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Vladimir Putin is distracting Western leaders from the real threat Russia poses through ostentatious displays of nuclear and conventional military power.
He makes bombastic announcements of nuclear weapons technology and exercises of mechanized forces to intimidate us with capabilities he does not wish to use. He perfects, at the same time, the hybrid war approach he has used successfully in Ukraine and Syria, relying on proxies, mercenaries, covert operatives, information operations, cyber activities and limited conventional forces.
His deterrence strategy is working: A small number of air-defense systems and aircraft combined with the myth of the might of the Russian armed forces have nearly paralyzed American action in Syria. We must not allow Putin’s active measures to deceive us into preparing for and fearing the wrong war.
U.S. policymakers focus excessively on Russia’s conventional military power rather than on the hybrid warfare approach Putin prefers. A RAND Corporation study in 2016 concluded that Russian forces could invade and conquer the Baltic States within about a week following a very short-notice mobilization, and that NATO could do nothing to prevent them. The Russian ground forces could surely concentrate on the borders of the Baltic States or Belarus, and NATO would have a difficult time matching them quickly.
The narrative that the Baltics are lost if Putin decides to invade them remains dominant. A Baltic defense minister went so far as to claim that the most recent annual Russian wargame was a rehearsal for an invasion of Europe rather than just of the Baltics, feeding the mounting hysteria about Russian conventional military capabilities.
NATO has wisely deployed mechanized forces to the Baltics as the RAND report recommended (although in smaller numbers). It may need to deploy more and must remain constantly vigilant against the risk of a sudden Russian attack. But we must not let that focus blind us to a likelier form of aggression against which mechanized forces will not alone defend.
Putin is not preparing right now for a conventional invasion of the Baltics as we have shown in our new report, “Russia’s Military Posture: Ground Forces Order of Battle.” He has instead deployed his forces for a short-notice invasion of Ukraine. These forces threaten Kiev and other vital Ukrainian cities, and support intimidation even if they are never used.
He is preparing in the Baltic region to use the “hybrid war” or “gray zone” warfare that he has successfully waged in Ukraine and Syria. There, he uses mercenaries, soldiers out of uniform and small numbers of Russian Special Forces, or Spetsnaz, along with limited amounts of airpower and the occasional missile salvo. Above all, he uses proxies, preferring to fight to the last Ukrainian, Syrian, or Lebanese Hezbollah whenever possible.
He also uses nonmilitary efforts to support his campaigns. Russian-language media stokes the discontent of Russian-speaking minorities, especially in Latvia, setting conditions for a protest movement that could become an insurrection. Putin has influenced politicians in NATO countries to ensure they are ready to pronounce any such insurrection the internal matters of the affected state — thus inhibiting the invocation of the collective-defense provisions of the North Atlantic Charter.
This is the most likely threat to the Baltics against which NATO should be preparing even while keeping a weather eye on conventional dangers. The United States and NATO leaders must publicly commit to the defense of the Baltic States even against domestic unrest of this variety, and not merely against mechanized invasion.
The Baltic leaders themselves must focus on addressing rather than stoking the grievances of their Russian minorities. They should build domestic intelligence, riot control, gendarme and other internal security apparatuses that can detect and defuse organized efforts to stoke violent protests and insurrection before they can take hold.
These measures are understandably unpopular in states long victimized by Russian oppression. The bogie of Russian conventional invasion makes it too easy to justify focusing on that purely external threat. The United States, Ukraine and NATO should in the meantime consider the significance of the conventional deployments around Ukraine itself.
Most people assume that Putin has constrained himself to a purely hybrid-war approach in that conflict, yet he has positioned mechanized forces to attack rapidly along multiple axes of advance including toward Kiev. He is clearly readier to contemplate conventional war in Ukraine, where the West rarely discusses it, than in the Baltics, where we seem preoccupied by it.
Our deployment of conventional forces to the Baltics was important but insufficient. Putin’s campaigns are insidious, operating under cover of bombast and exaggerated threats. We can and must counter the many ways in which Putin prepares for and conducts aggression. We must disrupt Russian efforts to co-opt disgruntled minorities and to infiltrate Moscow’s agents and messages among them freely, even as we prepare to stop Russian armored columns. But we must move swiftly lest we see the armored forces meant to deter Russia from invasion forced to watch helplessly one day as Putin devours his victims from within.
Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and the Robert H. Malott Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. The author of the 2007 report “Choosing Victory” and one of the intellectual architects of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, he is a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Catherine Harris is a research analyst on the Russia and Ukraine team at the Institute for the Study of War.
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