Last month, unarmed Russian fighter jets buzzed within 30 feet of a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea and also barrel-rolled a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over that sea.
In part, these provocative stunts were a message from Moscow of its continuing displeasure at the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which had the temerity to join the European Union and NATO. Equally outrageous — from a Kremlin perspective — Baltic leaders are demonstrating how Europe could break away from its dangerous energy dependence on Russia, which Moscow cleverly wields to manipulate European politicians.
The Baltic states are spoilsports, messing with Vladimir Putin’s mirage of re-establishing a Russian empire. So the Russian leader is probing for NATO weakness in the run-up to key alliance meetings, when U.S. and European leaders will discuss how to respond to Putin’s destabilizing games.
Lithuania’s deputy ambassador, Mindaugas Zickus, laid out in an interview the strategic reasons why that response demands firmness. “Putin’s entire strategy is about testing us,” says Zickus. “He is trying to explore how Russia can renew its greatness in imperial terms.”
The Lithuanian diplomat doesn’t buy the theory that Putin is only reacting to a fear of encirclement brought on by NATO expansion to the Baltics along with several countries in Central and Eastern Europe. (His skepticism is not surprising since the Baltic states were occupied by Moscow for decades.)
Zickus believes that Putin would have sought to restore Russian grandeur whether or not NATO expanded. “If we weren’t NATO members,” says Zickus, “he would have been more aggressive, trying to increase leverage over us in any area.”
I agree. Given the large Russian ethnic minorities in Latvia and Estonia, Putin might even have tried to imitate his successful tactic in Ukraine, sending in Russian soldiers in disguise to destabilize the country.
Now that NATO has expanded, Putin’s “strategic goal is to break up NATO,” says Zickus. “He says NATO belongs to the past.” (He is no doubt encouraged by Donald Trump, who says NATO is no longer necessary.)
The Russian leader has chalked up successes in his seizure of Crimea from non-NATO member Ukraine and his ability to destabilize eastern Ukraine, thus ensuring it will never join NATO. But Zickus believes Putin was surprised at the way the alliance held together in reauthorizing economic sanctions against Moscow six times for its invasion of Ukraine.
So what does he believe the alliance must do now to convince Putin that the Kremlin’s dangerous military maneuvers could provoke a military conflict, one that not even the Kremlin desires?
Zickus makes three essential points.
First, the response to Putin must be very clear, including on a preventative military level. “We hope Putin understands war with the West makes no sense,” the diplomat says. “But he wants to test every possible weakness. He doesn’t know how far he'll go but he is testing.”
The Balts would like to see more NATO military support, including a permanent basing of NATO troops on their soil. (Under a 1997 NATO-Russia accord, both sides pledged not to station large numbers of troops along their respective borders, but Baltic leaders believe Russia violated that act with its invasion of Ukraine.) However, they are pleased that President Barack Obama is planning a substantial increase in the deployment of heavy weapons and equipment to Central and Eastern Europe, including an armored brigade of 4,200 troops. This month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said NATO was also considering an additional force of 4,000 troops that would rotate between the Baltics and Poland.
These troops would not be permanently based, so they would not violate the 1997 deal, but they would send the message that NATO stands behind its new members. Whether this would be sufficient to check Putin’s dangerous probing is unclear.
Second, Zickus says NATO must figure out how to deal with Putin’s hybrid warfare, which seeks to undermine European democracies in ways other than military force. Moscow uses broadcast media — which reaches Russian minorities in the Baltics — to push anti-NATO propaganda.
Moreover, as I’ve written, Russia funds populist political candidates in Europe who are anti-American and oppose NATO and membership in the European Union. In addition, Russian money has reportedly backed European green movements that oppose fracking, which could help wean Europe off dependence on Russian gas.
Western countries don’t fully grasp the potency of such Russian tactics, nor have they come up with any counter-strategy that works.
Which leads to point three: Lithuania has demonstrated how Europe can and should wean itself off Russian energy supplies. Last year, Lithuania, which had been totally dependent on Russian gas, opened an LNG terminal at Klaipada. This year the country will receive more than half its gas from Norway. The Lithuanian example demonstrates the potential for European energy independence, helped by future LNG exports from the United States — although Russia is trying to undermine the momentum.
“We will have Russia as a normal partner when Russia realizes we can survive without them, that we have other options,” says Zickus. A small Baltic nation is showing how this can be done.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at email@example.com.