Russia Can't Beat NATO--But Putin May Try
Can Russia defeat NATO? The answer is “no.” Vladimir Putin’s armies cannot prevail in a direct contest with the NATO alliance.
This, however, is the wrong question. The West’s more pressing concern should be whether Putin, for his own reasons, will force Russia’s military into a clash with NATO regardless of the consequences. The Russian president is a neo-Soviet nostalgist who not only craves revenge for the collapse of the USSR, but who still harbors old-school Kremlin fantasies about the weakness of the decadent West. If Putin’s adventure in Ukraine turns into an attempt to test NATO, his miscalculation will result in global disaster, and so it is imperative that U.S. and Western policy now should be to stop the Russians right where they are and to end Putin’s reckless gambling streak.
To do this, we have to start by dismissing our own unfounded worries about NATO’s capabilities. On the ground, NATO no longer faces anything like the dangerous conventional imbalance that loomed over Europe during the Cold War. Alarmists admit that while the Russians aren’t ten feet tall, they might be clocking in at eight-and-a-half, and they cite as evidence the amount of military hardware still sitting around in Russia, along with Putin’s undeniably large investment in his military budget.
But this misses some important realities, including the condition and age of that equipment, the frayed infrastructure of Russia’s military commands, and the poor quality of Russian conscripts. The Russian military is a large regional force, and it can kill a lot of people. That doesn’t mean it can sustain a war with a vastly more populous and wealthier coalition of some three dozen nations (or more, if others join the fight).
Moreover, NATO enjoys a qualitative edge that would spell disaster for Russian forces in short order, especially in the air. The Vermont Air National Guard (which for years has intercepted Soviet and Russian aircraft on the U.S. East Coast) is more ready to go to war than the Russian Air Force. Without control of the skies, Russian ground forces stand no chance after whatever initial blitzkrieg might get them into NATO territory, and their commanders know it. World War III will not be like doing stunts at an air show, and taking out NATO’s aircraft will surely not be like blowing up unsuspecting commercial airliners.
Finally, NATO has something the Russians sorely lack: experience. Wisely or not, the U.S. and its allies have been at war in the Middle East and Central Asia for nearly 15 years, and NATO’s armies are salted throughout with men and women who know how to fight, supply, communicate, and remain cohesive in the face of actual combat. Russia’s military, once sharpened by World War II survivors and later by the veterans of the brutal attempt to subdue Afghanistan, now boasts men whose combat experience mostly consists of blowing up apartment blocks in Chechnya and shooting at outgunned conscripts in Ukraine.
This is not to say that the Russians won’t achieve their initial goals with speed and violence. A sudden dash into the Baltics or across the Polish border might succeed at the operational level for several days. But NATO is not Ukraine: Russian forces will find themselves not among shell-shocked, conflicted, and impoverished people in the post-Soviet ruins of Donetsk, but in modern towns and cities full of people who hate them and whose skies and streets will rapidly be filled with the kind of military response the Ukrainians can only dream about.
This is not a new problem for the Kremlin. Many years ago, a former KGB official said to me that he’d been assured by Soviet military leaders that if the USSR had wanted to attack during the Cold War, Warsaw Pact forces could have cut through West Germany in a week. I agreed. “You could have gotten in,” I said. “How were you planning on getting out?” An uneasy silence followed: my interlocutor’s clear assumption was that by Day Seven, NATO would have surrendered already, and there was no real need to think about Day Eight.
Putin suffers from the same kind of thinking, but Russia’s generals, who are neither fools nor madmen, almost certainly understand that a sustained war with NATO is an unwinnable proposition. Both Putin and his generals, however, are counting on a political, not military, victory. Putin’s bluster and the Russian military’s continued probes and feints into NATO territory are all predicated on the Soviet-era belief that NATO is essentially a charade, a phony alliance made of spun glass: pretty to look at, but so delicate it will shatter at even the smallest blow. Should Putin attack, it will not be to defend the “rights of Russian-speakers” or some other fantasy, but rather from the delusion that one sharp military strike will smash NATO as a political entity once and for all.
President Obama and his team have not helped to dissuade Putin from believing he has the upper hand. The White House is either unable or unwilling to rally NATO, and refuses to treat Russia’s invasion and repeated provocations like the challenges to world peace that they are. Unfortunately, what the White House sees as calm and patience, Putin sees as weakness and fear.
This is especially dangerous because Putin does not seem to grasp that NATO’s members, once invaded, will fight according to their training and their experience, and not by a snap poll of people in New York or Nebraska. They will fight with very real and very modern Western weapons, rather than with hashtags and selfies from chipper spokespeople back at the State Department. And in the end, if Putin orders his forces West, the Russians will lose, and lose badly.
At that point, Putin will only have two options: he can sue for peace (something he seems constitutionally incapable of doing) or he can resort to nuclear weapons. Russian military planning already includes a bizarre concept called “nuclear de-escalation,” in which the use of tactical nuclear arms shocks the enemy – meaning NATO – into letting Russia off the hook for whatever mad scheme got them into a jam in the first place. The idea that nuclear arms “de-escalate” anything makes no sense unless except to those molded by Soviet indoctrination: if you believe the West is inherently weak and decadent, then you believe the use of even one nuclear bomb will bring NATO to its knees and expose the U.S. and its allies as cowards. The reality, of course, is that nuclear use will almost certainly escalate, and no matter how it ends, Putin, his regime, and Russia as he knows it today will all be gone.
So what is to be done? The U.S. and NATO should take three steps immediately. First, NATO conventional forces should be bolstered by U.S. forces in permanent positions closer to Ukraine, a proposal NATO commander Philip Breedlove raised last spring. If Putin means to test NATO, he should have to reckon on a confrontation with actual U.S. forces right at the start. Second, we can provide defensive arms to Ukraine. So far, Putin’s invasion has been essentially cost-free, and if he intends to press on, it should be at a far greater cost than he’s paying.
Third, and just as important, we can change our tone and end all our pointless talk about “strategic patience” and “pivots.” We must make clear, as we did for a half century, that the peace of Europe is a core interest of the United States. The safety of Europe is indivisible from our own safety, and it is an absolute priority that is not negotiable in Geneva, Minsk, or anywhere else.
Putin, the insular KGB alumnus that he is, does not understand America or NATO (he seems only barely to understand the 21st century, except when it comes to modern methods of squirrelling away his own money). He does not realize that NATO’s response will be reflexive and swift, and executed by a standing alliance that has prepared for a Russian attack for nearly 70 years. He also believes that President Obama is the lamest of lame ducks. There is still time to prove him and the rest of the militarists in the Kremlin wrong, and to avert a disaster – if we have the will to do so.