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A nation must think before it acts.
The provocative Russian actions in the Baltic Sea against the USS Donald Cook last week suggest that Moscow is implementing a more aggressive approach towards NATO and the United States in particular. Yet, this should not be a surprise, as the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy describes NATO as a threat. The antagonistic flyovers of the USS Donald Cook are not the first example of irresponsible Russian behavior. There has been a steady increase of Russian violations of Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian sovereign territory in the air and at the sea over the past year.
These conventional Russian challenges in the air and at sea, however, are the least of our concerns. There is a more troubling development coming from the Kremlin—the willingness to use hybrid and unconventional methods to accomplish its national strategy. The so-called “little green men” who appeared in Crimea in 2014—soldiers without national affiliation on their uniforms, who seized key places in the peninsula—are the most well-known example of this tactic. These soldiers wrested complete military control of the territory within a week. Within a month, Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea. Only then did he acknowledge that the “little green men” were his.
The purpose of this ruse was to obscure outsiders’ understanding of what was taking place, and thereby prevent the United States, NATO, or the EU from taking decisive action against Moscow. This approach was cloaked in a veneer of ambiguity, which played upon the fears and doubts of Western political leaders. The ambiguity gave Putin near complete flexibility to lower or raise Russian intervention based upon the level of Western resolve. Had the Western powers acted decisively, Moscow could have simply withdrawn its soldiers and announced that it had nothing to do with the “little green men” in the first place. In the case of Crimea, the subterfuge worked brilliantly, with Western leaders dithering and debating while Moscow tightened its grip over region.
Moscow’s strategy of ambiguity took a new and potentially more dangerous form later in 2014 with its proxy war in the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions of Ukraine. Here, Moscow organized and led a separatist movement, resulting in the ongoing two-year long war in that nation. This time, the Russian action was not the clean and decisive action of the Crimean “little green men.” Instead, it degenerated into a bloody struggle of Kremlin led separatists, who are propped up and supported by conventional Russian military assets. This has ranged from Russian paratroopers actually fighting in Ukraine, Russian armored vehicles appearing on the battlefield, to, more often, Russian artillery firing in support of their proxy force.
During his lengthy March 2014 speech announcing the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin stated that it is the duty of his country to defend ethnic Russian’s wherever they live. This speech had chilling similarities to Hitler’s 1938 address on the ethnic Germans residing Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. There are inherent dangers in any ethnic based foreign policy. Several NATO nations could be endangered by Putin’s stated objective of ‘defending’ all Russians. However, this is not 1938 and an all out conventional attack on nations in Central and Eastern Europe is, for the moment, unlikely. Yet, this is where the strategy of ambiguity comes into play.
The threat that Putin’s ethnic based foreign policy, combined with the strategy of ambiguity poses to the Baltic Region is of particular concern. This is especially true for Latvia and Estonia, which have a large Russian-speaking population. Putin’s actions in eastern Ukraine demonstrate that Moscow would not need broad support from the Latvian or Estonian Russian-speaking population to precipitate unrest. Rather, should Putin desire to test the resolve of NATO, he can simply export a separatist movement to these Baltic nations.
Some commentators have asserted that the appearance of “little green men” in the region would trigger NATO’s collective security measures as mandated by Article V of the Washington Treaty (an attack upon one NATO member will be treated as an attack upon all members). However, such a view is simplistic. It is unlikely that Moscow would make it so easy for NATO to act. Should the unthinkable happen, “little green men” will not appear on the streets of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. Rather, the so-called separatists would look like a local uprising in areas where there are high numbers of Russian-speakers. These would not be uniformed separatists as seen in Crimea, but largely people in civilian attire, bemoaning fictional abuse at the hands of non-Russians. Hiding behind the veil of ambiguity, the unrest would appear local. In such a context it would be difficult to convince all twenty-eight NATO nations to agree to implement Article V. If NATO dithers in responding and the security situation deteriorates, then Moscow has the initiative. In a simple stroke, the Kremlin could announce that it will “temporarily” deploy forces to the troubled area for humanitarian reasons, and promise to withdrawal once order is restored. Of course, this would be part of the ruse. The Russian forces could sponsor a local referendum and appeal to Moscow to remain in the troubled region. In a simple stroke, and without firing a shot, the NATO Alliance could be undermined.
The brilliance of Putin’s strategy of ambiguity, however, is that if NATO acts with uncharacteristic decisiveness, Russia can simply withdrawal its support and deny that it had anything to do with the ‘local rebellion’. Putin then simply can wait for another opportunity to apply this strategy of ambiguity when and where the strategic environment is favorable. Such an approach comes with little risk and potentially high payoff.
The Russian experience in Ukraine and the emerging application of ambiguity indicates that the strategic environment in Europe is changing. Moscow is proving adept at adapting to the realities and limitations of regional security. The time to consider how to respond to such an eventuality in a NATO nation such as Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania is now. There are no easy solutions, but the cost of inaction could forever change the relative peace and security that Europe now enjoys. The challenge for NATO and particularly for the Baltic states is how to thwart such an eventuality should this strategy of ambiguity appear in their lands.