Russia: Beating NATO without firing a bullet

Author’s note: This article assumes, for the sake of argument, a decisively pro-NATO position in order to analyze the security prospects of Baltic NATO members. Readers are encouraged to keep in mind that the following offers an intentionally biased perspective.


In the north-east corner of the European Union, between the tiny Estonian villages of Lutepää and Sesniki, lies a relatively famous geopolitical border area between Estonia and Russia called the Saatse Boot. Here, the Russian border – its line of demarcation, a product of territorial boundaries during the Soviet Union when modern Russia and Estonia were united as one country – extends into Estonia and covers a small road that, until recently, was the only accessible way to Sesniki. This meant that travelers had to pass through Russia to reach the village. This relic serves a reminder of a time when Estonia and Russia existed as a united Soviet Union. Not 40 kilometers away to the east, Russia recently sent 2,500 airborne troops to conduct ‘counterterrorism’ drills. These drills are but one of the many that have been, are being, and will be conducted in Russia’s far western regions. This September, for instance, Russia and Belarus will jointly hold the 2017 edition of the Zapad exercises, which are expected to feature just under 13 thousand troops.

This flurry of Russian military activity has become increasingly common, and has troubled Baltic and NATO leadership. For them, the primary concern is that increasing Russia military activity and presence is indicative of the clear danger that Russia poses to their security. Such fears have been compounded by Vladimir Putin’s repeated expressions of desiring to restore Russia’s greatness to its former glory as a world superpower; a desire that immediately hints at making territorial grabs in the neighbourhood.

In this context, evaluating the threat that Russia presents and how adequately those threats are countered necessitates an approach from two perspectives. The first, will consider Russia’s hard power capabilities and NATO’s capacity to respond to them. The second will explore the issue by considering Russia’s soft power capabilities.

What this article will not examine, is the degree to which blame for elevated tensions may be placed on NATO members or on Russia. Though there are important discussions to be had on whether NATO expansion and presence in Eastern Europe has been appropriate within the context of a post-Cold War era, such considerations will, for the sake of brevity, not be included here.

Russia’s hard power

It is hardly a secret that Russia’s military power is not only large, but that it is growing as a direct result of active Kremlin emphasis on devoting more resources to expanding and maintaining Russia’s military. A report released this summer by the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency identifies a number of patterns in Russian defense positions including an observation that Russia’s defence spending has grown in the past decade and that “in 2016 [spending] reached a post-Soviet record” jumping from $27 billion in 2006 (representing 2.4% of GDP) to $61 billion in 2016 (representing 4.5% of GDP). As a percentage of GDP, this puts current Russian spending in excess of U.S. expenditure and is a clear indication of the greater emphasis that Russia is placing on its military. Though announcements have been made that Russia will stagnate its military spending for the next few years, combining new Kremlin emphasis on “non-nuclear deterrence” and “mobilization readiness” with a broader appreciation of the trend of increased spending paints a clear picture of the potential threat that Russia presents to its neighbours to the West.

It is impossible to suggest that Russia should not have the means to adequately defend itself, and indeed, this is precisely the simplest explanation for the recent increase in military spending. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, military spending faltered and, consequentially, Russia’s military capabilities became antiquated as compared to Western counterparts. Thus, a charitable explanation would suggest that Russia’s increased military spending represents an effort to modernize its own military.

However, adopting the stance of the Baltic states, this seemingly benevolent explanation is not easily accepted. Taking the Russian Georgian war and annexation of Crimea into consideration, Russia cannot be trusted that it will refrain from getting militarily involved with her neighbours to the west. It is for this reason that the Baltic states have stressed the importance of NATO membership. As it stands, all three are members of NATO and, as such, enjoy the security of the famous Article 5 collective defence framework. Consequentially, should Russia decide to attack any or all of the Baltic states, it would necessarily have to expect to come into conflict with all NATO member states – a promise all the more significant as there are not enough forces stationed in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania combined to resist a possible attack from Russia on their own. This is especially true if such an invasion were to be conducted clandestinely. It is precisely for this reason that the Zapad 2017 exercises, and similar such exercises, are so concerning. There is a worry that Russia may one day decide to take troops amassed near the border under the pretense of conducting military exercises, and secretly move to invade to the west. As a result, calls have been made to increase NATO’s presence in the region and deter Russia from attempting anything unorthodox. Presidents Dalia Grybauskaite and Kersti Kaljulaid of Lithuania and Estonia (respectively) stressed the importance of close NATO involvement in the region at the recent meeting between Central and Eastern European powers and President Trump. For them, the threat from Russia is very much real.

An alternate perspective

Yet as concerning as Russian military buildup may be, it may be contended that focus on the hard power capabilities of Russia should not be overemphasized so as to ignore threats under different forms. More specifically, focusing on the threat presented by Russia’s military capabilities fails to appreciate a potential threat from its ability to entice support. It is this use of soft power that ought to be a concern for western countries. From Russia Today, to Sochi and the 2017 FIFA Confederation cup, to its rich cultural history, Russia has used soft power over the years to sway countries to come under its influence. This has worked with varying degrees of success. Six years ago, nearly 50% of Americans held a positive view of Russia. Presently, these numbers have fallen to 22% (with similar drops in favourability ratings across other countries) largely because of Russia’s activity in Crimea. As a consequence of low favourability, Russia’s continued efforts to use soft power have served increasingly to recall Russia’s disregard for international borders and have reinforced negative opinion of Russia. A most poignant example of Russia’s diminished influence is Belarus, a country generally seen as a close ally of Russia, which has, in the face of a weakened Russian economy and Russian military involvement in Ukraine, moved ever so slightly westward.

Yet despite this downturn in soft power influence, Russia’s recent hard stance against terrorism in the Middle East has placed Crimea on the backburner, and has resulted in a recent increase in the effectiveness of its soft power sway. Global attention shifted away from the annexation of Crimea (an act that faces near universal opposition outside of Russia) to Russia’s fight against ISIL. Adopting a tough stance against terrorism is only part of Russia’s recent increase in enticing power. Support for Putin’s “strong leadership” has been heard from the United States, to France, and the United Kingdom – from figures that either won, or gained notable support in recent elections – as well as support for Russia’s defence of conservative values. As a consequence, favourable opinion of Russia has seen a small uptick, even among countries (such as Poland) that one would expect to maintain or feature a shrinking level of favourable opinion on Russia.

Connecting the dots

It is important to clarify here that, ultimately, hard power is fundamentally a bigger concern in absolute terms compared to soft power. Regardless of how well any given country may use its soft power capabilities to sway support in their favour, it is no substitute for the tried and true might of brute force. Parallels may be drawn between the annexation of Crimea and a potential invasion and occupation of the Baltic countries and, though contemporary agreement is that such a power move by Russia (especially if focused as a quick limited aims war to seize territory) would be successful in the short term, the long-term political consequences for Russia would be harsh and heavy. Furthermore, a counteroffensive campaign from NATO allies, in a conventional warfare context, would be able to successfully respond. As such, the point being made here must be nuanced by qualifying that, to the extent that current NATO structure and defensive capabilities are able to adequately deal with a buildup of Russia’s military power, there is merit to devoting attention to how countries respond to Russia’s soft power.

A recent analysis of anti- NATO and anti-EU media propaganda in the Visegrad countries (with the addition of Ukraine and Moldova) identified that there was a general “focus on degrading Western systems, governments or particular ideas or policies, and [trying] to persuade the readers that there is no such thing as objective truth.” Strategy narratives that “go hand-in-hand with the foreign policy goals of [the] Kremlin.” The benefit of NATO is that it exists as a united front that can respond to largely clear potential threats in a very clear manner. In contrast, no such clear united front exists to respond to the sway of Russia’s soft power and, consequentially, Russia may find itself able to score piecemeal victories among NATO members by sowing distrust in the strength of their institutions. The threat in this case is not that a band of Russian soldiers may suddenly find themselves ‘on vacation’ in a NATO country. Rather, the threat is that the very idea of NATO security will become rejected by the public and by political leadership within individual countries, and that opinion will shift sufficiently to erode confidence and unity among NATO members such that Russia finds an angle of leverage against NATO without the firing of a single bullet.


John Chrobak

John Chrobak

Policy Intern at InPRA
John Chrobak is a recent graduate of McGill University where he completed a BA in Political Science and Philosophy. His primary area of focus is Eurasian affairs and he is particularly interested in contemporary Russian politics. More specifically, he is interested in examining emerging trends in Eurasia by monitoring the development of domestic Russian politics and Russian foreign policy with her neighbours. He plans to continue his studies by pursuing an MA in international relations.
John Chrobak

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