A Demonstration Of Strength? Is Nato's decision to deploy an additional four battalions (approximately 4,000 troops) to Poland and the Baltic States a demonstration of strength: a firm “don’t mess with even the smallest of our member states”, directed at the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin; or yet further evidence of the West’s rising levels of anti-Russian paranoia?
THE MOMENTS OF MAXIMUM PERIL, diplomatically-speaking, are seldom the consequence of excessive strength. Strong states have little reason to fear their neighbours. It is, rather, perceptions of national decline and diminishing military strength that spur national elites towards diplomatic recklessness – and war.
How, then, should we interpret the news that in May 2017 the Nato alliance will be deploying an additional four battalions (approximately 4,000 troops) to Poland and the Baltic States? Is it a demonstration of strength: a firm “don’t mess with even the smallest of our member states”, directed at the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin; or yet further evidence of the West’s rising levels of anti-Russian paranoia?
On the face of it, Nato remains a very strong alliance – especially in relation to the military capability of the Russian Federation. According to an article authored by Ian Shields of Anglia Ruskin University and published in The Independent of 28 May 2016: “NATO is significantly larger than Russia in simple numbers: NATO has a total of 3.6m personnel in uniform, Russia 800,000; NATO 7,500 tanks, Russia 2,750; NATO 5,900 combat aircraft, Russia 1,571.”
But numbers aren’t everything, it’s what you do with them that counts. At the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, the French Emperor’s, Napoleon Bonaparte’s, Grande Armée of 67,000 men outmanoeuvred and decisively defeated a combined Austrian and Russian force of 85,000. Imagination, daring and superior strategic thinking continue to play a vital role in diplomatic and military encounters.
In this respect the Russian leader has proved himself more than match for his European rivals. His willingness to use military force, both to advance and defend his country’s strategic interests, has reduced Nato to playing repeated games of catch-up and bluster. For the West’s political leadership Putin’s successes have been galling enough. For Nato’s generals, however, Russia’s strategic application of force has been a personal and professional humiliation. They are hungry for revenge.
The decision to deploy an additional 4,000 troops to Russia’s western borders has been undertaken in an attempt to both intimidate and deter Putin from contemplating a lightning-fast repossession of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Nato knows that Russia’s massive army could roll over the Baltic states in a matter of hours. Its purpose in stationing troops there is not to halt any Russian advance, but to require Russia’s soldiers to engage American, British and Canadian troops on their way to the Baltic shore.
Applying the same process of cold deliberation that he used in relation to Georgia, the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Putin must decide whether this “Cross the Latvian border and start World War III” threat is real, or just another example of Nato bluster. The generals may be willing to incinerate the world for Latvian independence, but what about the peoples of Western Europe? And, how willing would a President Trump, or Clinton, be to invite their own people’s annihilation by authorising a nuclear strike against Russia?
In Trump’s case, Putin is reasonably confident that the nuclear codes will not be activated for the Baltic States. He cannot be so sure about the hawkish Hillary Clinton. That being the case, it is not difficult to understand why Putin is deploying his cyber warriors against the Democratic Party’s candidate. It is just one more demonstration of Putin’s strategic daring – and yet another example of the West’s inability to come up with an effective response.
It is often argued (by the winners of World War I) that Germany was only willing to risk war with Russia in 1914 because its generals knew that given a few more years, and a few more French loans, the Russian “steamroller” would be utterly unstoppable. “If war is going to come in any case”, they are said to have reasoned, “better now than later.”
There are alarming echoes of these grim calculations in Nato’s most recent deployment. Faced with economic stagnation, diminishing military budgets, and increasingly restive populations, have the generals of Europe – and Britain in particular – come to the same doom-laden conclusion as the German General Staff of 1914.
“If we wait, then in a few years Nato will be both militarily and politically incapable of stopping Putin and the Russians from reconstituting their lost empire. Better now than later!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 21 September 2016.