Other pieces on the chessboard are moving. Moscow is moving nuclear-capable (perhaps nuclear-tipped) Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles to its exclave Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania. The Norwegian air force chased away an armed Russian fighter jet while British interceptors shadowed two long-range Russian bombers flying deep into the Atlantic, much deeper than the usual patrolling distance.
These all occur in the last few months of US President Barack Obama’s final term. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s logic of intervening in Syria to draw Russian and world attention away from his fiasco in Ukraine still colours these actions. Everything he does is about Ukraine. No one in Washington or Brussels is fooled by claims of humanitarian reasoning.
Yet his increasingly rambunctious and belligerent actions in Eastern Europe – especially threats to withdraw from various nuclear fuel treaties with the US and the intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty – are raising eyebrows across NATO. And with its constant, overlapping military exercises in south and western Russia, the possibility of war is now being considered openly.
It was a nasty thing Mr Putin did in Crimea, even worse what he’s doing in Ukraine as he changed the post-Cold War security structure in Europe. The Baltic countries are definitely watching him closely. Even a casual glance at European history shows moving borders is a bad idea. But underneath all his belligerency is a slow-moving shockwave of which Mr Putin is taking full advantage: the breakdown of the nation-state concept.
After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the agreed definition of citizenship was that if a person resides in X, they are an Xer. Mr Putin has added a codicil: a person’s nationality, in addition to their residency, is also determined by the language their parents spoke in the kitchen while they grew up. He feels responsible for defending Russian speakers wherever they live. That’s as corrosive of the Westphalian compromise as anything happening in Raqqa with the Islamic State.
Russia is also trending nuclear. I thought we were done with this. The last half of the 20th century was spent trying to balance Russia’s nuclear forces. Back then, as crazy as it sounds, a multiple independently targetable missile was considered more stabilising than a single warhead. The calculus of organising what constituted deterrence through this period was like theology. We all thought that was history.
Now Russia is turning back the clocks. Unlike the Cold War, Russia is far weaker conventionally than the US. To compensate, Russian exercises are blending in nuclear first-use to freeze a conflict early. Its military doctrine calls nuclear first-use at the tactical level a “de-escalatory step,” as in, if it lets its nukes fly, Russia won’t lose. And at a time when US nuclear doctrine remains purposefully confusing and hesitating, Russia’s comfortability with nuclear coupled with its actions is incredibly concerning.
Earlier in the year at a Russian national security meeting Russian state media RT “accidentally” shot video of something they “shouldn’t” have seen. The slide in question showed a nuclear torpedo of 6000 kilometres range with megatonnage warhead capacity – a literal doomsday machine. There is no indication of an actual, operational weapon behind that slide. But the mere fact they wanted the US to see it suggests that what most people thought was history is actually the present, and will certainly be in the future.
|Russia's 'secret' nuclear torpedo shown on RT|
Yet Russia is not a resurgent power, it is a revanchist power. President Putin is staring down Europe and the US with nothing more than a pair of sevens in his hand.
This is a country of declining everything: resources, entrepreneurship, democracy, population, funds and almost all else. It is lashing out about Ukraine because its weakness has led to even its geography declining. It can’t do anything to reverse these trends, even as it tries desperately.
Russia has entered its second economic crisis in less than 10 years. Oil prices remain low yet Russia still hasn’t diversified its federal budget away from fossil fuel income. More than 50% of its budget comes from oil exports. What little money it stored in rainy-day funds is dwindling as Moscow rushes to feed thirsty state and commercial needs. Some of those funds could be dry by next year.
So when assessing Russia, one shouldn’t worry about how the Russo-American relationship will be in 25 years in the same way they worry about the Sino-American relationship in 25 years. The Russia problem is a more immediate. Given his constraints, Mr Putin may go crazy in the next zero to three years. But after five, ten or fifteen years, the Russian problem is far less dangerous as its serious decline overtakes its ambitions.
Mr Putin’s overconfidence in the near term is legitimately dangerous as he recognises his weak hand and knows he must play them quickly to win. Many have been pleading with the current US administration for years for a more robust American push-back. Getting that sorted out could be critical to keep the near-term threat of Mr Putin’s adventurism under control.