It has seemed – or, rather, been apparent – for some time that Vladimir Putin longs for a return to the Cold War era from his formative KGB years. From his expansion into Crimea (definitely a part of the Ukraine), to his collaboration with typically anti-Western countries like Iran and China to support the Syrian regime (and confounding attempts to deal with ISIL as a coalition), the cyber-attacks that the US Intelligence Community believe are meant to interfere in our presidential elections, and recent provocative naval maneuvers, Putin seems intent on increasing the heat on the West – possibly now adding a nuclear threat to the mix.
Russia appear now to be maneuvering ships with a medium range nuclear missile capability into the Baltic, which threatens all of NATO and puts immediate increased pressure on the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. (It is an interesting aside to note the impact of modern social media in terms of promulgating information of potential intelligence value and contradicting propaganda efforts, as indicated in the liked medium.com article.) Latvia in particular has had concerns based on relatively recent Russian activity within its borders, akin to the activities that precipitated Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, despite the general outcry against Russia’s activities in Crimea and some comparisons of a lack of direct intervention there with the appeasement of Hitler’s Germany, Ukraine was and is not a NATO country. Latvia (and Lithuania and Estonia, as well as the majority of Western European countries) is a NATO member. A similar attempted annexation of Latvian territory, or direct instigation by Russian regulars as was seen in Crimea would require a NATO response.
How far is Putin willing to push this? Are we heading back toward a game of nuclear chicken, and is Putin willing to risk a direct conventional engagement with NATO in order to exert influence in countries that used to fall under the control of the USSR? Russia is far from the height of its military glory as the Soviet Union. While a direct conventional conflict with Russia would no doubt be costly for all parties (and especially for Europe), it is unlikely a conflict in which Russia will prevail (presuming our goals do not include significant incursion into or control of Russian territory). Perhaps they are counting on their cyber capabilities to interfere with our technological capabilities. Certainly they have demonstrated an ability and willingness to launch such attacks, but our capabilities in the cyber arena are formidable as well.
I expect this should be one of the principle concerns of a new US administration, to stabilize relations with Russia while pushing back against direct provocation. I’m certainly not pining away for the “Mutually Assured Destruction” nuclear deterrence of the 1980’s. Nor do I wish to see which country can better screw up the other’s power and communications infrastructures. Let’s hope for cooler in heads in the coming months and years, and a focus on stabilizing the Middle-East and Easter Europe – areas that tend to exacerbate tensions and lead to proxy wars.
On the other hand, this might be the time to get back into marketing underground shelters. We may never need them, but fear is a great marketing tool. If we can’t fix the problem, at least we can make some cash!