Russia’s Round 2: A New Conflict in Eastern Europe?

A year of chaos in Ukraine has given Vladimir Putin plenty of practice in undermining the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin’s apparent vision of renewed Russian dominance is keeping NATO members on guard.

Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO forces and one-time presidential candidate, made a prediction about Russia last week based on a recent fact-finding visit to Ukraine: The enigmatic former Cold War power is planning yet another offensive there, likely between Orthodox Easter this Sunday and the symbolic V-E Day on May 8, which marks the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s formal surrender in World War II. Clark has been advocating for the U.S. to provide greater assistance to its Ukrainian allies, particularly lethal weapons, and believes the U.S. should be poised to respond to what he considers the inevitability of further Russian aggression.

His assertions come amid tense times in Eastern Europe, as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenkoattempts to guide his country through a fragile and spasmodic cease-fire, in place since February, and to some sort of future free of Russian interference. Yet Russia maintains control of Crimea, which it annexed last year, and observers question whether Kremlin-backed rebels will try to make another land grab to create a bridge connecting the strategically placed peninsula with mainland Russia. Or perhaps President Vladimir Putin’s Russia will maneuver toward a more precious goal: the weakening of NATO, starting with some of the alliance’s newest members that were all too recently within the sweep of Moscow’s sickle.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier to mark the Defender of the Fatheland Day on Feb. 23, 2015, in Moscow.

 

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“They are concerned. They’re really concerned,” William Taylor, acting executive vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, says of Baltic countries like Latvia and their NATO partners. Taylor was a former infantry officer in the Army who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. “Their militaries are beginning to think seriously about how they would respond to a kind of Ukraine-like situation.”

Russian troops remain at or across the country’s border with Ukraine, and Western officials are concerned over the failure so far of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to fully monitor the area. A special task force of the organization – which has been charged with monitoring both sides’ adherence to the cease-fire – includes civilians from Ukraine and Russia but has been unable to patrol some areas of the border, citing security concerns.

Russia’s effective use over the last year of “little green men” – or forces it can deny having deployed – has only heightened tensions among many operating in the region, serving as a reminder that all players in the conflict have grown more cunning. That specter also has left many in the area wondering: Who could be next?

“We should look very, very carefully because all sides are learning lessons,” says Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube, chief of the Latvian defense forces, who sat down with U.S. News for an extensive interview late last month. “A new type of hybrid warfare could emerge.”

Graphic quote by The National Defense Academy of Latvia “The Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind.”

Latvia and its NATO partners have had to be on guard against more nuanced, unconventional warfare techniques, Graube says, adding: “We do have to be very careful.”

Russian military and intelligence services already have employed so-called hybrid warfare in an attempt to destabilize Ukraine, ultimately creating the circumstances under which they could deploy troops there. The National Defence Academy of Latvia released a policy paper last year breaking down the various phases of Russia’s strategy. The plan’s early stages involve misleading an opposing government’s leadership and disseminating pro-Russian propaganda among the general population, before ultimately ramping up military presence – along with less conventional tactics like cyberattacks – ahead of an all-out deployment that includes special operations forces.

“The Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population,” the paper says.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill March 3, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

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The successful use of these tactics has forced NATO to reconsider its traditional Cold War-era strategies and find ways to make its cumbersome bureaucracy more nimble amid Putin’s vision of renewed Russian dominance. The president is motivated by “post-Soviet Union imperialistic sentiments” and yearns for the world balance that existed during his early days in the KGB, when two great alliances wrestled for dominance, Graube says.

Graube also has felt the effects of Putin’s propaganda machine, which the leader used so effectively in Ukraine. Russian news coverage of anti-Russia protests in Eastern Europe often uses camera tricks to make crowds appear smaller, for example, while neo-Nazi rallies get disproportionately more attention.

“For us, it was only a question of when, not if,” he says of the invasion of Ukraine. “And how.”

In the end, Russia was able to lean on plausible deniability while fomenting dissent behind the scenes in Ukraine, insisting that violent rabble-rousers were simply innocent civilians of Russian descent who had grown tired of the country’s increasingly pro-Western government.

In his remarks at the Atlantic Council last week, Clark said he had confirmed that deadly sharpshooters last year in Kiev’s iconic Maidan Square were highly trained Russian special operations Spetsnaz troops. These shadowy forces were then ordered to operate among the protesters, Clark said, inciting dissent and punishing those who fought against closer Ukrainian ties with Russia.

The strength of the NATO alliance, and its Article 5 pledge that all member countries defend each other, has so far deterred Russian advances in places like Latvia, which had to build a military from scratch once it emerged from Soviet control. New U.S.-led and highly publicized military exercises – including a 1,100-mile patrol of U.S. Humvees and Strykers through the Baltics, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany – have served as visual displays of military unity, albeit a nostalgic rehashing of World War II victory parades.

Graphic quote by Robert English: "Those who put their hopes in a Russian collapse, or social uprising against Putin, their moment has passed."

“There’s a heightened awareness, alertness, preparation,” says Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe. “That’s the one thing: The deterrence effect is much higher than it was maybe a year ago.”

The United States’ ongoing Operation Atlantic Resolve also aims to demonstrate the size and scope of a potential NATO, or even unilateral, response to further Russian aggression. And a NATO summit in Wales last September prioritized the need for quick-response forces – which have yet to take shape – and focused attention on countering so-called little green men tactics.

“If it were a situation, I believe all the right people would be involved in making the right decision in time,” Hodges says.

A year of chaos in Ukraine, however, continues to reverberate. Hodges says the fact that certain parts of the Ukraine-Russia border are not able to be monitored by the OSCE robs European countries of the surest confidence that all parties are complying with the Minsk II cease-fire agreement. The protocol was the second major attempt to create a cease-fire after a previous accord reached in September collapsed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 18, 2014.

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“We have access on the Ukrainian side, with some limitations,” OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier told Carnegie Europein March. “On the separatists’ side, we have a degree of access, but not as much as we would like.”

“Every now and then, we reach the border. But reaching the border in a sporadic manner is not good enough for us to have a firm sense of whether or not anything is passing through that border. And we are escorted by the separatists, which means we always have the sense of being guided and controlled,” he said.

And despite Western powers’ rhetoric, other serious and pressing issues remain. Graube says cyberattacks are a daily concern for countries like Latvia, which recently teamed up with the Michigan National Guard through the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program to develop a cyberdefense unit. Guardsmen with master’s degrees and doctorates, who spend their civilian careers protecting banks from electronic attacks, are now helping craft NATO’s latest tools for a new war frontier.

Still, for all its power and its track record of defeating the Soviet Union, NATO remains a very slow-moving organization, requiring the approval of all member countries before agreeing on a military action. The alliance always remains ready for a conventional fight, if uniformed soldiers move tanks and infantry battalions into sovereign territory.

But Putin may redeploy the same hybrid tactics he used to seize Crimea to, for example, march on the town of Mariupol. Annexation there would create the land bridge he would need to connect the Crimean peninsula and its navy ports with continental Russia.

That kind of striking move might be too much for European powers, who have so far exerted sanctions against Russia only as a last resort, fearing the rising cost of Russian energy they desperately need.

“I would like to believe those sanctions, plus the low price of oil, has made Mr. Putin more cautious,” Taylor says. “But we have to prepare for him being not so cautious.”

If anything, Putin’s Russia and its crumbling economy have proved they can – at least so far – stave off all-out ruin. Some also believe NATO’s efforts are misdirected and only make the alliance look cynical.

Perhaps, then, the Russian president has already achieved his goal by smearing the West’s Cold War record.

“Those who put their hopes in a Russian collapse, or social uprising against Putin, their moment has passed,” says Robert English, a former Department of Defense analyst who now specializes in Russia policy at the University of Southern California. “Russia weathered that crisis.”