Putin’s Goal: Prove NATO’s Dead

After years of provoking Western powers, Vladimir Putin finally crossed someone who was willing to stand up to an increasingly imperialistic Russia when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that had violated its airspace. It is in many way fitting that the man with the strength to act was President Recep Erdogan who is emulating the Putin model at home. Facing term limits as Prime Minister, Erdogan shifted to the Presidency, which was previously a ceremonial role, and has been moving powers to that office. As such, he remains the de facto leader of the country as evidenced by the fact he, and not the PM, is the person Putin and President Obama interact with during this and other crises. As with Putin in Russia, in Turkey, the powers increasingly are endowed to the man not the office. Just as Putin has ramped nationalistic rhetoric the past decade to consolidate public opinion, Erdogan has let religion creep into a government that has been proudly secular to secure support. In Erdogan, Putin has a worthy and like-minded adversary.

While some of his actions have been unseemly, the fact is Erdogan is an ally in NATO with Turkey an indispensable nation in the Middle East that on balance is a positive influence. That raises the stakes of this incident severely, and a NATO power has not shot down a Russian plane since 1952. With Russian and American planes flying over limited airspace, the risk of accident or unintended escalation is great, and with our nuclear arsenals, the cost of a worst case scenario is unimaginable. Given the mutual defense clause (Article 5), a Turkey-Russia skirmish is equally dangerous.

Now, I do not ascribe to the view that this incident could be the precipice of a world war, despite the fact World War I was beget by a minor incident. Irrespective of constant underestimation by some on the left (who seem to have a real penchant for underestimating threats, mind you), Putin is not an oafish brute, seeking to use hard power everywhere. He is a strategic thinker who uses hard power only when necessary. A direct Turkish-Russian war is in no one’s interest. His goal is a different one entirely with long-lasting geopolitical implications: to prove what we secretly fear to be true, that NATO is dead.

NATO enlargement has been a key policy priority for years, and it is a wise policy assuming two conditions are met. First, the new country’s principles and policies are in-line with the organization’s goals and values (one does not typically allow enemies into an alliance). That condition has largely been met during enlargement, and if anything the former Soviet States who have been the focus of enlargement more forcefully support a united Europe than existing ones. Second, member nations must have the same willingness to provide for the common defense of new members as existing ones, for a failure to defend any nation would undermine the basic fabric of the alliance. If NATO members are unwilling to fight on behalf of Country X, they should not accept Country X into the alliance. This is the condition that Putin is wisely testing. Invading Turkish airspace is not intended to provoke Turkey; it is a test of NATO’s resolve. We must calibrate our response accordingly.

For months, Putin has been provoking the West from buzzing U.S. ships to sending submarines near Swedish waters. Since launching airstrikes in Syria, Russia has violated Turkish airspace several times, and after repeated warnings, Turkey shot down an unmanned drone last month. It must also be noted that the fact Russia is bombing near the Turkish border is your evidence he isn’t focused on defeating ISIS as they do not control that territory. He is bombing moderate rebels to help boost Assad’s grip on power. Putin does want to eradicate ISIS eventually as that’s required to help Assad, but his mission is to roll back all rebel groups and is currently focused on moderate rebels to ensure there is no credible alternative to Assad, or an Assad-like crony. Of course, some of these rebel groups, including the Turkmen, are supported by Turkey, only antagonizing Russian-Turkish relations further.

It is from this perspective that Erdogan’s decision to down a Russian jet must be viewed. Russia has ignored repeated warnings about entering your airspace and is killing the very rebel groups you have been helping. It’s an exasperating situation that can fairly be seen as an act of war. So when a Russian plane entered Turkey, even if it was for less than 30 seconds, Erdogan felt compelled and was entirely justified in acting. To be clear, Erdogan is completely in the right. That said, I think Erdogan likely made a strategic error here. It is one thing to shoot down an unmanned drone; it is another to shoot down a jet, which led to the death of the pilot and a marine. The fact the Russian plane appears to have been shot down over Syrian territory also makes the decision even more questionable.

If anything, this incident has given Putin cover to intensify bombing against the pro-Turkey rebels, and he will likely deter tourism (Turkey has a mock-Kremlin so many Russians visit it) and other joint economic projects. Shooting down a Russian jet also increases the tail-risk of the situation escalating beyond anyone’s controls.

Is a 17 second violation enough to merit being shot down? The slippery slope argument is powerful here, if not 17 seconds, is 1 minute enough, 5 minutes? Further, the history of appeasing strongmen in the hopes their thirst for expansion is satiated is disastrous, and a violation of airspace is a violation no matter how long it lasts. That said, my reaction given the brevity of the incident would have been to give Putin just one more mulligan, have scrambled jets but not shot, come out publicly with the information a Russian jet violated Turkish air space, publicly vow to shoot down any jet that enters the air space going forward, and proactively offer coordination to avoid a similar incident (an offer which Putin would likely ignore). Should a jet violate the airspace after Tuesday, I would then shoot it down without hesitation. This policy to me would not fall into the appeasement camp, but be a final proverbial warning shot that I would then act upon if necessary (unlike certain people who erase their red lines).

We are now in a dangerous situation, one Putin precisely wants to be in. What if he violates Turkish airspace again? Erdogan would have to act again, but does that just result in further escalation from Putin? We also know that Europe, France in particular, sees Putin as an essential partner in Syria. Thanks to years of dithering on our part, Putin has been able to insert Russia as an integral player in a political solution. He and Iran continue to prop Assad up, and unless we are willing to put in our ground troops and risk direct conflict, they will have to acquiesce to any political transition. Putin is using Syria to gain leverage in his real area of territorial ambitions: Europe. Therefore, our response to his aggression needs to be centered in Eastern Europe.

Putin is fully aware Europe wants him involved as a partner in the fight against ISIS, and as such, he has us over a barrel. While Europe seems willing to continue the existing sanctions against Russia over his invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, they are unlikely to support a significant ratcheting of pressure for fear that will preclude him from cooperating on the Assad question. Putin has the ability to keep provoking with little if any ramification. As such, he will continue poking to find the weak underbelly of NATO to exploit it.

In all likelihood, NATO members urged Erdogan to soften just as we urged France not to invoke Article 5 after Paris, which is shameful. Does anyone really think Italy is willing to face off with Russia over Turkey? NATO membership has devolved into a two-tier system: nations whom we would defend no matter what, and nations who we would defend depending on the aggressor. Now, Turkey is such a critical player in the Middle East, it may be a core member, but this flare-up will only serve to increase the tensions between the Russia hawks and doves in NATO. This could be a prelude to a stiffer test of NATO’s resolve.

Ultimately, there is no strategic reason for Putin to war with Turkey, but there are NATO members that should be worried. In particular, I have concerns about Estonia, which has a 25% Russian-speaking population; remember, Putin used supposed discrimination against Russian-speakers to explain his annexation of Crimea. He also exploited this population to foment an “internal” resistance in East Ukraine that has totally crippled the nation. Estonia is in the process of fencing its Russian border over this very fear. The appearance of an internal rebellion is preferable for Putin as it would make it easier for some NATO members to say Article 5 does not apply (it must be an external aggressor). With its large Russian population, Latvia too is a potential target.

Estonia is a country of 1 million, and Western Europe is uninterested in a direct confrontation with a nuclear power, especially given the pressing problems in Syria. Turkey was the first attack on NATO, and the Baltic States are the obvious next target. While these are small nations, their defense is critical. Once it appears Article 5 does not apply to a member, how can we know what members of NATO are really protected? By enlarging the alliance to nations we are unwilling to protect, we actually risk shrinking the alliance in the long-run. Sure, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, UK, Poland and others are almost certainly core nations, but Eastern Europe should be petrified. How important are they? Are Germans willing to die for Slovenians should Putin go too far?

NATO is now an alliance without a cause and as a result is dying a slow death. What is its raison d’être now that the Soviet Union is gone? It has been wandering aimlessly without any core objectives; all the while, European armed forces have decayed and much of the continent is headed for economic and geopolitical irrelevance. Eastern Europe sees Putin for the threat he is, but the rest of Europe and current US leadership doesn’t see Putin as a mortal danger. We are minimizing (if not ridiculing) his aggressiveness as a result. We do so at our own peril.

Fracturing NATO and cracking the façade of a united Europe would be a dramatic diplomatic coup and undermine the security order of the world. Action in Estonia, if not responded to, would render NATO impotent and show the US, not only unwilling to enforce red lines, but unwilling to defend allies. That could have cascading ramifications across Eastern Europe and Asia where American allies like the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea face an increasingly adversarial and expansionist China. If they question U.S. commitment, we risk capitulations that could up-end the balance of power in that region.

This is what at stake. We are not on the precipice of a Turkey-Russia war (in all likelihood), but we face something equally dangerous. Putin is pushing around the edges of NATO to test how united we really are, and if we actually will honor our commitments. Proving that Article 5 is really more bark than bite for non-core nations could unravel the US-security compact that has kept the world safe, and we in its center, in favor of a world where the Russia-China-Iran axis gains strength and US reliability is questioned. The seeds have been sown for a second Cold War, if it has not already begun.

In response to the Turkish air invasion, we must make crystal clear that NATO support cannot be questioned. We have increased our military presence in the Baltics a bit, but NATO needs to move beyond a token presence. Announcing further deployments to Estonia and the Baltics in the wake of the Turkey incident would be a clear signal to Putin that he should not test NATO resolve. Simultaneously, we should commit to build the cancelled-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, for which the Poles have clamored. This would apply a real cost to Putin’s actions. If you mess with a NATO country, it must be clear, we will work against your strategic objectives (dominion over Eastern Europe) and redouble commitment to member nations. Putin’s goal here is not to intimidate Turkey; it is to prepare for a grand pivot to Europe. Accordingly, NATO must pre-emptively harden its European positions.  Whether he is actually willing to call NATO’s bluff in the Baltics is uncertain, but we should pro-actively make clear NATO commitments aren’t a bluff to ward off any potential Russian intervention.

With the rise of ISIS, it should be Eastern Europe in a panic. Putin has built leverage over Europe in Syria and is now testing NATO. We must stand firm and signal our commitment to all member nations. Putin, like any thinking person, can see that NATO is divided with many members likely lacking the will to risk war with him over smaller, newer members. Destroying the illusion of NATO joint security and unwavering US commitment to its treaties would be the greatest political coup since Nixon opened relations with China. That is why we must come out now, in the wake of Turkey, and dispel these concerns, affirm all NATO nations stand firm, increase our presence in the Baltics to comfort these nations, and build the begged-for missile defense shield. Maintaining the balance of power not just in Europe but also in Asia requires this reaction and a steadfast commitment to all allies, big and small.

NATO is being tested in a way it hasn’t since the Cold War ended. We must prove it is an organization that has not outlived its usefulness. To do otherwise would undermine US leadership and the quarter-century of great power peace and prosperity it has bought us.