Fighting Fire with Water: Counter Putin’s Ambiguity with Clarity

I was at a very interesting roundtable at the Lithuanian Embassy in Ottawa a couple of days ago.  I cannot say what others had to say due to Chatham House Rule, although a former CF general had some interesting things to say that I will need to think about.  But what I can discuss is what I said and what the conversation provoked me to think about more.

One of the themes of the conversation was that Putin uses ambiguity to his advantage.  Who owns those little green men who show up?  He only claims credit for sham referenda after the fact.  He has stretched plausible deniability to the breaking point or perhaps not, as Europeans of various stripes still consider Ukraine in ways that buy some of Putin’s spin.

So, I wondered is the best way to respond to ambiguity is with more ambiguity or with clarity?  My bet is on clarity, and that is what drove my comments/recommendations.

How best to make the situation less opaque?  How to make it easier for outsiders (and insiders) to understand and assess?

  1. Make the condition of the Russian-speakers in the Baltics better.  Putin has claimed the plight of Russians in the near abroad as a justification for Russian aggression.  While he will always be able to say that Russian speakers are oppressed, the more obviously false this is, the better.  Citizenship for Russian speakers varies among the Baltics.  My recommendation in Brussels two weeks ago and since is for the European Union to dump a heap of cash on the areas where Russian speakers live in the Baltics to improve the local economies.  It would also make sense to run an info ops campaign showing the Russians of the Baltics what life looks like in Moscow, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (not to mention Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, etc).
  2. The governments of the Baltic Republics should make it abundantly clear that any effort to subvert or salami slice will be met aggressively.  My recommendation, which is plenty provocative, is that the rules of engagement for the Estonian, Latvia, and Lithuanian militaries should be to grant the low ranking officers on the ground with the authority to shoot at “little green men” if their communications to their headquarters are disrupted.  Yes, shoot first, and ask questions later.  Actually, that is the first step, and the second step is to let everyone (Putin/Russia, NATO) know that they have delegated this authority.  This would mean that any Russian effort here would immediately spiral.  This is good, yes, good, because Putin is an opportunist and, as far as we can tell, not suicidal.  The threat to use nuclear weapons is always incredible, but the threat to start something that might spiral out of control is not.  Any Russian attack (cyber, unconventional, whatever) will lead to discussions at the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s decision making body) that may take days, and Putin wants to get inside that decision loop, acting faster than NATO and then presenting with faits accompli.  Delegating authority to soldiers on the ground AND letting everyone know that would make those faits accompli have an automaticity to them–of escalation.
  3. The Baltics should try to entice the US to base troops on a more than just continuous basis.  Give the US discounts on property, subsidize exercises or even the movement of stuff to be based on their territory.  Anything they can do to make it easier for the Americans to base permamently is a good thing.  Continuous exercising, the NATO fudging, is not clear, and we need more clarity.  Ambiguity in this might be good for getting consensus at the NAC, but the US can do this on its own.  It might hurt NATO solidarity a smidge, but Putin acting in the Baltics would do far more damage.

I did suggest one other thing–that the more pressure NATO faces, the more the stakes become about NATO, the more NATO will respond.  NATO’s history is one of reluctance until pushed and then unity: Bosnia 1995, Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan for years (even those who left early returned in another capacity).  So, the more Putin makes NATO his target, the more NATO will show up and unite.

by Steve Saideman

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