Putin and Lavrov and the Russian leadership routinely rant about Nato and the threat it poses to Russia. They demand that Ukraine pledge not to join Nato as a condition for a resolution of the Russian invasion of the country. Sadly, numerous “realists” in the West just as routinely repeat and rationalize the Russian fears, and blame the current parlous state of Russo-Western relations on the post-1991 eastward expansion of Nato. (Yeah. I’m looking at you Stephen Walt and Ian Bremmer.)
This raises the question: Are the Russians and their Western apologists serious? If so, it calls into question their mental state.
The idea that Nato qua Nato poses a threat to invade Russia is risible. Hell, Nato’s ability to defend its eastern marches is quite uncertain.
Even if one ignores the fact that Nato has no intent to engage in a land war against Russia, on the basis of military capability Russia would have nothing to fear from Nato even if it was hard on Russia’s borders. Virtually all of Nato’s ground combat power is embodied in American units, which have almost totally withdrawn from Europe to CONUS. They pose no threat to Russia from Fort Hood or Fort Stewart or Fort Riley or Fort Bliss, and even if they moved into Poland-and hell, into Ukraine-they would not threaten Russia. Their numbers are insufficient, and the logistic obstacles of attacking Russia are beyond daunting.
As for the rest of Nato, it as become a mockery of a military alliance. Only France spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. The Germans have stinted on defense: its military expenditures are closer to 1 percent of GDP than the Nato “standard” (honored more in the breach than the promise) of 2 percent. They have sold off a large portion of their modern armor. Recent reports state that a large fraction of its aircraft are inoperable. A particularly shocking story states that a supposedly elite unit attached to Nato’s rapid reaction force had to train with broomsticks at a recent exercise, due to the lack of machine guns. As for the Dutch, Belgians, and other assorted Lilliputians, they couldn’t threaten anybody.
Out of area operations are unthinkable. Even modest efforts in Libya (carried out almost entirely by airpower) and Africa (e.g., Mali) were dependent on US airlift, refueling, and reconnaissance assets.
European navies are similarly shrunken and incapable of projecting power.
Yes, the US has the capability of inflicting huge damage on Russia, but other Nato countries enhance that capability not by one whit. And virtually all of that capability is based in the United States proper.
So why are the Russians always on about Nato? Do Putin and the military realize that the alliance presents no danger, but just hype the threat because it gulls the domestic hoi polloi and credulous Westerners? Or are they so paranoid that they see threats where none exist?
I think it may well be some of both, but more of the former. By claiming Nato is a military threat, Russia gets to play the victim, an act which many at home and abroad fall for, and which provides a cover for the real reasons for Russia’s hostility. Putin et al fear the West, but more because they know that Russia cannot compete against it economically, politically, and culturally. They want to exploit, in a colonialist way, the ex-Soviet space. Ukraine was a classic example. Corrupt ties between Russia and Ukraine enriched Russian and Ukrainian thugs alike. Maidan threatened all that.
Note that what precipitated the crisis with Russia was not a Ukrainian move towards Nato-that was not on the table, and the very idea did not garner majority support in the country last year. Rather, it was Ukraine’s move towards greater economic integration with Europe that sparked Putin’s ferocious reaction. In addition to threatening the loss of markets for Russia’s non-competitive products, greater integration with Europe would have helped nudge the country down the path towards better governance and less corruption. This threatened the interests of Russia’s kleptocracy (over which Putin reigns) as as much as it did Ukraine’s. To that must be added an indirect threat that the example of an ex-Sovok republic moving towards political and economic modernity would pose to a retrograde Russia.
At least that’s what I think is the most likely explanation for Russia’s unrelenting drumbeat against Nato. But I cannot rule out rampant paranoia. The Nemtsov murder also betrays considerable paranoia, as the opposition poses no real political threat to Putin.
What I can rule out metaphysically is that Nato is an actual military threat to Russia. To quote Patton, European forces in Nato couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag even if attacked, let alone pose an offensive threat to a vast continental nation like Russia. And the Americans are very, very far away. Which means that Russian ranting about Nato is either camouflage for their well-grounded insecurity about their ability to compete economically, socially, and politically with the West, or the product of colossal paranoia, or both.
Regardless, it means that the only way that Russia can conceive of co-existing with the West is along the lines of the Yalta model, with the only question being where the lines are drawn. The sooner the West recognizes this, and moves beyond its romantic notion of a “special”, or even non-adversarial, relationship with Russia, the better. But the persistence of these romantic ideas even in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the threat of more in the Baltics and elsewhere suggests that this won’t happen soon enough.