Trakai, Lithuania. 18 January. The snow folds and flows down to a small lake deep in the Lithuanian forest. With the sky an azure blue it is a truly beautiful scene and a wonderful backdrop to the ninth Snowmeeting which I had the pleasure to attend these few days past. One of the great annual conferences the Snowmeeting brings together ministers, experts, opinion-leaders from across the West…and me. Given the close proximity of the meeting to the Russian border the main subject for discussion was, of course, Russia. Specifically, the vital need for the July NATO Warsaw Summit to communicate not just cohesion, but strength.
Just after Christmas President Putin signed into Russian law a new decree establishing five new ‘regional maritime counter-terrorist headquarters’. Although not directly aimed at the Baltic States the location and leadership of the centres speak to Russian strategy. Located in Dagestan, Murmansk, Kamchatka, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Simferopol in Crime these isolated centres cover Russia’s borders from the Arctic, through the Black Sea, along the southern border and into Russia’s far-east. Crucially, they will be under the control of the successor to the KGB, the Federal Security Service or FSB.
The centres are all evidence of Moscow’s determination to extend its influence into the maritime domain as a means of strengthening Russia’s ability to contest ‘sovereignty’ at sea, as well as on land and in the air. Critically, the new centres also strengthen the so-called ‘vertikal’ through the FSB by reinforcing direct presidential control over all aspects of strategy and action. Indeed, the centres further consolidate presidential power over Russia’s sprawling security and defence services. As such they fit into a pattern of such consolidations, led most notably by the creation of the Centre for National Defence Management, at 22 Frunze Embankment in Moscow.
However, the much bigger picture which President Putin is painting is one in which confrontation with the West is central to the very existence of the state he leads. In that context the new centres are key pieces of an emerging architecture for the waging of what the Russians call ‘new generation warfare’; hybrid warfare in the parlance of the West. Indeed, the reason why the centres are under the control of the FSB is precisely because the heirs of Felix Dzerzinsky are the masters of the disinformation and destabilisation strategies which are central to the conduct of hybrid warfare – war at the seams of open societies.
Some suggest that the collapse of the oil price will force Russia into a period of entrenchment. And, in the past week Russia has indeed cut its public investment budgets. However, even the most cursory study of President Putin reveals a man that is not easily diverted from his strategy of rebuilding Russian influence via intimidation.
The one word which drives President Putin is ‘respect’. From his earliest days in Leningrad and the stories of Russia’s immense sacrifice during the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War with which he grew up President Putin has been driven by a vision of Russia as a great power. This ‘vision’ was reinforced by his first-hand witnessing of the collapse of Soviet power as a KGB Lieutenant-Colonel in Dresden, and his front row seat as a senior official during the crises, corruption and chaos of the Sobchak and Yeltsin years during the 1990s.
President Putin is thus a man firm in his determination never again to see Russia humiliated with by itself or others. His aim is the preservation of the Russian state which he believes to be surrounded by enemies. To that end his beliefs can be thus summarised: the acquisitive West is not to be trusted (he has a latent vaguely Leninist belief that Western capitalism is both inherently corrupt and imperialist); that the West talks about a rules-based system but only understand and listens to power; only a powerful Russian state can stop corrupt politicians and officials from destroying the Russian state from within.
The Kremlin as so often has chosen its timing carefully. The West will be distracted in 2016 with US presidential elections, the ongoing migration crisis and the Brexit referendum. How and to what extent President Putin decides to use his new architecture of confrontation will depend on the extent to which the Russian state is affected by the collapsing oil price. The very fact of it may be enough for a divided West to give Russia more influence over its ‘near abroad’ than should be the case. Indeed, perhaps Russia’s greatest ‘ally’ is denial in key European states such as France and Germany, allied to Britain’s unprincipled ‘you can have any British policy you like as long as you pay for it’ mercantilism.
Back in September 2014 at the NATO Wales Summit the assembled heads of state and government agreed to some increase in defence expenditure and other measures designed to deter Russia. However, the language of the Wales Declaration is full of ambiguity in the hope that Russia could still be persuaded to deviate from its course of confrontation. Indeed, the very use of the word ‘reassurance’ as opposed to ‘deterrence’ was proof of strategic ambiguity. In 2016 such ambiguity must be dismissed. Confrontation with NATO and the EU is now central to the very narrative the Kremlin is using to justify an onerous investment in security structures (including defence) that this year could top 10% of Russia’s GDP.
Therefore, the NATO Warsaw Summit must accelerate the increases in defence expenditure agreed at Wales, properly establish counter-hybrid strategies, including cyber defence, and unequivocally restore the link between NATO’s nuclear and conventional deterrence and defence postures. Critically, the Spearhead Force and the enhanced NATO Response Force must be reinforced by the creation of a much heavier force that would look something like the old Allied Command Europe Mobile Force. Such a force would raise significantly the cost for President Putin of any adventurism, demonstrate NATO Europe’s willingness to share US burdens, ease pressure on an over-stretched American military, and create a fire brigade, first responder force that could credibly look east and south with power. Having taken these steps the allies must then talk to Russia. Indeed, peace can only be guaranteed through strength.
Over the years I have developed not just a political affinity with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but a deep personal attachment. They are by no means perfect states, which state is perfect, apart from Britain, of course, which is perfect in all ways…not. However, for me these three re-freed peoples are the very embodiment of what the liberal West should stand for – the sovereign right of peoples to make their own sovereign choices as expressed through freely-elected representatives. However, such freedom cannot be defended by words alone, and aggressors cannot be deterred by well-intentions alone, however well-intentioned.
Therefore, at Warsaw we must all put aside our many petty differences so that our Alliance can stand firm and stand tall. One thing is clear; President Putin will do whatever it takes to remain in power as he has come to see himself as the only true guardian of Russia, Russians, and the Russian state.
As for the Snowmeeting…let it snow!