Provoking or Tempting the Bear

by Steve Saideman

I wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail where I advocate Canada take a significant role in NATO’s new “persistent presence” mission on the Eastern Front (the Baltics plus Poland).  I didn’t spend much time arguing for the NATO mission itself, as it is a done deal to be announced at the Warsaw Summit in July.  Instead, I argued for Canada’s participation, which is really the decision up for grabs this week.

Still, folks in the first few comments were upset that I am a war mongerer.  Ooops.  More importantly, some took issue with my quick mention of how this effort will affect Russia–that Putin might be provoked.  So, here’s a bit more of an explanation/argument.

Yes, Russia has made a series of statements about how offputting it would be for NATO to put troops in the Baltics, that this violates the old NATO Russia Founding Acto, and that it is a waste of resources that should be dedicated towards the common enemy of ISIS.  All this is hogwash, of course.  The NATO Russia Founding Act is dead, dead, dead.  If Russia is sincere in its assertion about the primacy of the ISIS threat, then it would drop its support for Assad or at least stop spending most of its military effort against Assad’s non-ISIS adversaries.

It comes down to this: what is more likely to lead to an unfortunate Russian move that might spiral out of control?  The presence of NATO troops in the Baltics or their absence?  Given that Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he is an opportunist, I think the first move is to deny him opportunities.  A Baltic country with no NATO troops is a temptation–a quick Russian move would then force NATO countries into a difficult position: act second by reinforcing that country through Russia’s anti-access/area denial defences (anti-air and anti-ship missiles already set up in Kaliningrad) or fail to act, and thus greatly undermining the essence of NATO–that an attack upon one is equal to attack upon all.  Given Putin’s statements about NATO, this is an objective that he does seek, and it would give some solace to those in Russia who are upset that they lost the Cold War.

Thus, I find the absence of NATO troops to be more provocative, more tempting than their presence.  As Russia has escalated its threatening behavior over the past couple of years, including a simulation of attacking the Swedish parliament while it was in session, many more overflights over NATO countries, near misses with ships and planes, we have to return to the old playbook: creating tripwires in the East to provide credible guarantees to the allies and deterring Russia.

With NATO troops in the East, the onus shifts from NATO having to respond to a Russian attack to the Russians having to consider what their move would mean–a process that could get out of control.  As I argue in my piece, prevention is cheaper than war, so let’s deploy some military units to make sure that war does not happen, eh?

 

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