The Power Vertical: Beyond Containment

February 12, 2016
Containing Russia means more than bolstering Europe's defenses.

You’ve gotta love it when a Kremlin official gets caught telling the truth.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova this week called a NATO plan to station air, naval, and ground forces in six Eastern European countries — Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — part of a strategy to “contain” Russia.

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it is. And it wouldn’t be happening if Russia hadn’t annexed Crimea, started a war in the Donbas, and persistently menaced the Baltic states.

In addition to the NATO plan, the United States has quadrupled its budgetfor European defense to $3.4 billion and plans to send a brigade-sized force of 3,000 soldiers to the continent, including to the Baltic states.

Additionally, Great Britain will deploy five warships to the North Atlantic, the North Sea, the Baltics, and the Mediterranean.

“This is not a thunderstorm that’s going to blow over,” Reuters quoted an unidentified senior NATO official as saying about the West’s standoff with Russia. “This is climate change, and we have to prepare for the long haul.”

The planned deployments represent a big step toward addressing vulnerabilities on the alliance’s Eastern flank, like the threat of Moscow sending “little green men” to the Baltics to start a hybrid war.

The commander of the U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, has also highlighted the exposure of the Suwalki Gap, a roughly 100-kilometer stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border wedged between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region.

“Capture by hostile forces of Suwalki or bordering Lithuanian territory would cut off the three Baltic states from other NATO countries,” Agina Grigas, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book Beyond Crimes: The New Russian Empire, wrote recently. “Analysts have likened Suwalki to the Cold War era’s Fulda Gap in Germany where NATO planned and prepared for hypothetical Soviet attacks.”

Weaponizing Globalization

But while NATO’s moves this week should create a credible deterrent to a kinetic threat from Russia — a military attack, hybrid or otherwise — on one of its members, Moscow’s broader challenge to the West is nonkinetic.

It’s essentially a civilizational challenge to the Western liberal order.

“Russia is not an ‘existential enemy,’ but it is an antagonist, and its self-declared interests in Europe diverge from those of the vast majority of European states,” veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr of Chatham Housewrote in a recent report.

Sherr noted that “two normative systems” have emerged on the Eurasian land mass, “the first based on rights and rules, the second on connections, clientelism, and the subordination of law to power.”

Vladimir Putin’s regime, he added, “is applying its tools of influence to circumvent the European normative system and undermine it.”

And toward this end, the Kremlin has taken advantage of Russia’s integration into the global economy to undermine the West’s institutions.

In effect, it has weaponized globalization.

The Kremlin has weaponized international finance and business to establish a pro-Moscow lobby abroad.

Likewise, Moscow has weaponized corruption to capture Western elites and make them dependent on Moscow.

By utilizing the “corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia into the rest of the former Soviet space — and oozed beyond it” — Vladimir Putin’s regime has extended its “shadow influence beyond Russia’s borders and developed a natural, ‘captured’ constituency,” James Greene wrote in a 2012 report for Chatham House.

The Kremlin has weaponized organized crime to carry out unsavory tasks with plausible deniability for the Kremlin and to provide funds for black ops.

Putin’s Russia is “not so much a mafia state as a nationalized mafia,” Russian organized crime expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and co-host of The Power Vertical Podcast, said in a recent lecture at the Hudson Institute.

Moscow has weaponized the Internet by unleashing an army of trolls to poison discourse in Western media and with a series of brazen cyberattacks on Western targets.

In an effort to undermine unity in the European Union, it has weaponized electoral politics by supporting and financing extremist parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.

And most famously, it has weaponized information in an effort to confuse, distract, and sow doubt among Western news consumers.

It is a comprehensive threat that requires a comprehensive response — not just from NATO but from Western governments and civil societies as a whole.

“The EU must shoulder as much responsibility for European security as NATO. The defenses needed against potential ‘hybrid’ threats are societal, economic, and administrative, as well as military,” Sherr wrote.

“Unless nondefense arms of government (judicial, financial, regulatory) understand the defense and security implications of their responsibilities, they will not be fit for purpose. A free media should not be defenseless in the face of trolling, state-sponsored manipulation and cyberattack. The corporate and financial sectors need reminding that commercial interests are not always the same as national interests.”