A few weeks ago, I presented a scenario developed by a writer in Ukraine about how Vladimir Putin could break the NATO alliance in a short war: Opening with a surprise attack and seizure of Sweden’s lightly-defended strategic isle of Gotland, Russia would then invade the Baltic states and exploit political indecision in the Western alliance and weak American leadership to consolidate its gains. The end would come when a tactical nuclear strike on Poland revealed the major powers to be unwilling to risk regional or global nuclear war for NATO’s easternmost members. At that point Russia wins and NATO is no more.
Scary, right? And all too plausible, given Russia’s aggressive behavior since the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Not so fast, writes strategic analyst Tom Nichols. NATO is still stronger than post-Soviet Russia and has more political will than perhaps we assume. In a war, he insists, Russia would lose, though that may not stop Putin from trying:
But this misses some important realities, including the condition and age of that equipment, the frayed infrastructure of Russia’s military commands, and the poor quality of Russian conscripts. The Russian military is a large regional force, and it can kill a lot of people. That doesn’t mean it can sustain a war with a vastly more populous and wealthier coalition of some three dozen nations (or more, if others join the fight).
Moreover, NATO enjoys a qualitative edge that would spell disaster for Russian forces in short order, especially in the air. The Vermont Air National Guard (which for years has intercepted Soviet and Russian aircraft on the U.S. East Coast) is more ready to go to war than the Russian Air Force. Without control of the skies, Russian ground forces stand no chance after whatever initial blitzkrieg might get them into NATO territory, and their commanders know it. World War III will not be like doing stunts at an air show, and taking out NATO’s aircraft will surely not be like blowing up unsuspecting commercial airliners.
Finally, NATO has something the Russians sorely lack: experience. Wisely or not, the U.S. and its allies have been at war in the Middle East and Central Asia for nearly 15 years, and NATO’s armies are salted throughout with men and women who know how to fight, supply, communicate, and remain cohesive in the face of actual combat. Russia’s military, once sharpened by World War II survivors and later by the veterans of the brutal attempt to subdue Afghanistan, now boasts men whose combat experience mostly consists of blowing up apartment blocks in Chechnya and shooting at outgunned conscripts in Ukraine.
But, for all that, Vlad the invader might still try:
The West’s more pressing concern should be whether Putin, for his own reasons, will force Russia’s military into a clash with NATO regardless of the consequences. The Russian president is a neo-Soviet nostalgist who not only craves revenge for the collapse of the USSR, but who still harbors old-school Kremlin fantasies about the weakness of the decadent West.
Putin suffers from the same kind of thinking, but Russia’s generals, who are neither fools nor madmen, almost certainly understand that a sustained war with NATO is an unwinnable proposition. Both Putin and his generals, however, are counting on a political, not military, victory. Putin’s bluster and the Russian military’s continued probes and feints into NATO territory are all predicated on the Soviet-era belief that NATO is essentially a charade, a phony alliance made of spun glass: pretty to look at, but so delicate it will shatter at even the smallest blow. Should Putin attack, it will not be to defend the “rights of Russian-speakers” or some other fantasy, but rather from the delusion that one sharp military strike will smash NATO as a political entity once and for all.
It’s that scenario in the bold text that worries me. Qualitatively, yes, Western militaries are superior to what Russia can field, though Moscow has excellent special forces and excels at “special war.”
But it’s the will to fight of much of the Alliance’s modern political leadership that worries me, especially our own Administration. Obama has been utterly diffident about the use of force, even in situations that clearly call for it. (Hello? ISIS?) And what will Merkel do, given her nation’s crack-addiction to Russian natural gas? How many leaders would be willing to go to the edge of nuclear war if Putin decides to “de-escalate?” (1)
Still, Nichols knows far more about these things than I, so I’ll take his message about NATO’s resilience and superiority as a comfort. He covers much more in his article, so do read the whole thing.
(1) Apparently Russia has a doctrine called “nuclear deescalation,” in which Moscow uses a limited nuclear strike to convince the other guy to stop fighting — particularly if Russia is losing on the ground. These people are weird.