Ever since Russia took over Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014, Western analysts have often pointed fingers at Russia and its leader. Then US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton even compared Putin with “Hitler.” Enough of that; here I want to point out the strategic dilemmas Russia is facing and the consequences that may result.
To start with, it ought to be clear that Russia cannot live with the fact that Ukraine is becoming an instrument in the hands of NATO. Russia could, should it want to, launch deep military pincer operations with the objective of taking control of that country. In my view, a Russian-inspired regime-change in the Ukraine must and will come.
The Baltic Countries May Become a Threat to Russia
NATO cannot possibly counter a Russian regime-change operation in Ukraine. However, it is also necessary to analyze the military pressures which NATO can build up against Russia in other theaters, especially the Baltic. The following are some of the possibilities:
- NATO, with bases in the three Baltic countries, can block international shipping and air traffic to St. Petersburg;
- NATO can blockade and starve-out Kaliningrad;
- NATO can build up its forces in the Baltic so as to threaten a coup de main-type attack against Minsk, which is only about 125 km from Lithuania.
Briefly, NATO, by reinforcing its military presence in the Baltic, can answer a Russian regime-change in the Ukraine by strangling Kaliningrad and threatening Minsk, the capital city of Belorussia, Russia’s closest ally. In the long term, NATO can also use its foothold in the Baltic to build up growing military pressure on St. Petersburg and Pskov. Seen form Moscow’s point of view such moves would be unacceptable, perhaps unbearable.
Western media, politicians and “experts” are forever pointing fingers at Russian “provocations.” They conveniently overlook the provocations which NATO itself is carrying out right now, as well as those it may want to carry out tomorrow. We should not be naïve. Back in the days of President Reagan the US carried out numerous simulated nuclear bombing attacks deep into Soviet territory. Had this become known at the time, the US would have denied it. NATO thinking is that these simulated nuclear attacks were helpful in causing the Soviet Union to break down.
Needless to say, what worked for the USA against the Soviet Union is something NATO would like to repeat against Russia today. Indeed it is possible that NATO is even now secretly continuing Reagan’s policy, using its forces in the Baltic to launch simulated air, sea and land attacks on Russia. Even if it does not, it may be only a matter of time before NATO has gathered enough strength to do just that.
Time for Russia to Take on the Baltic Countries is Running Out
A RAND study, completed in 2016, shows that NATO does yet not have sufficient forces in place to protect the Baltic countries. It would take Russian forces a maximum of sixty hours to reach the capitals of two of the countries in question. Such a Russian move would leave NATO with some bad, very bad, options.
Though NATO has begun to significantly upgrade its forces in the Baltic, its position there remains very insecure. Partly because the three Baltic countries are geographically isolated, and partly because, should there be a confrontation, NATO reinforcements passing through the straits of Denmark into the Baltic Sea could be interdicted by Russia. But Russia should not expect the window of opportunity to remain open for very long.
Baltic Membership in NATO is Destabilizing
When both sides have good reason to feel insecure, the relationship between them becomes unstable and something dramatic may well happen. This is currently the case in the Baltic where Russia may feel an understandable need to take action to remove the future military threat from the three Baltic countries before proceeding to liquidate its unfinished business in the Ukraine.
Any Russian operation in the Baltic will have to take place before NATO’s growing presence there makes it too dangerous. By NATO Treaty, such an operation will be considered an attack on all NATO countries, the US included. But honestly: In such a case, will the US and Europe risk a nuclear war? Probably not. Thus Russia may bet on a limited conventional war; one which would lead to the end of NATO.
On 17 May 2016 one of Denmark’s largest newspapers, Berlingske Tidende, published an article by a retired NATO brigadier general. The article was written with some typical NATO rhetoric. But under the rhetoric the Danish brigadier general seemed to be genuinely scared. He fears that something violent may take place in connection with NATO’s maneuver, BALTOPS 2016, schedules to take place in the Baltic Sea from 3- to 19 June, as Russia’s window for action in that region may become smaller in the future. As I just explained, his worries are in line with own my analysis.
Russian Interest in (Temporary) Stabilization in Syria
The Russian operations in Syria bear strong similarities to those of the German “Legion Condor” during the 1930s Spanish Civil War. They enabled the Kremlin to test and train its most advanced weapons—and watch them working perfectly well. The lesson to NATO? Beware!
For a conflict in the Baltic, Russia will prefer to have all of its air force back after its success in Syria. Land operations in the Ukraine are better undertaken in the summer time, and a Baltic operation will have to take place before NATO builds up too many forces in the Baltic. Therefore Russia has an interest in reaching a settlement (at least temporary) with the West on Syria; one that may allow it to bring the rest of its military aircraft home. As NATO’s build up in the Baltic accelerates, Russia may only have short time left to act
A Sarajevo Effect?
A 2014 study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Business Assessment (CSBA) shows that China has enough missiles to wipe out all ports and airports on Taiwan, and destroy Taiwan’s air force on the ground. Several RAND studies, including a US-China military balance assessment published in 2015, show that the US no longer enjoys an advantage over China in the Taiwan Strait. America’s overall advantage over China is also shrinking. Accordingly, why should China not exploit a US involvement in a European conflict in order to take over Taiwan? And why should Israel not use such an opportunity to strike at Iran’s nuclear installations? And why should Turkey not use it to invade Syria and northern Iraq? Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and India, may also try to solve some issues the hard way. Insurgents in various North African, Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries may also seize the opportunity.
The price of oil has already started rising again. In a world such as the one we have just described, it may not stop at 50 or 100 or 150 dollars. It may go up all the way to 200 dollars, with gold rising in proportion. Stock markets have already peaked. If they cannot go higher, an insecure world will cause them to go off the cliff. And what about the dollar? The US can only finance its huge +3% foreign deficit and big public spending as long as its capital markets are safe and attractive, and the country itself is seen as a world-heaven of security.
Should the US turn out not to be strong enough to be on top of the situation, if conflicts explode in Europe, Asia and the Middle-East, trillions of dollars may flee the US, totally “reconfiguring” a world economy at war.
Welcome to the 21st century.
*Karsten Riise, M.Sc.(Econ) with a degree in Spanish, is former CEO of DaimlerChrysler Holding in Scandinavia and CFO of Mercedes-Benz in both Sweden and Denmark. Today he writes about international security, economics and politics.