Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.
Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea
Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.
Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)
Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.
Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.
NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.
On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.
Sweden in NATO?
Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.
Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.
Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.
Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.
 Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.
Last week President Trump met in Warsaw with Polish officials and Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The event brought together countries from the Adriatic, Black and Baltic seas to discuss development of regional infrastructure necessary to reduce their energy dependence on Russia and ensure energy security. This happened shortly after the first cargo of U.S. LNG, carried by the 162,000 cbm-capacity “Clean Ocean, entered the Polish port of Swinoujscie. Both the U.S. and Polish governments lauded the cargo and, following the meeting with Donald Trump in Warsaw, Polish President, Andrzej Duda declared a possibility of signing a long-term agreement (LTA) for the supply of U.S. LNG into Poland.
Much of Duda’s statement is political rhetoric given that LTAs are not signed between governments. Instead these contracts are commercial decisions made by individual companies. But the strong rhetoric coming from both governments in support for U.S. LNG exports to CEE is an indicator that beyond economic aspect, this trade has strong geopolitical dimension.
Given competitiveness of Russian gas and willingness of Gazprom to defend its market, it is highly unlikely that U.S. LNG imports would grant CEE (or Europe as a whole) full and unconditional natural gas independence from Russia. However, standing ability to deliver U.S. (or other non-Russian) gas to Europe provides “credible threat” and changes the bargaining positions of all parties involved. In such scenario Russia stands to lose not as much market share as geopolitical influence that it has derived from CEE’s dependence on its gas. And while LNG exports will not give the U.S. more geopolitical power in Europe per se (given the increasingly competitive global LNG market), Russia’s loss in this regard is a strategic gain for the U.S.
But can the U.S. and CEE governments truly affect the outcome of essentially commercial transactions? Can they effectively facilitate the ‘credible threat’ of U.S. LNG exports? And if so, how?
This ability depends on several factors. These include the usual: pricing and, given competitiveness of Russian gas, the willingness of the CEE governments to support a security premium on natural gas from a non-Russian supplier. Also, policy makers should pay close attention to current policy decisions within the EU that relate to infrastructure and antitrust law, as these decisions may not only impact profitability but also feasibility of LNG imports well into the future.
Forces that Influence Europe’s Natural Gas Market
The European market, while not expected to be as robust as Asia over the coming years, will remain an important source of demand for natural gas suppliers. As reported by Eurogas, going forward Europe will need to import much more natural gas than suggested by demand growth alone (Figure 1). In addition, the region is attractive given dependability of the market and reliability of European governments and customers.
Much of the future makeup of European natural gas supply might be determined not only by market forces but also by geopolitical considerations and European Union legal and antitrust decisions.
The two main decisions currently on the agenda that will have broad and direct consequences for LNG trade in Europe are: 1) permitting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, and 2) antitrust decisions by the European Commission related to Gazprom abusing its monopoly position in the CEE.
European Diversification and What It Means to Different Parties
Natural gas market diversification has become a hot topic in Europe following several breaks in Russian gas deliveries between 2005 and 2009. The 2014 crisis in Ukraine and complete shut off of natural gas supply flowing from Russia added urgency to the matter. In principle, all EU members agree that diversification is needed. But there is a visible rift between how diversification efforts are envisaged by the West versus the CEE countries.
Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics in particular are pushing for diversification away from Russia. Their efforts include a buildup of LNG infrastructure, with the already functioning LNG terminal in Lithuania and the aforementioned LNG terminal in Swinoujscie. Plans are drawn already to expand the existing terminals, and new LNG terminals are planned in Estonia. Small-scale LNG projects are also in the works in the Baltics. In addition, the region is considering facilities for regasification, storage, rebunkering, and reloading, as well as investment in rail transport to support future LNG imports.
It goes without saying that such imports will never be realized unless the price of LNG is competitive. But it is worth noting that although the price of LNG brought to Swinoujscie by U.S.-based Cheniere Energy has not been disclosed, it was lower than Russian and German EEX natural gas prices, according to the Polish trader, PGNIG.
In addition, many CEE countries may be willing to pay a certain security premium for LNG to sustain diversification efforts away from Russian natural gas. Regardless their willingness to pay such a premium rate, these countries also actively seek non-LNG market opportunities to diversify supply, including onshore projects like the Baltic pipe. This means that the ability to pay excessive prices by those countries may be moderated in the future, as the CEE gas market becomes more competitive.
The strong push toward diversification within CEE is related to two main factors. First, dependency rates on Russian natural gas have been historically very high, with some CEE countries previously entirely dependent on Russian imports (Figure 2 below). This led to uncertainty in terms of reliable gas supplies and higher prices. If non-Russian supplies of natural gas are readily available, Gazprom loses ability to charge monopoly prices. Second, there is a strong sentiment that Russia is ready and willing to use energy dependence to achieve political goals regarding its relations with CEE countries. Much of this feeling is informed by the Soviet past, but some of the uneasiness stems from more current events, including Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and annexation of Crimea. Particularly, Poland and the Baltics see LNG imports as a way to dilute the Putin Regime’s economic influence over their countries and to parry Russian attempts at undermining the democratic process and social unity.
On the other hand, Western European countries are generally content with diversifying natural gas supply routes away from Ukraine that they see as a high-risk transit territory. They are less interested in diversifying supplies away from Russia and are focused rather on lowering cost than on geopolitical implications of dependence on Russian natural gas. This is related to lower dependency rates in that region (Figure 2) and to long-standing collaboration between Western Europe’s utilities and Gazprom that is seen as reliable partner and supplier. There is much less concern about possible monopolization of the European gas market by Russia and its geopolitical implications.
Nord Stream 2, EU Antitrust Decisions & “Credible Threat” of U.S. LNG Imports
Whether CEE countries will be able to achieve their goal of natural gas market diversification and whether U.S. and other LNG producers will have access to the European market will depend as much on price as on other factors. When it comes to price Russia has significant and undisputed advantage. But EU’s policy framework, infrastructure buildup and willingness of countries to support non-Russian supplies will define boundaries within which market forces operate. As such, these factors will determine whether Russian gas dominance in Europe (particularly in CEE) will be strictly commercial or whether it will continue to yield geopolitical power. Construction of Nord Stream 2 and EU antitrust decisions are currently the two decisions that will have a bearing in this regard and where government’s, and not companies, can influence the outcomes.
Nord Stream 2 (NS2) is planned to cross directly from Russia to Germany. The new pipeline is supposed to accompany the already existing Nord Stream 1, reducing the need for the Ukrainian transit route. The plan is constituent with Western Europe’s efforts to diversify natural gas routes away from the risky transit territory. CEE countries argue against the pipeline, which in their view would damage their efforts geared toward diversity of supply and reducing dependence on Russian gas. If recent research is correct, these fears may be well substantiated. The research shows that NS2 would allow Gazprom to pre-empt diversification measures by using the entire capacity of current pipeline infrastructure. With pipelines committed to Russian gas, Gazprom could deter other potential sources of supply from entering the market and keep prices in CEE countries high.
EU decisions on NS2 and antitrust will have a profound impact on creating favorable conditions for U.S. LNG in European markets and whether it will be able to provide the ‘credible threat’ to Russian natural gas dominance. Poland and the Baltics are pushing hard against NS2 in an effort to advance their diversification efforts. The U.S. government is also acutely aware of the problem and has engaged in anti-NS2 sanctions and anti-NS2 diplomacy in the region. But there is a noticeable lack of involvement from other CEE countries. Thanks to recent infrastructure and regional cooperation agreements these countries feel more secure when it comes to natural gas deliveries not realizing the potential negative effects NS2 may have, once completed.
This lack of engagement, together with Western Europe’s limited view of diversification may well be responsible for Russia regaining its position as Europe’s dominant natural gas supplier, a position that has been seemingly slipping away from Russia in recent years as LNG technology took off (Figure 3). This is critical especially now as the European Commission (EC) seeks member-state approval to negotiate with Russia on NS2 with an intent to extent at least main provisions of the EU natural gas legal framework (Third Party Access, unbundling) onto NS2.
Is There a Hope for U.S. LNG Exports to Europe?
The first U.S. LNG cargo to Poland is a result of a one-off transaction between Chenier and a newly established Polish trading office in London. Although it is probable that future LNG deals will be concluded later this year, the problem of the long-term profitability of U.S. exports of this commodity to the EU is still open. Governments have little say as to what contracts are signed but they have the power to affect market conditions within which companies operate. Currently, NS2 and to a smaller extent, EU antitrust decisions are factors, which governments should consider if they want to affect future access to Europe’s natural gas market.
When it comes to the U.S., its government has been active in supporting European energy diversity in many ways, including active opposition to the NS2 pipeline via unilateral U.S. sanctions against Russia and diplomatic assurances in the Baltics and Poland. But this may not be enough. There also may be a value in the U.S. focusing on issue diplomacy in those European (CEE and non-CEE) countries that are currently quiet or in support of NS2 but would ultimately lose if NS2 comes to be.
That being said any success of CEE and U.S. efforts does not guarantee unobstructed flow of U.S. (or any other) LNG to the European market. However, ability to access that market by any non-Russian supplier will provide an effective check on both, Russia’s pricing policy and the influence that country has historically derived from its monopoly over the CEE market.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com and can be viewed here.
The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.
This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.
On June 21. 2017 United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.”  Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.” South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.
But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.
No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.
Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.
Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.
At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.
No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.
This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies. My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.
Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with rogue nations. She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.
These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.
Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
NATO seems more united today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. An aggressive Russia, unbowed by Western economic sanctions after its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, has driven NATO member countries closer together. However, if given the opportunity, an aggressive Russia could also put NATO in a position that could strain its cohesion and ultimately undermine its existence. One place where that could happen is in the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
At the time, NATO’s European governments were unconcerned. Russia, they believed, no longer posed a real threat. So, rather than make the costly outlays needed to protect the Baltic states, they cut their defense budgets. It was little surprise, then, that Europe’s conventional military forces saw their numbers and combat readiness fall. Today, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would each be hard pressed to rapidly deploy a single combat-ready armored brigade. NATO’s reduced fighting capacity was also evident in its air campaign over Libya in 2011. After less than a month of combat, European air forces ran short of precision-guided munitions.
Moreover, given how easily Russia could sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, one might have expected NATO to have boosted its amphibious capacity in case it needed to send reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. Instead, NATO’s combined sealift capacity, excluding U.S. amphibious forces, has fallen to such a low level that it can ferry little more than two infantry brigades. Even worse, almost all of that capacity is based far from the Baltic Sea. And even if NATO could transport those brigades to the Baltics (through what might be a gauntlet of Russian air and missile strikes from Kaliningrad) it is doubtful whether they would be enough to stop a mechanized Russian invasion.
Peril of the Interregnum
Should NATO prove too unprepared to help the Baltics, Russia could achieve a quick victory. That would mean that NATO would have to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the region in order to fulfill its treaty obligations. But before it could do so, the Alliance would need time to fully mobilize its armed forces. During that interregnum, between Russia’s victory and NATO’s counteroffensive, NATO leaders would have time to contemplate what was to come.
They would have a lot to consider. Since the only land route into the Baltics runs through the 100-km wide Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Lithuania and Poland, NATO ground forces would have little choice but to mount a frontal attack. Massed Russian artillery could turn the gap into a killing zone. Meanwhile, Russia’s coastal defense batteries and attack helicopter battalions could inflict heavy losses on any amphibious assault.
The conflict could also escalate beyond the Baltics. As a prelude to any counteroffensive, NATO commanders would naturally want to use their air power to attrit Russian forces and logistical capacity as well as suppress Russia’s supporting artillery, air defense, and coastal defense batteries. That would require strikes against targets on not only Baltic soil, but also possibly Russian soil. Moscow could seek reciprocity. It could launch air or missile strikes on similar targets in Western Europe and the United States. Russia could even escalate to a nuclear confrontation. In effect, it could thrust upon NATO leaders the decision: “Is Tallinn worth Berlin?”
Ultimately, the near certainty of high casualties, the uncertainty of battlefield success, and the possibility of a wider war might cause NATO leaders to think twice about liberating the Baltics. Russian information operations would likely exacerbate those concerns to sow doubt and division within NATO countries. If NATO leaders were to hesitate during the interregnum and agree to a settlement that left any part of the Baltics in Russian hands, then no NATO member could fully trust NATO’s security guarantee again. The rationale for NATO would be lost and its future existence put at risk.
The Tripwire Fix
NATO faced a similar danger during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had amassed such enormous conventional forces that they threatened to overwhelm those of the Alliance. Observers wondered whether the United States would risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union if it quickly occupied Western Europe. The question put to American leaders was: “Is Bonn worth Washington?” NATO responded by stationing large U.S. military forces close to the frontline, in part, to act as a tripwire. They would incur the first casualties of any Soviet invasion. Those losses would bind the United States and its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe, and thus deter the Soviet Union from invading it in the first place.
NATO appears to be trying a similar tactic in the Baltics states. For years, NATO has rotated tiny military contingents through the region. But over the last year, their sizes have grown. Currently, a German-led battle group of 1,000 soldiers is in Lithuania. Later this year, a Canadian-led battle group will be in Latvia and a British-led one will visit Estonia. Though still too small to stop a Russian invasion, they could serve as a tripwire to bind the rest of Europe to the defense of the Baltics. However, that only works if NATO can prevent Russia from achieving a quick victory, since the prospect of a costly counteroffensive could still render NATO’s tripwire ineffective.
Most exposed to the Russian threat, NATO’s Eastern European members are leading the way. Poland created a new Territorial Defense Force of reservists who will number 53,000 in two years. It also ordered 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks. All three Baltic countries have acquired new light armored vehicles. Better yet, they are beginning to acquire the firepower needed to slow a Russian advance. Lithuania recently bought PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia is in discussions to purchase K9 long-range artillery.
The rest of NATO needs to do the same. After all, one of the key reasons why NATO was so important in the most successful unfought war of the last century, the Cold War, was because its member countries were conscious to brook no ambiguity about the Alliance’s combat readiness to take on its main adversary.
 Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Estonia begins K9 artillery negotiations with South Korea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 7, 2017; Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Lithuania receives first PzH 2000 howitzers,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 28, 2016.
As NATO expanded eastwards after the Cold War, the geography that the Alliance needed to defend changed significantly (See map). Rather than a relatively narrow front in Central Europe (dashed line), NATO now had to contend with a far wider front across Eastern Europe (solid line) stretching its defense capabilities. When the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004, they created an even greater operational challenge for NATO.
Lay of the Land
Sitting on the Alliance’s eastern edge, all three Baltic countries border Russia, NATO’s most likely adversary. But only one, Lithuania, is connected to any other NATO country. Lithuania’s border with Poland, just 100 km wide and with a single highway running through it, forms a bottleneck that NATO planners call the Suwalki Gap (named after a nearby Polish town). Worse still, on one side of the gap is Kaliningrad, a large Russian military enclave, and on the other side is Belarus, a close Russian ally.
Figuring out how to overcome that problematic geography became more pressing for NATO after 2007, when Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, which had limited the number of troops and equipment that NATO and Russia could station in continental Europe. Since then, Russia has steadily strengthened its military forces across its western regions, including Kaliningrad. One recent study estimates that if Russia were to invade the Baltics today it could mobilize 25 battalions of armor, airborne, and mechanized infantry (supported by ten battalions of artillery, six of attack helicopters, and five of short-range ballistic missiles). By contrast, the Baltic countries could field only 11 battalions of light infantry, most of which are reserve units. Plus, without any fighter aircraft of their own, Baltic forces would be completely exposed to Russian air power.
Clearly, without NATO support, the Baltics could offer little serious resistance to a Russian invasion. From St. Petersburg, a Russian column could advance into Estonia to seize Tallinn. From Pskov, another column could advance into Latvia to take Riga and pivot south into Lithuania. Simultaneously, Russian forces in Kaliningrad could seal off likely avenues for NATO reinforcements. A Russian thrust toward Marijampolė would close the Suwalki Gap and another toward Klaipėda would close NATO’s most accessible Baltic port. To ensure battlefield success, Russia could use its strategic reserve of airborne and Spetsnaz forces.
From the Sea
Should Russia sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, NATO may be forced to send its reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. However, doing so would face serious hurdles. First, NATO lacks enough military sealift to transport the volume of troops and equipment necessary to stop a Russian assault. As a work-around for its sealift shortage, NATO could commandeer car ferries and other civilian shipping. But NATO could not as easily work around the threat of Russian long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Launched from K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense batteries in Kaliningrad, such missiles could inflict heavy casualties on any NATO reinforcements.
Since the U.S. Navy would not likely want to expose an aircraft carrier battle group to such a threat in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, the job of escorting NATO’s troop transports would then fall on smaller warships with less sophisticated anti-ship cruise missile defenses. That could put already scarce troop transports at higher risk.
Even worse, if Russian forces were to capture all the ports in the Baltics, NATO might have to mount an amphibious assault to reestablish itself on land. That would be difficult to pull off, despite the spectacle of NATO’s Baltic Operations (Baltops) exercises. Amphibious assaults have never been easy; but they are even more difficult today, given that modern precision-guided munitions could make short work of landing craft, helicopters, and even MV-22 aircraft.
Given the potential for Russia to interdict their seaborne forces, NATO commanders would naturally want to suppress Russian coastal defense batteries. After all, a successful missile strike on a single transport could result in the loss of hundreds of troops and their equipment. Multiple missile strikes could swiftly sap the combat strength of any NATO relief force.
At first glance, the suppression of Russian coastal defense batteries (and the air defense systems protecting them) would appear to be a straightforward affair. NATO air forces based in Germany and Poland could easily reach and strike Russian positions in Kaliningrad. However, were NATO air forces to do so, they would be hitting targets on Russian soil. That, in turn, could prompt Russia to expand the conflict beyond the Baltics. NATO could expect retaliatory Russian strikes on its German and Polish air bases.
In addition, one could reasonably expect NATO commanders to want to stem the flow of Russian forces and supplies into the Baltics, either to slow a Russian invasion or as a prelude to a NATO counteroffensive. To be most effective, that would require NATO strikes on Russian logistical facilities near St. Petersburg and Pskov. Such strikes would hit targets deep into Russian territory. That could also prompt Russia to escalate. It could launch retaliatory strikes against NATO logistical facilities in Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. Russia could even use submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles to hit targets in the United States, like Naval Station Norfolk or Pope Air Force Base, which normally support U.S. operations abroad.
Ultimately, Russia could threaten to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 2016, Russia moved Iskander 9K720 intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad. It may have done so, in part, to ensure that NATO leaders think twice before attacking targets there, since a strike on Russian nuclear forces could quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. In any case, even if armed with conventional warheads, those missiles could hit and devastate targets as far away as Germany.
The best way for NATO to overcome its operational challenge in the Baltics is to make sure it never manifests itself. To do that, NATO must convince Russia that it could not achieve a quick victory in the region. Already NATO has rotated small air and ground detachments through the Baltic countries to stiffen their defenses as well as to create a tripwire to guarantee a forceful NATO response in case of a Russian attack.
But more needs to be done before Russia is really convinced. Forward-deployed NATO battle groups need to be stronger—strong enough to hold open avenues for NATO reinforcements. Moreover, NATO countries need to revive their conventional war-fighting capabilities and maintain them at a higher state of combat readiness than they do now. Finally, NATO forces need to be able to react more quickly to Russian actions. That means Western governments need to give NATO’s commander the authority to not only put their national military forces on alert, but also order them into the field for limited periods. In short, NATO should, once again, adhere to the old aphorism that “if you want peace, prepare for war.”
 David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), pp. 4-5.
 Should Belarus allow them to do so, Russian forces could also pass through Belarusian territory to advance on Vilnius from Minsk.
 Brooks Tigner, “Kaliningrad becoming a more dangerous military threat for NATO, say officials,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016.
In early 2015, Western leaders thought they had Russia cornered. A year earlier they imposed on Russia economic sanctions, which ranged from restrictions on access to Western capital markets to bans on the export of oil-production technology, to punish it for its role in dismembering Ukraine. Those sanctions and the Russian boycotts that followed threw Russia’s economy into turmoil. With some justification, President Barack Obama declared that “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters” in January 2015. But two years later, Russia has stabilized its economy, annexed Crimea, and kept its “little green men” in eastern Ukraine. What went awry?
In financial terms, Russia felt the most damaging impact of the West’s economic sanctions within the first year of their imposition. Suddenly, Russian companies, holding dollar and euro-denominated debt, had to repay their loans without the ability to refinance them. Russian banks targeted by Western sanctions saw their overseas assets frozen. That created a cash crunch. Many companies were forced to suspend operations and slash jobs; some even required government capital injections to survive. But they did survive.
Commodity Price Stabilization
Unfortunately for Russia, the West’s economic sanctions coincided with a steep drop in global oil prices. That, more than anything else, exacerbated Russia’s economic woes, since much of the country’s economy depends on the production of commodities, primarily oil. Oil prices plummeted from over $100 per barrel to under $35 per barrel in late 2015. But then they began to recover the following year. So too did the prices of other major commodities that Russia produces, including iron, aluminum, and copper. No doubt global economic growth, which boosted commodity prices, helped Russia to better ride out Western sanctions.
But the stabilization of commodities prices did not save Russia’s economy. With economic sanctions darkening the country’s outlook, the value of the Russian ruble was cut in half. At first, Russia’s central bank tried to defend it, consuming $200 billion in foreign exchange reserves in the effort. But ultimately, Russia’s central bank took a leaf from the International Monetary Fund’s market-based playbook and allowed the Russian ruble to float. That freed Russia’s central bank from having to defend the ruble and prevented an even greater outflow of hard currency that would have further undermined Russia’s economy.
Moreover, since commodities are generally priced in dollars, the sharply devalued ruble meant that though Russian companies faced falling prices for their goods, the dollars they did receive could be converted into more rubles. That softened the economic blow—enough so that Russian energy companies could continue to reinvest in their businesses. As a result, despite the sanctions on oil-production technology, Russia is able to produce more oil today than it did before the sanctions were imposed.
With shortages of imported goods and more rubles in circulation, inflation became a real threat. Rising prices ate away at the purchasing power of ordinary Russians. But rather than reflexively enact price controls, Russia’s central bank used another market-inspired lever. It raised interest rates, up to 17 percent by December 2014. Credit naturally dried up, further depressing the Russian economy. But fortunately for Russia, inflation was quickly brought under control. That allowed Russia’s central bank to gradually lower interest rates to 10 percent, giving Russian companies much-needed breathing room to recover.
In the depths of its economic recession, Moscow could have increased government spending to boost economic activity. But with falling revenues from Russian oil production, a surge in spending would have pushed Russia’s government budget deep into the red and fueled a potential economic crisis. Instead, Moscow exercised fiscal discipline. It held its spending in check and ran a budget deficit of only 3 percent of Russia’s GDP last year. When more funds were needed, Moscow raised taxes and dug into its two sovereign wealth funds, draining a third of their assets before oil prices stabilized.
The West’s economic sanctions have bent but did not break the Russian economy, despite its structural vulnerabilities. What steadied it was a combination of several factors, the most important of which were the stabilization of global commodity prices and the market-oriented policies implemented by Russian authorities. They made Russia’s economy more resilient and prevented an even deeper recession.
Hey mom there’s something in the backroom I hope it’s not the creatures from above What if people knew that these were real I’d leave my closet door open all night I know the CIA would say What you hear is all hearsay I wish someone would tell me what was right – Blink-182 “Aliens Exist”
As Russian President Vladimir Putin aims his country’s missile defenses westward toward an ambiguous adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un chipped a ballistic missile into Mr. Putin’s eastern backyard. On Sunday, 14 May, a North Korean ballistic missile launched from the Paekun-ri (aka Paegun) missile base located northwest of Pyongyang flew 700 kilometers in thirty minutes to land in the Sea of Japan—a mere 97 kilometers from Vladivostok, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is home ported. The following day, the North Korean government identified the missile as a Hwasong-12, which first appeared in public at a mid-April military parade in Pyongyang. The official Rodong Sinmum news agency issued photographs purporting to show the launch, accompanied by a lengthy statement, which reads in part:
The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S., [Kim Jong-un] said, expressing the belief that the day when the DPRK uses the similar retaliatory means will come. He continued that on this occasion, the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose actual threat to it or not. If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history, he said, strongly warning the U.S. not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range for strike and that it has all powerful means for retaliatory strike.
The successful launch of the Hwasong-12 is important in and of itself, and also for what it may signify. Some experts question whether two earlier North Korean test launches conducted in October 2016 were in fact part of an intercontinental missile program and not tests of medium-range ballistic missiles.
It bears further consideration that the Hwasong-12 came within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok, and did so at a time when Mr. Putin was in Beijing attending the Chinese government’s “One Belt” (aka “Silk Road”) forum. According to one public report, Russia, only a few weeks earlier, deployed its S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system to the border with North Korea south of Vladivostok.
Russia’s Far East
After Sunday’s Hwasong-12 launch, Mr. Putin said laconically, “There’s nothing good in this.” He elaborated that while “the launch did not pose a direct threat to us, it undoubtedly will further provoke conflict and isn’t a good thing.” He called the test “unacceptable” according to Regnum, continuing, “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea, stop threatening it, and find ways to solve these problems peacefully.”
We are categorically opposed to the expansion of the nuclear powers club, including on the Korean peninsula. We consider [the North Korean missile test] counterproductive and dangerous. On the other hand, so are gross violations of international law, regime change, and promoting an arms race with threats to invade.
The “no direct threat” line was echoed in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which wrote:
North Korea’s missiles fly in unpredictable ways. They do not always impact where their flight guidance system directs them. In principle, they can fall on Russian territory, something that would lead to unpredictable consequences. But Russian air defense and anti-missile defenses are on constant alert. If these missiles threaten our territory, they will be intercepted and destroyed.
It quoted a frequently cited Russian military analyst, Viktor Litovkin, who added:
The fact is North Korea doesn’t target its missiles towards Russia, it aims them toward the Sea of Japan. It therefore doesn’t pose a direct threat to us militarily, though politically, it certainly violates all applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Mr. Litovkin echoed the Russian Defense Ministry, which said, “The missile attack warning system tracked the North Korean missile before it fell into the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Russian military remained fully in control of the situation.” As time progressed, the reported impact spot moved farther from the Russian coastline. The Russian Defense Ministry identified the point of impact as “500 kilometers from the Russian coast,” and some Russian media outlets downplayed its proximity to Vladivostok, for example, electing to use the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Japan-centric identification of the impact point.
Oleg Zhdanov—a politolog or ideologist whose extreme nationalist commentaries appear in publications like Russkaya vesna (“Russian Spring”)—accused the United States of using “North Korea as a pretext” to achieve “their main goal—they deployed a strike group with Tomahawks aboard near the borders of the Russian Federation . . . Russia, in fact, today is isolated. I understand the next step is to declare that Russia is a source of a military threat.” He continued:
On the one hand, while it monitors North Korea, the United States’ Tomahawk strike group continues to blockade the Russian Federation, at the point where all the ballistic missiles located in Russia’s Far Eastern region aimed at the United States are controlled. There are destroyers on the Baltic side, where [the United States] established an aviation-strike force that can fly to Moscow and back with a single aerial refueling. In Poland and Romania, [the United States] deployed antiballistic missile systems and troops, and transferred a tank division to Poland. In Syria and Afghanistan, Russia was given a clear understanding that any military movements would be brutally suppressed by high precision weapons.
Joining in the Kremlin effort to deflect attention from the North Korean missile test, the Russian Federal Assembly’s official Parlamentskaya gazeta (“Parliamentary Newspaper”) published survey findings, which said that while “39% of Russians consider the North Korean nuclear threat to be real . . . The real threat of the use of nuclear weapons, according to Russians, comes from the United States (50%) and al-Qaida (32%).”
With a land border running over 20 thousand kilometers (12,577 miles), Russia today resembles Charles Dickens’ c.1858 description of Prussia:
It is the awkwardest state on the face of the globe. Its breadth bears no proportion to its length, and its possessions are divided from each other by foreign states. She cannot defend her whole line of frontier.
Mr. Putin faces the perennial challenge of defending a largely indefensible border in Russia’s Far East. As far back as 2009, Russia reportedly deployed an S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system near Nakhodka (the red dot on the map above) to counter the then rising threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.
In August 2016, the Russian language news portal Gazeta asked military analyst Mikhail Khodarenok the question “What is the state of Russia’s missile defense?” He responded:
With the completion of the full deployment of the missile attack warning system (including the space echelon) and the adoption of the development-stage AMD A-235 Nudol missile system, Russia will regain the positions largely lost in the 1990s.
Regaining a position lost over two decades ago is useful only insofar as the threat landscape remained largely unchanged. As last weekend’s North Korean missile test makes clear, however, that threat landscape has changed ineluctably.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Putin spoke at the restored memorial cross marking where the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was assassinated in February 1905 just steps from the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower. Calling the memorial cross a reminder “of the price that had to be paid for disunity,” Mr. Putin said, “We must protect and defend Russia.” Speaking in November 2016, Mr. Putin said he would protect Russia without “indulging in a frenzied military buildup” (predavat’sya militaristskomu ugaru) against threats arising from “the creation of a United States missile defense system in Europe and NATO’s enlargement eastward;” in 2007, Maksim Agarkov assessed that such threats had “drawn [Russia] into an arms race.”
Crashing into the sea less than 100 kilometers from Vladivostok, North Korea’s Hwasong-12 exposed the fatal porosity of Russian missile defenses in the East. Mr. Putin’s pointless commitment to a westward-facing ballistic missile defense has served to emphasize Russia’s wide-open back door. It is a Russian Maginot Line, and an unaffordable one at that.
The national missile defense is our Maginot Line. It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective in countering threats that simply go around it . . . The Maginot Line of national missile defense will not only encourage countries to go around it, or to overwhelm it, it could also become the Trojan Horse that lets our enemies into the nuclear club.
Mr. Putin would have been wise to heed the above warning by Senator Richard Durbin, articulated during a 1999 Senate debate. The false promise of Mr. Putin’s European Maginot Line has been exposed by a single North Korean Hwasong-12 missile flying unimpeded to within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok. Yaroslav Shimov’s claims that “at the moment, Russia is fairly inactive in the Far East, as opposed to Europe, where the opposite is true” is as true militarily as it is politically. Notwithstanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s late March declaration that Russia will “complete its air defense system to protect Russia’s air and sea borders” by year’s end—and Russian demands that “North Korea refrain from further provocative actions”—last weekend’s missile test bolsters Mr. Putin’s internal critics, who assert Russia’s “Far East has been left unprotected” behind Mr. Putin’s western-facing Maginot Line.
The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.
“Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New Rocket.” Rodong Sinmum [published online 15 May 2017]. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/. Last accessed 15 May 2017. According to the report, “A test-fire of new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 was successfully carried out on Sunday by scientists and technicians in the field of rocket research, who are bravely advancing toward a new goal to be proud of in the world, true to the far-sighted idea of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, for building a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un guided the test-fire on the spot.”
 “North Korea’s 2017 Military Parade Was a Big Deal. Here Are the Major Takeaways.” The Diplomat [published online 15 April 2017]. http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/north-koreas-2017-military-parade-was-a-big-deal-here-are-the-major-takeaways/. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Failed North Korean missile launch was possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.” Chosunilbo [published online in Korean 28 October 2016]. http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/10/28/2016102800238.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “SPOTTED: Putin ‘moves military forces’ to North Korea border as world prepares for WAR.” Express [published online 18 April 2017]. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/792225/Russia-Putin-North-Korea-nuclear-Trump. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Nichego khoroshego: Putin prokommentiroval novyy raketnyy pusk KNDR.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/world/20170515/1494304896.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: «Nuzhno vozvrashchat’sya k dialogu s KNDR».” Regnum [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2274888.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: Pusk rakety KNDR ne predstavlyal opasnosti dlya Rossii.” Life [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://life.ru/t/новости/1007780/putin_pusk_rakiety_kndr_nie_priedstavlial_opasnosti_dlia_rossii. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Kim grozit obrushit’ mech na golovy amerikantsev.” Nezavisimaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://www.ng.ru/world/2017-05-16/7_6988_kndr.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “V Minoborony Rossii prokommentirovali ocherednoye ispytaniye raket v KNDR.” Tsargrad [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://tsargrad.tv/news/v-minoborony-rossii-prokommentirovali-ocherednoe-ispytanie-raket-v-kndr_63333 . Last accessed 15 May 2017. The missile attack warning system is commonly known by its Russian language acronym, SPRN (Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii).
 “Vladimir Putin: Pusk severokoreyskoy rakety Rossii ne ugrozhal, no konflikt provotsiroval.” Vladnews [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://vladnews.ru/2017/05/16/127547/vladimir-putin-pusk-severokorejskoj-rakety-rossii-ne-ugrozhal-no-konflikt-provociroval.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that it had “determined the missile fell into the Sea of Japan 450 km from Okushiri Island in Hokkaido Prefecture,” according to Izvestia. See: “Minoborony Yaponii ustanovilo mesto padeniya severokoreyskoy rakety.” Izvestia [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://izvestia.ru/news/706934. Last accessed 126 May 2017.
 For example, Mr. Zhdanov wrote in a commentary published in Russkaya vesna that the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariapol is “mentally prepared” to leave Ukraine and join the DPR,” the latter an acronym for the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic [Russian: Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika. Ukrainian: Donets’ka Narodna Respublika]. See: “Mariupol’ i Odessa gotovy vyyti iz sostava Ukrainy, — ukrainskiy ekspert.” Russkaya vesna [published online in Russian 18 April 2017]. http://rusvesna.su/news/1492350071. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Severnaya Koreya blefuyet, — ekspert.” Politolog [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. http://politolog.net/analytics/severnaya-koreya-blefuet-ekspert/. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Rossiyane vidyat ugrozu primeneniya KNDR yadernogo oruzhiya — opros.” Parlamentskaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “The Opinions of Field-Marshal Radfetsky.” Bentley’s Miscellany, v.XLIV. (London: Richard Bentley) 591.
 “Chetvertyy polk S-400 zastupit na boevoe dezhurstvo v Nakhodke.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 August 2012]. https://ria.ru/arms/20120815/724086797.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017. The S-400 is designed to engage aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia deployed its first S-400 system in 2007.
 “Kuda prodvinulas’ rossiyskaya PRO. Kakovo sostoyaniye rossiyskoy protivoraketnoy oborony.” Gazeta [published online in Russian 27 August 2016]. https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2016/08/27/10162349.shtml?refresh. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
Ibid. According to published reports, Russia’s AMD (antimissile defense) A-235 Nudol ballistic missile completed its first successful test flight on 8 November 2015 (the first two test flights failed).
 “Putin prizval berech’ i zashchishchat’ Rossiyu.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 4 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/politics/20170504/1493662148.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Putin poobeshchal zashchitit’ Rossiyu bez «militaristskogo ugara».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 30 November 2016]. http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/06/30/647451-putin-militaristskogo-ugara. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 Cited in Keir Giles (2014). European Missile Defense and Russia. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press) 13.
Congressional Record- Senate (17 March 1999) 4760.
 Yaroslav Shimov (2017). “Politika dvukh maniy.” Inosmi [published online in Russian 12 February 2017]. http://inosmi.ru/politic/20170212/238712546.html. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Shoygu: diviziya VS RF na Dal’nem Vostoke sozdayetsya isklyuchitel’no dlya zashchity Rossii.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/4108902. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Yaponiya i Rossiya potrebuyut ot KNDR vozderzhat’sya ot provokatsionnykh deystviy.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4108799. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Dal’niy Vostok ostavlen bez zashchity.” Voprosik [published online in Russian 28 March 2016]. http://voprosik.net/dalnij-vostok-ostavlen-bez-zashhity/. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Col. Hamilton served as the Russia policy advisor in the U.S. delegation to the International Syria Support Group in the summer of 2016.
The recent U.S. cruise missile attack in Syria disrupted—at least for the near term—any prospect of a “reset” in the U.S.-Russia relationship and brought into sharp focus the incompatibility of Washington’s interests in Syria with those of Moscow. For Russia, Syria represents one of two pillars of its strategy in the Middle East, the other being Iran. Moscow has staked its regional strategy on an alliance with these two states as counterweights to the U.S.-aligned Sunni regimes that dominate most of the region. Syria is of particular importance in this strategy because it hosts naval and air bases that enable a Russian military presence in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This presence is important to Russia for military reasons and because it demonstrates Moscow’s revival as an important player on the global stage.
Additionally, Russia’s bitter experience with the Sunni insurgency in Chechnya leads it to view the Sunni-led uprising against the Alawite Shia—but largely secular—Assad regime as another case of Sunni terrorism that directly threatens Russian interests. To Russians, the U.S. insistence that some of the Sunni groups fighting the Syrian regime are moderate opposition—and therefore deserve to be differentiated from the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham—rings hollow. Despite the fact that these groups are signatories to the February 2016 cessation of hostilities in Syria, Russian official statements rarely refer to them as moderate opposition, instead often labelling them terrorists or “so-called moderate opposition.”
Syria also figures prominently in Russia’s geopolitical calculus for what it represents: a chance for Russia to take a stand against what it sees as a U.S.-engineered series of regime changes that target the stability of Russia itself. From the “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union to the Arab Spring uprisings, many Russians believe the U.S. is carrying out a deliberate and comprehensive program of enforced democratization, with Russia as its ultimate target. Reflecting this belief, Russian representatives to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva remarked to their U.S. counterparts on multiple occasions in 2016 that Russians are not fond of the “Iraq model.”
References to the “Iraq model” convey two Russian concerns about the potential outcome in Syria, both of which revolve around the UN plan for political transition there. In the Russian view, this plan, which calls for “fresh elections” 14-18 months after the achievement of a durable cease-fire, is a recipe for chaos and renewed civil war. This fear is not unreasonable. After all, voters in a country that has experienced a six-year conflict that morphed into a bitter ethnic and sectarian civil war with considerable interference by outside powers can hardly be expected to have sufficient trust in the democratic process to refrain from casting their votes along those same ethnic and sectarian lines. And the political institutions of a country riven by such ethnic and sectarian violence can hardly be expected to contain the grievances this violence has stoked, especially if those institutions themselves are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. So the first Russian concern with the “Iraq model”—that is, democratization imposed from without, in a country with deep divisions in identities—is its potential to plunge the country into renewed civil war.
A second Russian concern, not expressed openly but deeply held, is that if a democratically elected government in Syria does manage to hold itself and the country together, it will turn Syria from a strategic partner of Russia into an adversary. This is because any democratically elected government in Syria, a country with a 74% Sunni majority, is likely to align itself with the other Sunni regimes in the region and against Russia. In this case, Russia stands to lose one of the two pillars of its regional strategy, along with its air base at Latakia (Hmeymim) and its naval base at Tartus. Since it sees renewed civil war or an adversarial regime as the two most likely outcomes of the UN transition plan for Syria, Russia routinely works to undermine this plan while supporting it officially.
So Russian objectives in Syria can be summarized as preserving a Russia-friendly regime, striking a blow against what it sees as Sunni terrorism, and ending the string of what it believes are U.S.-inspired regime changes in states friendly to Russia. Prior to the chemical attack at Khan Shaykhun on April 4, these objectives were not fundamentally incompatible with those of the U.S. under the Trump administration. Even the Obama administration, which had earlier taken a much harder line on the Assad regime, had near the end of its tenure signaled a willingness to consider an extended transition period that preserved a privileged position for the Alawites, if not Assad himself. Since taking office, the Trump administration had prioritized the defeat of ISIS over all other goals in Syria, including that of free elections in accordance with the UN transition plan. So there appeared to be room for an agreement in Syria that met the minimum acceptable outcome for both the U.S. and Russia.
The murder of some 85 people in Khan Shaykhun changed the U.S. position almost overnight and removed the possibility of any agreement over Syria in the near term. We may never know whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime’s chemical attack. But we do know that Russian diplomatic and military support for the regime emboldened it and may have encouraged it to take drastic action in an effort to accelerate the military victory it is pursuing. One thing that has become clear since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 is that, whereas the U.S. and the UN are trying to end the war in Syria, Russia and the Syrian regime are trying to win the war there. Even before Khan Shaykhun, in the pursuit of a military victory over the insurgency, Russia and the regime had withheld humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas and bombed civilian infrastructure, including hospitals. But Khan Shaykhun was an even more obvious violation of international law and left the new U.S. administration, which had come into office explicitly rejecting many traditional U.S. foreign policy ideals based in international law and the liberal world order, repulsed by the carnage and driven to military action in response.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. strike will deter further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. It also remains to be seen whether the strike signals a change in the level of U.S. involvement in Syria. What is clear is that although U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria were not fundamentally incompatible before April 4, any space for a deal over Syria has vanished for the time being, and many more people will die before the prospect of another deal re-emerges, if it ever does.
 This group was formerly named Jabhat al-Nusra and was the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In the summer of 2016, it changed its name and allegedly cut ties with Al Qaeda, but remains classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the UN.
 The Russian Ministry of Defense website’s Syria page (http://syria.mil.ru/en/index/syria.htm) has numerous examples of this tendency. In direct conversations with U.S. officials, the tendency for Russians to refer to these groups as “terrorists” is even more pronounced.
 Elections in these conditions contain many of the aspects of a “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In other words, if one ethnic or sectarian group refrains from casting its votes along ethnic or sectarian lines, but the others do not, the group that refrained from ethnic or sectarian voting will be deprived of representation, while its competitor groups will not. The incentive for every group in this type of environment is therefore to vote along ethnic or sectarian lines, which ensures the election of a divided government.
“Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?” The Trump as “Manchurian Candidate” scenario has been a constant query for my colleagues and I since we published our warnings in August and November last year about Russia’s influence campaign on the U.S. presidential election. This loosely plays along the plot line of the 1959 novel and follow up 1962 movie where a communist conspiracy tries to install a dictatorial president in the U.S. In the most dire conspiracy theories today, Donald Trump is portrayed as a covert Russian operative ceding control of America to an ascendant Vladimir Putin. Trump’s supporters instead see the inverse – a new populist president focused on “America First,” seeking to make deals and secure peace through a worldview and foreign policy similar to Russia. Evidence for either of these scenarios remains scant, and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum should consider that reality likely rests somewhere in between. Trump’s Russia connections and Putin’s overt support for “the Donald” should be evaluated not as dichotomous positions, but as the ends of a spectrum of four possible scenarios (Figure 1).
Scenario #1: “Natural Ally”
President Trump and many of his supporters contend that the new administration represents nothing more than the natural alliance between two men seeking their own country’s interests through toughness. Trump’s affinity for Russia dates back to the late 1980s by some accounts, and his business pursuits in the country have been well documented.
The “natural ally” explanation for Trump’s Russian affinity would only make sense if the president had an enduring worldview and foreign policy stance over several electoral cycles that justified and explained why an alliance with Russia would be both good for America and put “America first.” President Trump may know business, but foreign policy is not his bailiwick. Prior to his jump into the presidential race, Trump didn’t espouse any clear foreign policy stances suggesting his national security views in general, particularly in regards to Russia. On rare instances where Trump stated foreign policy views prior to his presidential run, he often contradicted himself (i.e. U.S. invasion of Iraq). Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study.
Scenario #2: “Useful Idiot”
Russian influence of Trump most likely falls into the category of what Madeleine Albright called a “Useful Idiot” – a “useful fool” – an enthusiast for Putin supportive of any issue or stance that feeds his ego and brings victory. Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence. By spotting this early, Russia could encourage Trump’s ascension and shape his views via three parallel tracks. First, Russia led a never before seen hacking and influence campaign to degrade support for Hilary Clinton and promote Trump among a disenfranchised American populace. As a “useful idiot,” Trump not only benefited from this influence effort, but he urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton’s missing emails – a public call a “Manchurian Candidate” (see Scenario 4 below) would not likely make. Trump even fell for false Russian news stories citing a bogus Sputnik news story at a presidential rally – a glaring and open mistake that would reveal a true “Manchurian Candidate.”
Second, political operatives of other Russian campaigns mysteriously surfaced as close advisors whispering Kremlin lines in Trump’s ear, modifying his world view, sliding in Russian foreign policy positions as mainstream American positions, and even altering the Republican platform to support a Russian position over a Ukrainian ally. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, mistakenly cited a debunked Russia false news story about a terrorist attack on Incirlik airbase in Turkey as a final show of Russian influence before being fired. Carter Page, a Trump campaign linkage, denies being an agent, but has waffled on his meetings with Russian diplomats. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier alleged secret meetings between Trump officials and Russian agents, but these have yet to be confirmed.
President Trump has been bullish on ISIS, China, and Iran, but has curiously been quite amenable to Russia. One explanation put forth regarding his toughness on all American enemies except Russia is that he is compromised – vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government due to sexual compromise or financial entanglements. Under this scenario, President Trump would not be doing the bidding of Putin on a day-to-day basis, but would bend as needed to a Russian foreign policy position in order to protect himself from public disclosures and the resulting political backlash.
The former British intelligence officer’s dossier made salacious claims of sexual misconduct by Trump during a visit to St. Petersburg. But rumors of sexual compromise have yet to bring forth any real evidence of misbehavior. Furthermore, Russia would have a hard time sexually compromising a president who has been married three times, who may have bragged about his sexual prowess while posing as his own publicist, and who was caught using misogynistic speech in a leaked video. President Trump compromised himself in this fashion, and the voters didn’t seem to care. Should Russia release the alleged provocative video tape now, they would only confirm their meddling and achieve nothing – the dossier leak and U.S. government discussion of the dossier likely inoculated the president from any compromise on a sexual basis if anything even existed.
Trump claims no financial ties to Russia, but these allegations still remain open due to Trump’s refusal to show his tax records and the media’s failure to show any discernible financial ties to Russia. This situation may change in the future and could damage the president. More recently, President Trump’s son appears to have received $50,000 from a pro-Russia group in the weeks leading up to the election. This revelation, alongside absent tax records, suggests that President Trump and his family might be currently or in the future financially compromised through business interests that have not been properly divested by the president – business interests tied to or manipulated by Russia without the full knowledge of the First Family.
Scenario #4: Manchurian Candidate
On the other end of the spectrum, those most traumatized by Trump’s victory have questioned if the U.S. has fallen under the command of the world’s most cunning authoritarian: Vladimir Putin. A “Manchurian Candidate” Trump would be a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House.
This scenario is unlikely to be the case for several reasons. Trump’s behavior and policy positions sway with the wind. The famous former British intelligence officer dossier argued that Trump’s behavior in the lead up to the election caused unease amongst Kremlin leaders backing him. Trump openly discusses Russian connections and seems to be unaware of his closest aides ties and contacts to Russian diplomats and intelligence assets. Even Trump’s unfounded tweet storm about the wiretapping of Trump Tower would pose a threat to Russia under the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. A Russian-directed U.S. president would be more deliberate in policy positions and would conceal rather than discuss connections with Russia. To date, no direct financial or physical contacts and communications can be directly tied to President Trump.
Most importantly, a Manchurian Candidate scenario, if it came to light, would likely result in direct war between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians started their second Cold War with the U.S. years ago, and they are winning. They don’t need a Manchurian candidate; that’s higher cost and higher risk to their efforts. They prefer systematic, indirect, asymmetric engagements that incrementally achieve their goals rather than provoking the U.S. into a direct clash militarily and economically – a fight the Kremlin would likely lose.
What are the implications of these Russian connections for Trump and America?
Regardless of President Trump’s relationship to Russia, the repeated disclosure of Russian influence and connections to his campaign and staff have created considerable turmoil in the White House and America as a whole. Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.
More importantly, President Trump appears strongly influenced by those in his inner circle. So if they have connections to Russia, whether President Trump knows it or not, he will, at times, be Russia’s pawn on foreign policy issues.
Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades. No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers. Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation. By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.
A Firmer Footing
While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.” In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security. For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue. After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls. Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.
Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation. He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia. He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders. He also stepped in when Washington stumbled. After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.
Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture. It modestly increased its defense budget. It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims. But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law. Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack. While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan. Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts. But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.
The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid. With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.
However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted. Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms). Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States. Instead, he leaned toward China. Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt. Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way. He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy. On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.
To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia. Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president. Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States. But Abe received no public assurances. The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy. If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.
China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses. Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November. Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.
Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position. When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan). Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands. Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.
The Going Remains Tough
To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation. Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security. Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia. Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long. By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it. Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.
None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way. Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation. But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.
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