The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Estonian troops during a NATO exercise in Poland in 2013. NATO photo/SSgt Ian Houlding GBR Army

Putin Believes He Can Win a War with NATO, Piontkovsky Says

Staunton, August 8 – “No state or regime goes to war firmly convinced that it will lose it,” Andrey Piontkovsky says, and Vladimir Putin is no exception: if he goes to war with NATO and even if he escalates that conflict by using nuclear weapons, he will be acting on the basis of a belief that he can win it.

That belief, the Russian commentator says, is based on Putin’s assumption that the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which prevented a major war between Russia and the West has broken down because of divisions within the West about how to respond to Russian use of a limited nuclear strike.

Piontkovsky does not provide direct evidence for this, but his argument is both suggestive and disturbing because if he has read Putin correctly, the world is in a far more dangerous situation than most have thought and the risks to Russia’s neighbors, the West and Russia itself are far greater.

According to the commentator, “even the most modest practical realization of [Putin’s] idea of ‘assembling the Russian lands’ requires changes of state borders at least of two NATO member countries, Latvia and Estonia.” Because of the Western alliance’s Article 5 in which an attack on one is an attack on all, that would seem impossible given MAD.

But as many analysts have suggested before, “the MAD doctrine considered only a single most destructive scenario of a military conflict between nuclear powers, total war.” But there are other scenarios, including the limited use of nuclear weapons by one side under conditions when the other side does not respond lest that lead to “mutual suicide.”

It is “theoretically clear,” Piontkovsky argues, “that in a more volatile geopolitical situation, a nuclear power focused on changing the existing status quo, enjoying the advantage of political will and indifferent to the values of human lives (its own and others), and affected by a certain adventurism, could achieve serious foreign policy results by the threat of the application or the limited application of nuclear weapons.”

Clearly, he continues, Putin does not seek “the destruction of the hated United States,” a goal that he could achieve “only at the price of mutual suicide.” Instead, his goals are “significantly more modest: the maximum extension of the Russian World, the destruction of NATO, and the discrediting and humiliation of the US as the guarantor of the security of the West.”

To put it in simplest terms, Piontkovsky continues, Putin’s actions would be “revenge for the defeat of the USSR in the third (cold) world war just as the second world war was for Germany an attempt at revenge for defeat in the first.”

If the Russian speakers of Narva in Estonia were to conduct a referendum and Moscow sent in its forces overtly or covertly, how might NATO react? Piontkovsky asks. If NATO did not respond, “that would mean the end of NATO and the end of the US as a world power and the complete political dominance of Putin’s Russia not only in the area of the Russian World but in the entire European continent.”

But whether it would respond “is hardly obvious,” he suggests. Despite Article 5, many NATO countries would be reluctant to respond lest they trigger a nuclear war. “Putin knows that they know that if they come to the assistance of Estonia, then Putin can respond with a very limited nuclear strike and destroy for example two European capitals. Not London and not Paris, of course.”

Under those circumstances, Putin clearly assumes, many in the US would oppose responding. “All progressive and even all reactionary American society” would shout “’We do not want to die for f****** Narva, Mr. President!’” And 70 percent of Germans would insist on neutrality.

Putin therefore is “convinced that he can outplay [Western countries and leaders] in potential military conflicts which will arise on the path to the realization of the great idea of the Russian World despite the fact that Russia” is much weaker in conventional arms than NATO and does not have an advantage over the US in nuclear ones.

“By the spirit we will take them,” Putin calculates in Piontkovsky’s argument. “By the spirit and by boldness.”

Thus, Putin’s plans are “paradoxically adventurist but have chances for success,” all the more so because “in the case of failure, Putin always retains” the option to respond in ways that the MAD doctrine suggests and destroy the world along with Russia. That will induce “a paralyzing influence on his ‘partners.’”

Indeed, Piontkovsky says, there is evidence that it already has. It was no accident that the first response of US President Obama and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen to the Ukrainian crisis were “declarations that military intervention by the US and NATO were categorically excluded since Ukraine is not a member” of the Western alliance.