Europe’s Russia denial

By Andrew A. Michta


The likelihood of Putin moves on Baltics and Central Europe is uncomfortably high.


Though it still seems counterintuitive to many, the risk of war in Europe has not been this high since the end of the Cold War. Nor have the leaders of Europe’s largest powers been in this much denial about Vladimir Putin’s political objective — the restoration of Russia’s sphere of influence — or how quickly the war in Ukraine could morph into a larger conflict along the continent’s northeastern flank.

Despite tough rhetoric and repeated warnings to Putin from NATO’s leadership, most of Europe’s capitals and Washington about what would happen should he try to stir trouble beyond NATO’s red line, the overall level of military readiness in Europe to respond to a rapidly escalating crisis remains inadequate. After years of defense cuts, the European allies are now in a situation where they provide barely a quarter of NATO’s military capabilities, with a number of countries unable to operate outside their national territories — a sine qua non of allied response in a contingency.


There can be no denying that Europe’s overall military weakness has played a role in Russia’s calculus, not only during the annexation of Crimea and the escalation in Donbas but already in its 2008 war against Georgia, Putin’s first direct challenge to the normative security order, albeit not yet in Europe itself. Simply put: Weakness invites further aggression.

Putin has been successful in moving forward with his project to reestablish a sphere of Russia’s privileged interest in Eastern Europe in large part because the Western response has been weak and contradictory. With the United States distracted by the unraveling of the Middle East and the growing geostrategic competition with China, dealing with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has become a European, or rather a German, project, with the United States offering support. Only recently has the U.S. begun to move beyond exercises, offering to move equipment to Poland and the Baltic States.

For the most part, the high-sounding rhetoric condemning Russia’s aggression has been accompanied by half-measures, in terms of economic sanctions, and quarter-measures or less when it comes to a military response. The so-called “reassurance” of NATO allies along the northeastern flank has so far resulted in limited military exercises, U.S. troop “drive-throughs” through the region back to Germany, and most recently in the decision to pre-position tanks and equipment for 5,000 troops.

While the West disarms

Since Berlin has declared from the start that “there is no military solution” in Ukraine, Kiev has been left in a strategic no-man’s land, where it is a matter of time before the combined economic and military factors bring about state failure and further partition. But without significant military assistance to Ukraine to arm its military, Russia can contemplate its next steps at leisure, whether that’s another move in Ukraine or stirring up ethnic tensions in the Baltics, either keeping current semi-frozen conditions in place or choosing to escalate. If the latter happens, this incursion into NATO territory would test the Alliance’s credibility at a time when consensus on allied solidarity is in doubt.

The risk of war in Europe has increased in parallel with the progressive demilitarization of the continent , both in terms of troops and equipment and the overall public outlook. Defense spending across the board has shrunk in Europe to 1.5 percent and continues to drop. Europe’s contribution to NATO’s military capability, which a decade ago was still at approximately half of its forces, today is at less than 25 percent and that figure too is dropping. Several countries in Europe, including some of the largest, have decimated their armor  and seriously put into question their readiness to field more than a few thousand troops. The situation is even more dire when it comes to the high end of the spectrum , as well as logistics and transport. Today, the United States provides 70 percent of all NATO defense spending.

The process of Europe’s demilitarization over the last decade has coincided with Russia’s ambitious military modernization to the tune of $700 billion over 10 years, with targeted programs to introduce the next generation of armor, aircraft, and missiles and to modernize the nuclear forces. Although Russia’s expenditures cannot compare to the U.S. defense budget, they show an important paradigm shift when taken in the context of regional power balances in the Nordic-Baltic-Central European region.

Russia also enjoys the clear advantage of already having their programs in place, while the Scandinavians, Balts and Poles are now scrambling to plug the gaps in their air and missile defenses and anti-armor, all the while looking to the United States to provide reassurance and a modicum of deterrence against Russia.

Notwithstanding commendable efforts by the Poles and the Balts — Poland and Estonia are now among the five NATO countries including the United States that actually meet the 2 percent of GDP on defense pledge agreed upon at the last NATO summit — their new modernization commitments cannot offset the overall trend of continued decline in defense spending across Europe and NATO which, by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s own estimation, will shrink yet again from $942 billion in 2014 to $892 billion this year.

The greatest risk of threat escalation remains in the Baltic States, which are still largely indefensible in an all-out conflict with Russia, and would even find it difficult to deal with a hybrid scenario in which Putin stirred up a Russian-speaking ethic enclave to test NATO’s cohesion and capability to respond. Moscow’s support for the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine — into which it may launch another offensive — and bellicose rhetoric against the NATO alliance, intrusion into allied air space, and simulated practice bombing runs against Scandinavian and central European targets increased exponentially last year, combined with Russia’s not-at-all subtle nuclear blackmail against NATO, with threats to deploy additional nukes in Kaliningrad and the Western Military District.

Expecting the unexpected

It should also be clear by now that Vladimir Putin is determined to increase pressure regardless of economic sanctions and NATO countermoves because he senses the disunity among the allies, especially when it comes to Western Europeans coming to the aid of their new allies in the Baltic and Central European regions. The risk of a war in Europe is greater today than it was a year ago because the allies have not used the time since the Wales summit to send an unequivocal message of reinforcement and deterrence along NATO’s Russian flank. Putin is still confident the game of escalation and de-escalation is his to play.

It is ultimately academic to try to second-guess Putin’s ultimate goals, and debate whether he will be satisfied with the current territorial gains in Ukraine or move further. What we do know is that the power imbalance in the Nordic-Baltic-Central European region makes the threat of war real, and that without permanent U.S. and allied bases in countries along NATO’s frontier there can be no sufficient deterrence against a putative Russian move, whether hybrid or conventional.

To those among Europe’s political leadership and analytical community who continue to dismiss such an extreme scenario, consider how few believed it possible a year ago that Crimea would be invaded and absorbed into Russia, and Ukraine plunged into war. When it comes to Putin’s Russia today, expect the unexpected — or rather more of the same.


Andrew A. Michta is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).