THE BLOG
09/07/2014 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

Putin's Whack-a-Mole Game Extends to NATO

On Friday, Russia's Federal Security Service (the FSB) kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer at gunpoint, using a smoke bomb and jamming Estonian radio communications. Moscow later claimed it had captured a spy. This marks a disturbing new turn in Russia's relationship with NATO, especially because it appears to have happened on Estonian territory (despite Moscow's claims to the contrary).

Russia captured and imprisoned some Ukrainian military officers in 2014, including the celebrated pilot Nadia Savchenko. (She has reportedly been confined in a notorious Moscow psychiatric hospital, used in Soviet times to punish dissidents.) The Kremlin has also been suspected of involvement in violence against its own former citizens abroad, like former FSB operative Alexander Litvinenko, murdered by polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006. And there have certainly been captured spy exchanges, like the one following the Russian "sleeper spy" revelations in 2010.

But never before in the post-Cold War era has Russia so clearly targeted a state security official from a NATO country for violence.

What makes this even more disturbing is its timing. Just two days after U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized in Tallinn that the U.S. and Estonia "stand together" in NATO, and the same day that NATO promised at its summit meeting in Wales to "effectively address the specific challenges posed by hybrid warfare threats," Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears to be testing those claims.

In some ways this is an extension of the high-stakes version of "whack-a-mole" that Putin has forced on Ukraine since February. First the "little green men" popped up in Crimea. Then armed separatists emerged out of the woodwork in Lugansk and Donetsk. Finally a couple of Russian tank battalions sneaked over the border when everyone was focused on Moscow's humanitarian aid delivery to eastern Ukraine.

Now Putin seems to have taken his whack-a-mole game to NATO. The problem from NATO's standpoint, of course, is that it faces political limits in this game that Putin does not. NATO's democratic member countries have to worry about popular opinion and the media, while Putin's semi-authoritarian regime can put more and more restrictions on Russian media and social media broadcasts. NATO's openness affects everything from military spending to the use of force, by making it all subject to unending popular criticism and debate. NATO also has to achieve broad consensus among its 28 varied member-states on difficult issues, slowing its reaction time. While the new NATO rapid reaction force, announced at last week's summit, will help, it is still a blunt military instrument with limited utility against a crafty opponent like Putin, who gains advantage through methods that aren't strictly military.

This isn't the first time that NATO has faced low-level security challenges, of course. During the Cold War there were always concerns, especially among European member states, about what the Article 5 collective defense provision of the NATO Charter really meant in practice. The wording is sufficiently vague (a commitment to "assist" a member facing "armed attack") that it allows a great deal of wiggle-room.

During the decade that began in the late 1950s, the U.S. and NATO were particularly focused on the problem of how they might respond to a small-scale Soviet military incursion into western Europe that was designed to test their will--for example, a scenario where one Soviet tank might slowly crawl beyond the no-man's-land at Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin. Up until the Second Berlin Crisis, the primary military doctrine of both the U.S. and its NATO allies had focused on "Massive Retaliation," the idea that the USSR would be deterred from any attack on western Europe by the threat of nuclear annihilation. By 1961 analysts started to agree that this threat lacked credibility against potential small-scale Soviet nibbling. NATO began thinking about a new doctrine, Flexible Response, which envisioned using conventional weapons to contain a Soviet incursion without going nuclear. In practice, NATO expenditures on conventional weapons and troops were never enough to make Flexible Response fully functional. We can all be grateful that it was never needed, and that nuclear war was avoided anyway.

But now NATO faces a new round of real--not just potential--nibbling, and threats that even conventional weapons can't address. No Western leader can seriously contemplate going to war against Russia unless there is a very major Russian attack on a NATO member state. This means NATO's credibility is again under question, especially its ability to protect and respond to the security threats faced by some of its newest member states.

We can predict with a high degree of certainty that Friday's kidnapping will not be Putin's last test of NATO's credibility. And sanctions simply aren't working to stop Russian aggression. Their impact is too diffuse and long term, and if anything they seem to be only fueling Russian nationalism. The U.S. and its allies need to develop a more creative set of approaches, to find ways of whacking whatever moles Putin surprises them with next.

It is time for the U.S. and NATO to have a new Flexible Response discussion, one that moves from the strictly military realm to include a broader variety of political and intelligence methods of responding to Putin's maneuvers. While the recent summit declaration agreed to include cybersecurity in NATO's collective defense portfolio--an important step forward--that isn't enough. A new brain trust of experts is needed, who can think tactically and strategically about how best to defend U.S. and NATO interests in this dangerous new era, using a panoply of tools.

It is all well and good to wish that we were not entering another period of prolonged hostility between Russia and the West. But Putin seems to believe that we are, and he is acting on his beliefs. Rather than focusing quite so much attention on who is to blame for the current circumstances, we need to start talking about what to do next.