Ed Walker is scared. Why? He writes
I believe Kremlin decision-makers when they tell us that they consider NATO’s eastern flank deployments, and NATO’s growing military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland, are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. (What matters here is not whether those beliefs are warranted, or what Russia did to provoke NATO’s deployments, but what Kremlin decision-makers believe.) I am likewise convinced that the Kremlin believes that its deteriorating security environment is the result of Western, particularly American, actions that are directed at establishing hegemony over Eurasia and at weakening, humiliating, and even destroying Russia.
Finally, it is not just the Russian elite that believes this. The Russian public does as well, which suggests that a change in leadership – which is in any case unlikely – would probably not produce much change in Russia’s strategic culture.
In light of these beliefs, Ed writes
I think the crisis in Russian-Western relations is very dangerous. While a direct NATO-Russia clash is unlikely, it is possible, and the consequences would be awful.
Writing from Tartu, I obviously have a bias here. But I do take issue with some of Ed’s thinking. Ed leaves out that the rupture between Russia and the west that precipitated the sanctions regime is directly related to the unique set of events that took place in Ukraine a short while ago. The Ukrainian president — a Putin ally — was chased out of office by revolution. This was an extraordinary event. and it called for an extraordinary response from Mr. Putin. Why? Because it was a direct slap in the face of Mr. Putin himself. And Putin, who survives politically as a man who will not be slapped without a response, had to respond or appear weak.
Indeed, the key to understanding what is going on is that it has nothing to do with long term fears of NATO. It has everything to do with the fact that Mr. Putin and his cronies are riding a tiger. They must stay in power or lose what they gain from power. That was done in an earlier time by delivering prosperity (made possible by high oil prices). Providing prosperity has not been possible for a while and it is not possible now. Nor is it likely to become suddenly possible in the near term. When hopes of ongoing prosperity began to fade, Putin et al fell back on propaganda about Russian nationalism and exceptionalism to justify staying in power and hoped that they have made it unlikely that any credible political alternative could emerge.
Then the Ukraine thing blew up in their faces. They had to react, and they had to make their reaction look credible — that it was consistent with a coherent strategy. I emphasize that they had to make the intervention seem as if it were part of a bigger strategy or appear to have been caught off guard. But was it? I don’t think so. I think that they were caught off guard.
If I am right — and I believe that I am — the saber rattling in Moscow is at least in part, a ruse. Just enough to justify Putin’s claims of “la patrie en danger” but not too much to trigger a suicidal military confrontation. Consider as well that the events in Ukraine have demonstrated that Mr. Putin may be a bit muddle headed but that he is not a lunatic. He may have caused the insurgency in the east and kept it going, but he did not openly invade. That would have been lunacy and he didn’t do it. And as his strategic options narrowed, Putin has toned down the conflict. While things are far from normal, they are also not exploding into broader fighting, even though one could argue that key military objectives were not achieved.
Based on the above, my sense is that the risk of nuclear war has not ramped up as much as some analysts would argue. For sure, the the intensity of the game has changed. But it is essentially the same game that Putin et al have been playing for some time. That game is not based on historic fears of encirclement or grandiose visions of expansion. It is instead, political theater.
At the same time, I do agree with Ed on one point. Unless something dramatic happens in Russia , the current status quo is likely to remain for some time. We should accept it as we do bad weather. Giving in to Russia a little at a time is not likely to solve anything. Nor is trying to pursue some sort of grand deal. Why not? Because Putin et al need a low level conflict with the west to hold onto the reins of power. For the west, standing up to Russia is the only strategic option left. So let’s just do it and stop moaning about how scary Russian decision makers are. That is what they want us to believe.