. Even from a military standpoint it’s clear that the operation to seize the Crimea went forward simply because the Russian authorities, after carefully testing the waters, saw that they could get away with it.
If we look at the wider war in Ukraine, the motive here is pretty obvious too. The basic goal is to prevent Ukraine from successfully building a functioning, prosperous democratic state at all costs. The Kremlin says Russians are too stupid to take part in the governing of their own affairs. It says they are inferior to Western people whose own political participation is usually not too far beyond that which Russians are allowed to enjoy. So what do you tell your people when they look across the border from Voronezh or the Rostov region and there are millions of Russian-speakers (the Kremlin holds that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people) who are somehow able to enjoy the most basic fruits of Western democracy and what is more, who can travel freely in Europe? On that note the destabilization and destruction of Ukraine serves another narrative purpose- “Don’t protest. Obey the legitimate government no matter what. If you protest you’ll get chaos.” In short, Russia is doing all this to Ukraine because it can, for reasons which are on some level logical, however immoral and reprehensible they might be.
By contrast, what is to be gained from invading the Baltic states? A propaganda coup? Would it really be worth it when the same results could be accomplished with some photo ops or state-sponsored concerts? Alarmists say that the Russian forces could easily defeat the NATO forces currently stationed there. Okay- but at what cost? They moved in the Crimea once they established that there would be no resistance, and this was largely the case. In the Donbas they could rely on proxies and volunteers who wouldn’t be missed in Russia. Even if a Russian invasion force managed to defeat the NATO defenders in the Baltic, it would suffer far more casualties, actual, acknowledged Russian military casualties, than in the Crimea or Donbas. I would not be surprised to see them lose more than they did in the entire war in Ukraine so far. And while there would be a massive campaign to whip up patriotism and glorify the conquest, those dead soldiers have families. The message to every one of them is: “this will cost you.”
And that’s not even talking about sanctions and other measures against Russia. Say goodbye to SWIFT. Say goodbye to virtually any Western investment. The Russian elite will see their assets seized and frozen en masse, which pretty much negates the whole purpose of being part of the Russian elite. And what about arms sales to Ukraine? NATO would start giving the weapons away. Much of Russia’s best forces are tied down in or on the border of eastern Ukraine, and then you’ve got another significant portion tied down in Syria. Taking troops out of Ukraine or off the border leaves the puppet states in the Donbas vulnerable to an offensive, and they’re a juicy target because Russia can’t claim that it was attacked here. NATO, with the help of Turkey and other allies in the region, could launch an all-out attack on the Assad regime and Russian forces stationed in Syria, all while closing the Bosphorus to all Russian shipping. What is Russia going to do then? Invade Turkey? Of course in any scenario they’ll scream and shout about their nuclear missiles, but deep down they know that the launch of one nuke means the end of Russia and much of human civilization as they know it. That and the Russian elite doesn’t want to fry its own children in London, New York, or Paris.
The Russian economy, which is slowly sliding downhill now, will basically go into free fall, and a significant portion of the Russian population will be faced with a choice- stand up for your rights and demand change or starve to death. This is that point that Russia’s current leadership keeps forgetting throughout their country’s history- the point where all that rhetoric about Russians enduring anything indefinitely is revealed to be bullshit. 1905, 1917, 1991, 20xx…
Essentially it would seem that NATO leaders are falling for Russia’s so-called “reflexive control,” and falling hard. Russia makes a lot of noise with exercises and airspace violations, Baltic nations get scared and call for more troops, and then the Russian media says they’re paranoid, reacting to a phantom threat, and warmongering against Russia. Putin needs “NATO encirclement” to look real. The second a majority of people in Russia stop believing in the NATO conspiracy against Russia, they will turn their gaze toward the real enemy of Russia- the government. And this is where NATO countries should focus their attention when it comes to threats.
The Putin regime’s actions and style of government pretty much guarantee widespread instability and chaos in the Russian Federation at some point in the future. When that time comes, Eastern European nations will be faced with a terrible crisis. Massive migrant or refugee waves, organized crime, arms trafficking, and human trafficking from the struggling, possibly fracturing Russian Federation will challenge these states. It is not a resurgent, revanchist Russia bent on restoring the Soviet Union that the NATO countries should be worrying about- it’s the collapse of Russia that is a threat to the region.