How Putin Could Strike Back

New sanctions may give the Russian president more reason than ever to test NATO's unity.
08/07/2017 08:30 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2017
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

Vladimir Putin was just dealt a severe blow by new sanctions from the U.S. The question is now, how will he strike back?

Putin’s hope of a deal with President Trump now appears impossible. The overwhelming passage of new sanctions was a clear sign that Congress does not trust the president on Russia policy and will block any efforts to forge a new partnership with Russia. Worse for Putin, sanctions take a hammer to his energy and defense-industrial sectors, crucial to Russia’s economy and geopolitical might. In response, Putin is forcing the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic presence. While not nothing, no one’s shaking in their boots. Putin will look to do more.

In recent months, the Baltic skies have resembled a scene out of Top Gun. Russian fighter jets buzzed, threatened, and provoked U.S. and European aircraft at a rate reminiscent of the Cold War. In the best-case scenario, these might just be typical military saber-rattling. But in the worst case, they could be part of a deliberate Russian strategy to provoke a crisis. After all, while Trump’s hands may be tied diplomatically, they aren’t tied militarily. He is the Commander-in-Chief.

Not since the Cold War has Europe’s security been more precarious. With growing acrimony between the U.S. and Europe over trade and climate at the G-20 and an American administration embroiled in scandal, the transatlantic alliance is both divided and distracted. The last thing it can stomach right now is a security crisis that tests its solidarity – which is exactly why Putin might instigate one.

America for the past 70 years has protected Europe and kept the Russians at bay. But at the G-20, Putin saw a president who was isolated, who was dismissive of America’s European partners, and who bent over backwards to develop a “strategic alliance” with Russia. He saw an administration plagued by scandal and a national security team chronically understaffed, often at odds, and seemingly unprepared to deal with a crisis. In short, Putin may see an America more likely to be paralyzed and acquiesce than show resolve.

In this environment, Putin may be tempted to strike a blow at Russia’s most frustrating geopolitical constraint: a united Europe. European unity acts as a straightjacket on Russian power. It hinders Putin’s ability to cultivate allies and client states, or bully smaller neighboring countries, as Russia could during the Tsarist and Soviet periods.

For years, Putin has sought to divide Europe and undercut democracy, using corruption as a lever and serving as a venture capitalist for reactionary movements. While Dutch and French elections did not go Putin’s way, his bet on Trump may pay off in dramatic fashion.

NATO has always relied on a strong American commitment, but President Trump’s open disdain for the principle of mutual defense is practically inviting Putin to test the alliance. The incidents over the Baltic remind us that all it might take is a single event ― a downed Russian plane, for instance ― to trigger a European security crisis.

That’s what should terrify Europe: not whether U.S. officials will show up at the next NATO meeting, but whether Trump will show up in a crisis.

The chance to undermine NATO, an alliance Putin sees as Russia’s major geopolitical threat, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he might find hard to resist. To do so, Putin does not need to launch a massive invasion. He just needs to show NATO as a paper tiger made up of countries unwilling to come to each other’s aid. Putin could provoke a Gulf of Tonkin-like crisis to test Trump’s commitment to Article 5. In addition to the Baltic air incidents, Russia could try to inflame the Russian minority in the Baltic states or create a dispute over access to Kaliningrad, its enclave inside NATO. It might escalate its violations of EU air and maritime space, inviting a shoot-down incident like the one with Turkey in 2015. Russia has become increasingly brazen, even attempting a botched coup in Montenegro last October to stop its ascension to NATO.

The moment of truth will come when Putin makes that “3 a.m. phone call” to Trump. Putin will claim that Russia was attacked, that U.S. intelligence services are anti-Russian and cannot be trusted, and that Russia’s response will be limited and proportional and America should stay out.

When Putin makes that call, will Trump push back, or will he acquiesce?

Yes, America’s generals would push back, but if Trump stands down, there is little the national security bureaucracy can do to countermand an order from the president. With America out, Europe would be paralyzed and the alliance could collapse. Suddenly, Russia’s neighbors will wonder if their own security hinges on accommodating the Kremlin ― just like it did in the age of the Tsars.

The impact will be felt around the world. An America that doesn’t live up to its treaty commitments in Europe can’t be trusted to do so in Asia. Japan, Korea, and Australia will be forced to accommodate a rising China.

As America’s alliance structure crumbles, the world may be thrown back into an era of great power competition prone to conflict that will play to autocrats, not democrats. And the world in which so many fought and died to create on the beaches of Normandy and the slopes of Iwo Jima, where generations of Americans and Europeans persisted to uphold through the threat of nuclear annulation during the Cold war, could be washed away.

 Max Bergmann is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served at the State Department from 2011-2017.

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