With Ukraine's presidential election just concluded, Western observers are grasping at any hint that Russian president Vladimir Putin is reducing his military's presence on Kiev's borders. Instead, they should be thinking ahead to the next move that Putin could make, one that could far more effectively reshape Europe's geopolitical map. By materially threatening any of the Baltic states, Putin could wind up shattering NATO, thereby destabilizing Europe for a generation.
The core of NATO is Article 5, the collective-self-defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. The clause states, in part, that an "armed attack against one or more of [the NATO countries] shall be considered an attack against them all and . . . [that] each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence . . . [take] such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force." The only time in its history that NATO invoked the collective-self-defense clause was on September 12, 2001.
With up to 40,000 Russian regular military troops deployed along the Ukrainian border, it is not only leaders in Kiev who are nervously watching the Kremlin's every move. A quarter of Estonians and Latvians are native Russian speakers, and Putin used the excuse of protecting such minorities against discrimination and prejudice in his March 18 speech justifying the annexation of Crimea. It is not a leap for those in Tallinn or Riga to imagine Moscow offering the same excuses for action in their countries.
A recent Spiegel story has added a new dimension to the geopolitical equation. According to the German magazine, internal NATO documents indicate Russia poses a "wide-reaching threat" that would make the nation difficult to counter should it invade eastern NATO countries. The main reason for this is that NATO has never built any bases east of Germany or stationed troops in countries like the Baltics.
While NATO has responded to Baltic fears by increasing air patrols and sending 6,000 troops to Estonia this month for military exercises, actual war fighting remains a different story. Both NATO officials and members of the Obama administration have become far more vocal in urging the alliance's countries to live up to their military commitments. Although all NATO members are pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on military budgets, only three of NATO's 28 members currently do so.
American spending accounts for 75 percent of NATO's military budget. Germany currently spends just 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense, while the British Army is the smallest it has been since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Without the United States, NATO would be little more than a collection of home-defense forces and almost entirely unable to deploy troops for significant amounts of time or to project power beyond its members' national borders.
Russia may not have the world's most advanced military, either, but it faces equally limited, if not smaller, forces to the west. Combined with Vladimir Putin's political will, Russia has the advantage, at least in the short term, against most potential European adversaries.
That is why the Baltics may prove the tipping point for Europe's security future. If Putin used similar tactics in Estonia, say, to those he did in Ukraine, then the ambiguity of whether regular Russian troops were being used could create enough indecision in the minds of NATO's leaders that the alliance would fail to answer an Article 5 call from Tallinn. Hesitant national leaders could justifiably say that there was no direct evidence of Moscow's hand in separatist movements claiming to protect Russian-speaking citizens. After all, Article 5 states that they will act as they "deem necessary."
Even if NATO's more vulnerable nations would demand a collective response, it must be seriously asked whether Washington would risk war with Russia, something it steadfastly avoided during the entire Cold War, over the 2 million people of Estonia. Conversely, if Washington did decide to go ahead, it would bear almost the entire burden of confronting a nuclear-armed adversary, and this on the heels of more than a decade of draining conflict and in a time of steady budget cuts.
Inaction in the face of the undermining of a NATO member would almost certainly split the alliance apart. Western leaders must embrace the idea that it is precisely this that Vladimir Putin is aiming at, even more than the short-term gain of former Soviet territory. A Europe without NATO would be far more susceptible to Moscow's influence, and the opening of the European frontier, so to speak, would give Putin almost unlimited opportunities to reshape the continent's geopolitics in ways he deems favorable to Russia.
If geopolitics is chess, then the next major moves are being set up now. Sober calculation of the coming risks may be the only thing that prevents Europe from entering another generation of dangerous instability.