Can NATO Stop Putin?

by Jonah Shepp

Michael Peck doubts the new rapid response force NATO is proposing to establish in Eastern Europe would be much of a deterrent to Russian aggression:

[A] NATO quick-reaction force is unlikely to actually deter Russia. For starters, a deterrent is only as effective as it is credible. And military credibility is what the new force will lack. Prepositioning mechanized units in Eastern Europe is a possibility. But as U.S. troops discovered when moving from Germany to Bosnia in 1995, it’s hard moving tracked armor long distances. Harder when you have to move fast. It seems more likely that the new force will include light infantry, wheeled armor and special forces—all easier to move by air or road than heavy tanks. While these light troops might have a fighting chance against irregular troops such as Ukraine’s eastern rebels, they wouldn’t stand a chance against a Russian tank regiment. To say nothing of Russian warplanes.

Judy Dempsey also suspects that the new strategy won’t pose much of a challenge to Putin, and that the real threat comes from elsewhere:

NATO strategy still leaves Eastern Europe highly vulnerable. The last thing that Poland, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics want is for Eastern Europe to be turned into a new cordon sanitaire. It would, in fact, create a new, divided and highly unstable Europe, which is why these countries are determined that the EU prevent this from happening. …

What could deter him is his own combustible southern flank and Islamic State, which Russia would be very unwise to ignore. It is these threats that are far, far more dangerous to Russia than NATO’s limited intentions in Poland and the Baltic states. These threats are also more dangerous than the EU, whose openness has hugely profited Russian companies and ordinary Russian citizens. If Putin thinks NATO and the EU are his big threats, competitors and enemies, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

Dempsey alludes to something important here regarding the relationship between the Russia-Ukraine and Iraq-Syria conflicts, and I wish her article explored it in greater depth. ISIS may be a threat to Europe, and even to the US, but it threatens Russia more directly. Could that threat be leveraged to talk Putin down from his war horse? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see whether the NATO summit touches on it. These crises don’t exist in bubbles. The War on Terror divided NATO, but John Cassidy argues that Putin is helping the alliance overcome its post-9/11 sclerosis:

American officials charged that the Europeans weren’t carrying their weight. (Alliance members are supposed to spend two per cent of their G.D.P. on defense, but few of them do.) European officials muttered about the United States using its hegemony to destabilize things rather than calm them down. Looking ahead, the future of the alliance seemed increasingly uncertain. A 2013 brief from the Atlantic Council warned, “The world is changing rapidly, and if NATO does not adapt with foresight for this new era, then it will very likely disintegrate.” Then, along came the reëlected Putin, singlehandedly providing the NATO members with what all allies need: a common threat. And not only a common one but a familiar one, too: a Russia itching to expand its power and influence.

Meanwhile, Eli Lake highlights some new American sanctions legislation that “would amount to an economic nuclear bomb against the Russian federation” (My goodness. Phrasing!):

The Daily Beast has obtained a draft of proposed legislation from Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican lawmaker who co-authored the crippling sanctions against Iran. In short, Kirk proposes to do to Russia what he and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Robert Menendez, did to Iran: make it all-but-impossible for any Western bank to do business with the state. If passed, the draft legislation would essentially make Moscow a pariah economy. Specifically, Kirk’s legislation, still circulating among his colleagues, would impose strict limits on any bank that does business with Russia’s central bank to participating in the U.S. banking system. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kirk also said he supported moves to compel President Obama to support kicking Russian banks out of the SWIFT interbank payment system, a move that would stymie the ability of Russian businesses to efficiently pay foreign companies for goods and services.

Harder sanctions on Russia make sense, and might even be more effective than beefing up the NATO presence in the Baltic countries. My fear, though, is that we will end up with another “all stick, no carrot” approach that does a lot of economic damage without offering the Kremlin a way out. Coercive diplomacy is all well and good, but putting pressure on an aggressive state only goes so far when that state doesn’t see any benefit to behaving more responsibly. After all, we still don’t know for sure that the sanctions we imposed on Iran worked, and every time the nuclear talks have broken down it’s been because the Iranians didn’t think we were serious about lifting the sanctions if they played nice. Rewarding a bad actor for being less bad isn’t exactly justice, but war is much worse.