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Putin’s Lebensraum: NATO Revival?

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Program Director, Political Science at American Public University

In March 2014, Putin and Russia completed the annexation of Crimea without military conflict. Putin claimed ethnic Russian people were being threatened by people within Ukraine, hence, they needed protection. He also claimed that the legitimate government in Kiev was illegally overthrown, which was another indication of problems for the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. (However, with the national elections conducted May 25 being recognized as legitimate by Putin, this argument is no longer valid.)

Many prominent people observing this bold action, including Hillary Clinton, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, and Polish Novelist Jaroslaw Szulski, made an analogy to Hitler and Nazi Germany seizing German-populated neighboring countries in Europe prior to World War II. Adolf Hitler called this land grab “Lebensraum” (i.e., “living space”).

Despite claiming otherwise many times, Putin has had 40,000 Russian troops encamped along the Russian-Ukrainian border. The primary factor keeping Putin from launching another land-grab in eastern Ukraine are the economic sanctions being imposed on selected Russians and Russian companies and the threat of further economic sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy, to include banking, military, and energy (i.e., oil and gas). If Europe were to cut off economic ties with these sectors of the Russian economy, it would cause its collapse in short order.

What is not worrying Putin is what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would do if Russia annexed parts of eastern Ukraine. After all, NATO did little during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, partly because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. When Russian military analysts look at NATO, they likely perceive a military alliance on the decline.

The last time NATO was involved in a conflict was in 2011 in Libya. On March 19, 2011, a multi-nation military coalition conducted an intervention in Libya to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, passed in response to the ongoing Libyan Civil War. The intervention included firing more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles, airstrikes against Libyan Army targets, enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, and a naval blockade along its coast. NATO began taking over the military operations March 24, 2011, known as Operation Unified Protector and assumed total control a week later. Fighting in Libya ended in late October 2011 with the death of Colonel/President-for-Life Muammar Gaddafi on October 20. NATO ceased military operations on October 31, 2011, after flying 26,500 combat sorties over Libya and spending more than $1 billion on the operation.

While the NATO operation has been widely regarded as a military success following the global financial crisis, it nevertheless highlighted significant European shortcomings, including insufficient ammunition, air-refueling capability, and aerial surveillance. While this alone does not create an impotent alliance, the declining spending by European countries on their military forces surely indicates that NATO is slowly becoming so.

The 26 European nations of NATO currently account for only around 20 percent of NATO military expenditures, while the United States alone accounts for more than 70 percent. As a requisite to be a member nation of NATO, a country must spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military forces. However, in Europe only Britain, Greece, and Estonia spend more than 2 percent on their military forces. (The U.S. and Russia each spend more than 4 percent of their GDP on their respective armed forces, according to NATO data.) One reason for this is that European defense budgets are under significant pressure as a result of the global recession that began in 2008. Since 2010, European nations have cut their military forces by around 160,000 troops. Putin and his advisors are very aware of all of this. When Syrian President Assad provoked a civil war in Syria, neither the U.S. nor NATO stepped in to support the rebels or the Syrian civilian population. Given all of this information, it is not surprising that Putin is being more aggressive.

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen is very concerned about Putin and what he might do in eastern Ukraine. Rasmussen views this as a turning point in European history, much like the fall of the Berlin Wall. He wants NATO to rearm itself in preparation for the worst case scenario regarding Russia.

However, the European nations of NATO do not perceive a military threat by Russia to any NATO nation. The priority for most European nations is to recover and stabilize their economies. As well, most European nations have economic and energy ties with Russia that would be difficult to replace. Europe is not ready to conduct economic warfare with Russia nor is it ready to defend Ukraine from an invasion by Russian military forces.

There are some inevitable consequences to Putin’s recent actions regarding Ukraine. First, Putin has isolated himself and Russia from the rest of the developed world powers (e.g., the G-8 is now the G-7).

Second, in the long run, this will drive what remains of Ukraine into NATO; something that Russia has long objected to. However, after this incident, it is unlikely that Ukraine will submit to Russia’s will any longer. The same applies to NATO member states that have consistently lobbied for permanent NATO military bases in their countries (e.g., Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania). NATO will now reconsider these requests in light of Putin’s military actions against Ukraine.

Third, at some point, NATO will recognize Putin’s Russia as a long-term threat and begin to reverse its military decline. This is likely to happen once the European economies have stabilized and Europe is no longer dependent on Russian gas and oil. Fortunately, the United States will soon be able to export gas and oil again and it appears Europe will likely be the primary energy customer going forward.

The bottom line regarding Putin’s dream of recreating a Russian Empire to some degree is that he will have instead: driven Ukraine into NATO; revitalized NATO as a military alliance; and, lost many lucrative economic and energy contracts Russia had with Europe.

All of this is the price for at least annexing Crimea. Given that the Black Sea Fleet had a signed contract to remain in Crimea for decades into the future; it just does not seem worth it.

About the Author
Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Public University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a Ph.D. from Auburn University in Public Policy.

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