NATO is set to enter a dangerous decade with Russia in which domestic instability coincides with a weak neighbourhood, but what can Europe do to mitigate the risk of Russian aggression?
Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its subsequent military invasion of the Donbas sent shockwaves through NATO, bringing an end to the idea of strategic partnership with Russia. Moscow’s confrontational posture is unlikely to end quickly. The coming decade will be a very dangerous one, and Russia will likely continue to escalate and further militarise its foreign policy.
Three main factors support this prognosis. First, Russia has learned from previous wars that aggression pays off. Second, the unstable domestic situation in Russia means foreign policy success is seen as a tool to foster societal and elite cohesion. Third, although NATO has begun to strengthen its eastern borders, rearmament and retraining in the West will take time. Meanwhile, the modernisation of Russia’s military is continuing despite the country’s economic troubles, providing Russia with opportunities to exploit Western weaknesses and indecisiveness.
Lessons learned from previous wars
Moscow and the West learned very different political lessons from previous military conflicts. In the West, analysts emphasise Russian military shortcomings and its failure to achieve war aims beyond controlled instability. But in Russia, past military campaigns are generally regarded as political successes.
The war in Georgia displayed deficiencies in Russia’s military apparatus: its clumsiness and weak inter-service coordination prevented it from achieving ambitious political goals like regime change in Tbilisi. But Moscow achieved other goals. Most importantly, it “stopped NATO enlargement”: any practical discussion of Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership was postponed indefinitely. Second, the war sent shockwaves to Kyiv, reinforcing the domestic troubles of the post-Orange Revolution government. Kyiv’s insecurity was dramatically increased by the knowledge that Russia was serious about military aggression and that NATO would offer no tangible protection. As Moscow saw it, this insecurity was instrumental in securing a smooth transition to Viktor Yanukovych’s rule in 2009/2010. Third, Russia successfully deceived the West. The war was conducted during the administration of a lame duck United States president, while the US, Russia’s “main adversary”, was militarily overextended in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Because Moscow had overestimated the US’s direct interest in Georgia, Washington’s slow reaction was overestimated in Moscow’s defence circles as a success of Russian deterrence.
The Europeans, meanwhile, were fooled by the selective implementation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ceasefire plan and hence de facto accepted Russia’s conquests. The EU-Russia Modernisation Partnership was not affected by these developments, so the Kremlin believed that Europe would never endanger its business ties with Russia for the sake of the post-Soviet periphery. And the Georgian war was a considerable success for the Russian propaganda machine. Russia implanted its version of the conflict – that the war started with Georgian “aggression” against South Ossetia – into the mindset of European politicians and policymakers.
The Kremlin views its intervention in the Syrian war as a success too. The West regards Russia’s intervention as a limited operation contributing nothing to the defeat of the Islamic State and producing only an unstable ceasefire on other fronts, but from Moscow’s perspective, it achieved its aims. The war broke the Kremlin’s international isolation after its actions in Ukraine. It forced the West, and particularly the US, to negotiate with Russia on “equal terms”, boosting Russia’s prestige beyond its actual capabilities and power. Russia successfully prevented regime change in Syria, and its retraining and re-equipping of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces make the Syrian leader’s overthrow unlikely. And by withdrawing immediately after achieving Russia’s diplomatic goals, President Vladimir Putin signalled to the West that he would neither be trapped in a Syrian quagmire nor need US support for a withdrawal.
Western and Russian assessments of Moscow’s military endeavours differ even more on Ukraine. In the West, Russia’s war is regarded as a colossal failure. It ended in diplomatic isolation and deep economic troubles at home, and it guaranteed the permanent loss of Ukraine. But for Moscow, the final verdict on the war is still out. It considers Ukraine a failed state that will collapse if pushed further. This explains Russia’s unwillingness to implement the Minsk agreement or freeze the conflict in Donbas. The Kremlin still believes it can gain from Ukraine’s collapse, regaining a major role in Ukrainian politics once the current government is removed. It regards the annexation of Crimea as a success and, for some, even as a turning point in Russian history: Russia is expanding again.
The Kremlin perceives its military operations as largely successful. Key Western governments failed to predict Russian military decisions and to understand the Kremlin’s intentions and risk assessments. This inability to predict Russian actions will embolden the Kremlin to look for and exploit further weaknesses and blind spots in Western policy.
The domestic logic of confrontation
The Russian economy hit a structural crisis in 2011, so the “power swap” between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev was not sufficiently appreciated by the Russian urban middle class, and later, when oil prices plummeted, the regime looked to its foreign policy to distract people from the worsening domestic situation. But it would be an oversimplification to consider Russia’s policy of escalation as merely a short-term domestic diversion effort. For over a decade, the Russian leadership has tried to define Russia both ideologically and politically as the counter model to Europe, putting it in conflict with Europe. The struggle to reshape the European order will not lessen in the next decade.
Structural factors play a role in Russia’s foreign policy. The Russian state is more de-institutionalised and personalised than ever before. The president and a small closed circle of advisers make decisions – sometimes behind closed doors – on crucial foreign policy issues, such as the interventions in Crimea, Donbas, and Syria. Formal government structures and institutions are increasingly irrelevant, while informal ties to the president are pivotal. This system depends solely on the president as post, and to a very large extent on Putin as a person. Any change to the position of the president – such as may come in the 2018 and 2024 elections – will lead to extreme danger for the regime.
A highly de-institutionalised system depending on one person will by nature be less effective and more prone to erratic behaviour over time, as the leader ages. The longer this personalised authoritarianism lasts, the less flexible, open, and creative the system will become. It would not be surprising, therefore, if the system collapsed or came close to collapse. In that situation, those holding power might see an escalation to unite the country as a lesser evil.
The risk of a succession crisis is amplified by the fact that Putin cannot give up power easily. Putin has a great deal to cover up: he has waged a war in the Donbas outside his constitutional competences, which has caused the deaths of 220 to 2,000 regular Russian servicemen so far, as well as 298 international civilian casualties after Russian air-defence crews shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Putin cannot be sure of indefinite protection under a new president, nor that any new Russian leadership might not consider extraditing him as part of some political deal. There is no way out save exile in Vienna or Zurich.
So, Putin needs to create conditions to allow him to rule beyond 2024. It would be difficult, and very unlikely, to create a protégé who is both unconditionally loyal and no threat, but also capable of managing intra-elite battles. Therefore, Putin has to make elites and society accept that he will lead Russia until his death. The narrative for this move needs to be shaped before 2024, most likely from re-shaping the political order in “Eurasia”.
Putin needs a major project that reshapes Russia to allow him stay on, and because of Russia’s political context, the de-institutionalisation of the state, and the concentration of power with a few decision-makers, it will likely need to involve foreign policy rather than domestic modernisation. Thus, the Russian elites’ desire to rewrite the European order will coincide with Putin searching for institutional arrangements to prolong his power.
The positioning of different wings of the elite to benefit from the succession could also cause instability. In old age, Putin would pick a successor who shares his thinking about Russia’s future, meaning any potential successor will have to accept the current “Eurasian” ideological framework. Rival security services are key pillars of power, and their loyalty must be secured through policies that appease their interests.
All this means that the Kremlin will most likely use its rivalry with the West to stabilise the regime. Russia cannot compete with the West as an economic bloc, so military might and the use of force will be the Kremlin’s main tools to shape its foreign policy and influence its neighbourhood.
Contingencies such as domestic insecurity, insurgencies, riots, or terrorist incidents would also be interpreted in an anti-Western context. Russian military endeavours in the post-Soviet space, such as putting down a “Maidan” in Minsk or dealing with jihadist insurgencies in Central Asia, would not threaten NATO directly, but they would increase tensions with the West. Russian security forces usually blame domestic unrest or their own failures on Western interference, and the West is usually critical of Russia’s response to such events. The Kremlin’s paranoia could also trigger escalation, as Russian security forces might seek to pre-emptively destroy “foreign interventionist” forces seen as instigating unrest. The Russian Baltic Navy’s war game of the occupation of Gotland, Aaland, and Bonholm, citing “Scandinavian instigation of public unrest in Moscow”, should show Western policymakers the arbitrariness of Russian accusations.
The military balance
Militarily, Moscow has repeatedly surprised the West. The West, and particularly Washington, was sure that US military might would deter Russia from acting militarily against the West’s interests. But they failed to recognise the many grey zones where a full US military reaction would not be expected and where Russia could create facts on the ground. Even worse: while Russia could not sustain a war with NATO, especially if the US fully engaged in Europe, Russia could start a war, hoping to deter any major reaction to Russian initial aggression through its nuclear arsenal.
The fact that Russia can start a war against NATO, but not sustain it, will remain the prevailing paradigm throughout the “dangerous decade” to come. It means that Russian behaviour inclines towards confrontation, hoping that the West will blink. Such games can easily spiral out of control. Miscalculation, unprofessional behaviour, and inter-agency rivalry for political leadership could cause escalation that Russia could not control.
The main cause of Western difficulties in countering an initial Russian military escalation is that European armies in particular need to implement several structural adaptations that will take time to mature. Meanwhile, Russian defence reform is progressing.
Russia’s defence reform has been largely successful. Russian armed forces are more combat-ready, flexible, and effective than ever before. The wars in Ukraine and Syria provided a testing ground for new Russian procedures, formations, and equipment. Ukraine in particular, where Russia has rotated battalions from almost every brigade, was an invaluable test.
New leadership techniques and increased joint officer training introduced in the early 2010s will have increasing effect as more and more officers go through the new training. Profiting from patriotism and nationalistic hysteria after Crimea, the Russian armed forces could again afford to expand and came closer to fulfilling their recruitment goals than in previous years.
On the equipment side, economic troubles derailed the 2011-2020 armament plan, and a decision on the subsequent plan was postponed until 2018. Ukrainian and Western sanctions on the defence sector forced the Russian defence industry to substitute 190 items (from Ukraine) and 860 items (from the West). Russia will not reach its goal of fielding 70 percent new weapons platforms until 2020. But it will upgrade existing weapons platforms, and continue to introduce specialised weapons and combat systems that target weaknesses in Western arsenals. As a result, any Western reaction to a Russian assault would face considerable difficulties, and Russia could at least delay a reaction.
The West, and particularly Europe, also has problems producing new weapons systems. Neither Europe nor the US will produce a post-Cold War main battle tank until 2030. For infantry-fighting vehicles and artillery systems, the situation is similar. Additionally, legacy US and European equipment is suffering from wear and tear. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has engaged in expeditionary warfare operations and developed equipment specifically for this kind of mission, most of which is unsuitable for the new context. While the US, Germany, Poland, and Sweden have set out new development and procurement priorities, it will take years or decades to develop new systems. Hence, until 2024, many NATO armies will not be best equipped to engage a Russian enemy.
In organisational terms, NATO is trying to react to the readiness and geographic challenge Russia poses. At the Wales Summit, the Alliance set up a small spearhead force to react within days to a hybrid incursion on a limited scale. NATO also began to retrain its forces for Article 5 operations. And the US wants to re-invest in European defence. But as long as NATO relies on “deterrence from a distance”, it will need time to effectively deploy to the eastern frontier or the Black Sea, and deployment will be vulnerable to disruption. Small forces rotating in exposed areas such as the Baltic states are capable of dealing with limited hybrid incursions, but are too small to deter larger invasions. Until NATO places more substantial troops closer to exposed borders, Russia will have a time gap of around a week to range free.
But while testing NATO will always be a risky move for Russia, projecting military power into the post-Soviet periphery is not. Georgia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine will remain militarily vulnerable. The West Balkans, where Russia has deep roots in nationalist circles, is a theatre where destabilising action could prepare the ground for another conflict. Any domestic conflict could be used or abused by Russia to create a reason for a pre-emptive military strike to “prevent NATO expansion”. The West has so far neither come up with a credible policy for vulnerable periphery states, nor defined a clear policy for integrating states that have made a democratic transition, nor provided an assistance programme to enable those states to resist a conventional Russian incursion.
For the time being, Russia’s expansionism is held back more by its own lack of resources and skills to govern (or finance) larger conquered territories than by neighbouring states’ military capacity. During the Cold War, most neutral states could check a Soviet onslaught, at least enough to allow Western counter-moves, but the existence of many weak and semi-penetrated non-aligned states is a feature of the “dangerous decade”. A succession crisis could easily result in aggression towards that region, and the West should be prepared.
Russia has ideologically and politically positioned itself as a counter model to Europe, and its leadership claims the right to fight for this model and its recognition in the post-Soviet space and on the world stage.
Domestically, the struggle for prestige and international recognition is also a struggle for the current ruling elite’s survival. Putin has created a structure that relies on him as sole permanent political centre and decision maker, and he is dependent on the survival of this system. In the possible succession crises of 2018 and particularly 2024, the regime will fight for the continuation of his power, and confrontation with the West is likely to be used as a unifying force. In the same timeframe, Russia will still enjoy some military advantages over its neighbours, particularly in the post-Soviet space. The situation will remain tense unless the force-structure of the Alliance is greatly altered – and the Russia-NATO founding act revoked. The eastern periphery of the alliance and the Western Balkans will remain especially vulnerable.
European-Russian relations are entering a very dangerous decade. Russian domestic instability coincides with a weak neighbourhood, low crisis stability, and military advantages for the party that initiates military operations. The West, and particularly Europe, needs to prepare for these contingencies.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.