In late June, citizens of the UK will vote on whether to leave the European Union, and may well make the historic decision to do so. All summer and into the fall, the U.S. will be preoccupied with a presidential election, in which one of the leading candidates has all but threatened mob violence if he is denied his party’s nod in July. Meanwhile, as the weather improves throughout the spring in the eastern Mediterranean, and considering that there is no end in sight to the violence in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia into Europe will pick up again, further destabilizing the member nations of the NATO alliance.
Most significantly, throughout the rest of this year the individual human being with the most authority to inject resolve, coordinate strategy, and bring about swift action to face threats to the liberal world order will still be named Barack Obama—a man whose deepest attitudes regarding this order include doubting whether his own country has the authority to lead it, and hoping that its enemies might be made into friends if shown enough kindness.
The harrowing photographs and videos of Russian jets coming within a few feet—literally, a few feet—of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea during the last few days only serve to illustrate what anyone who has been paying attention already knows: things are very dangerous on the Russian periphery right now. The common strategic goal of states like Russia, China, and Iran is clearly to end the era of an American-backed liberal order, and to return to a world where the regional hegemony of authoritarian states is the norm.
For Putin, this will eventually require taking on NATO. He is not likely to do this by seeking a full-scale, vastly destructive war with the unified alliance. It would be far less costly to get the alliance to break itself by demonstrating that its members are not willing to come to the aid of one of their own. If you think he isn’t willing to take the risks inherent in this approach, or that such an approach is unlikely to succeed, consider that in 2014 he proved he could seize half a European nation, not only without sparking a nuclear war, but without suffering any serious, long-term consequences at all.
Moreover, the NATO alliance is in poor shape. Many of its member states are decades behind in their obligations to fund a strong national defense. A newly-released report from the Center for a New American Security makes the useful point that the alliance’s expansion over the decades, whatever the benefits have been, has undermined the consensus required for it to function, something that was taken for granted when it was founded by a smaller group of more like-minded countries. Moreover, it appears to have no serious strategy for dealing with the kind of "hybrid" or information-centric warfare pursued by Putin.
Geography and ethnic breakdown strongly suggest that NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the most obvious targets for Russian aggression—though Turkey could find itself on the block as well. But it is important to keep in mind that, by going after a member, Putin’s true target is not that state but rather NATO’s Article Five, which stipulates that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. If it is shown to be a dead letter, Europe as we know it is over.
For all of the think tank analyses, articles, tabletop exercises, and other contributions—many of them quite thoughtful—suggesting how to face down a resurgent Russia, there is too little sense of urgency, too little recognition that this crisis could come at any moment. Indeed, for a strategic planner in Moscow the possibility that stronger American leadership could come into office in January 2017 makes this the year to aim at. Candidates not named Trump (who, perhaps entirely coincidentally, is the kind of populist, authoritarian, anti-NATO wrecking-ball beloved and sometimes aided by Moscow in other countries) or Sanders would all provide tougher resistance to Putin than Barack Obama—though, in fairness, that is a remarkably low bar. Moreover, the general sense of chaos out there—some of it, like the refugee crisis and certain political divisions in internal European politics, actively stoked by Russia—seems to be at a useful, feverish pitch.
So the question is not only what can be done, but what the Obama administration could be persuaded to do now, right now, to enhance deterrence. Announcing that an additional armored brigade—something on the order of 4,200 troops, spread over a frontier that cuts across an entire continent—is going to be deployed to eastern Europe by next February is so insufficient it would be funny, if the stakes weren’t so deadly.
The fact is, it may be too late to deter such a campaign if Russia acts quickly enough, before the European migrant crisis and the tensions that it engenders are brought into control, before a new American administration that is more comfortable with American leadership comes into office. There needs to be some recognition that, as in Crimea, when this thing starts, it will happen very, very quickly. And it could start any day.