WASHINGTON — Granted, the crisis in Ukraine is worrisome, Vladimir Putin’s behavior is unpredictable, and the 30,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border arouse a sense of dread and danger unfelt since the Cold War. That said, the alarmism is getting out of hand. Legitimate concerns are spiraling into war chants and trembling, a weird mix of paranoia and nostalgia, needlessly inflating tensions and severely distorting the true picture.
A bizarre example of this is a March 26 New York Times story headlined "Military Cuts Render NATO Less Formidable as Deterrent to Russia." The normally seasoned reporters, Helene Cooper and Steven Erlanger, note that the United States "has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago." For instance, during "the height of the Cold War" (which was actually three decades ago, but let that pass), we had about 400,000 combat-ready forces defending Western Europe — whereas now we have about 67,000. In terms of manpower, weapons and other military equipment, they write, "the American military presence" in Europe is "85 percent smaller than it was in 1989."
Yet the article contains not one word about the decline of Russia’s "military presence" in Europe since that time. It only takes one word to sum up that topic: disappeared. The once-mighty Warsaw Pact — the Russian-led alliance that faced NATO troops along the East-West German border — is no more. And its erstwhile frontline nations — East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland — have been absorbed into the West, indeed into NATO. This is hardly an esoteric fact, yet its omission makes the Times’ trend lines seem much scarier than they really are.
Nor, even with its own borders, is the Russian army the formidable force it once. According to data gathered by GlobalSecurity.org, Russian troop levels have declined since 1990 from 1.5 million to 321,000. Over the same period, tank divisions have been slashed from 46 to five, artillery divisions from 19 to five, motorized rifle divisions from 142 to 19, and so it goes across the ranks.
In short, the United States "drastically cut back its European forces" because there’s no longer a threat to justify those forces. Nor does Putin’s seizure of Crimea augur a resumption of that threat — not to any degree that warrants anything like a restoration of NATO circa ‘89.
Putin’s moves have rattled the nerves of the newest, most eastern NATO members, especially Poland and the Baltic nations. They once belonged to the Warsaw Pact; their adult populations remember Russian occupation; and, lacking the long-standing ties that bind the alliance’s western members, they naturally wonder whether we’d really honor the treaty’s Article 5 commitments (i.e., an attack on one is an attack on all). President Obama has tried to allay these fears by sending more troops and advanced fighter jets to those nations. His speech in Brussels — one of his more rousing — was meant to signal a commitment as well.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO. President George W. Bush thought about putting Ukraine on a fast track for inclusion in 2008, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, but pulled back for good reasons. First, polls revealed that few Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Second, high-level discussions revealed that few allies were keen on going to war to defend Ukraine. Third, Bush’s father and President Clinton had assured Russian leaders that NATO’s eastward expansion wouldn’t extend right up against the motherland’s borders, and even George W. recognized the wisdom of that restraint.
Still, a Russian invasion of Ukraine — or an incursion into the southern and eastern parts of the country, where pro-Russia sentiment can easily be mustered — would rouse enormous fear and tension across Europe — not just for the fate of Ukraine, but for what Putin might do next. This is the real reason for the West’s countermoves (the sanctions, the deployments, the speeches, the meetings): not to regain Crimea (it’s gone, and everyone knows it), but to deter Putin from going further. Putin has dreams of restoring Great Russia (he once, famously, lamented the Soviet Union’s breakup as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century"), but his actions are those of an opportunistic tactician. He will go as far as he can, but — so far — no farther. Crimea was easy: He already had troops there, as well as the headquarters for a large naval fleet. Most Russians regarded the peninsula as theirs already. He exploited the turmoil in Kiev to grab it for good. The task now, as Obama and other Western leaders see it, is to convince Putin that grabbing more land will mean real trouble.
Here’s where the sorts of numbers cited in the Times article have no meaning, one way or the other. According to Western officers and several private specialists, the forces gathered in Russia’s Western Military District are capable of invading Ukraine’s easternmost cities, like Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk. They would probably start off by sending in special forces to recruit local allies, then mount a wave of cyber-attacks to degrade or spoof the Ukraine military’s warning and communication networks, followed by a blitzkrieg attack by tanks, paratroopers, and so forth.
But occupying those towns for any length of time is another matter. Logistics — refurbishing troops with a line of supplies — were always the Russian army’s weak point, even in the Cold War heyday; that’s still the case. Then there’s the army itself. The special forces and paratroopers are professional, but the rest of the army consists of draftees, serving one-year terms that many of them spend drunk and disorderly. If they face any resistance, whether from the Ukrainian army (a ragtag force itself) or "irregulars" (homegrown insurgents) or outside agents (a squad or two of Delta Force troops), the Russian soldiers could find themselves seriously bogged down.
Politically, Putin would find himself on very shaky ground. Already, he mustered only 10 other countries — the likes of Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan and Syria — to oppose a U.N. resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea. If he invades Ukraine, a sovereign nation with a United Nations seat, his isolation will widen and deepen politically, diplomatically and economically.
If he crosses that line, he will also do more than anyone ever has to rouse the European nations out of their post-Cold War stupor. He can count on Britain, Germany and France to boost their defense budgets, and in a way that confronts Russia. He can also count on the United States to station more troops, fighter jets, maybe even armored weapons in Poland and the Baltics — to hell with concerns about provocation. And he must know the lesson that other nation-states have learned in recent years: that if he prompts a conventional conflict with the United States military, he will lose badly.
This is one reason why Putin probably won’t take the next step. Pavel Felgenhauer, the most astute Russian military analyst, also notes in Foreign Policy that the Russian army’s conscripts are scheduled to rotate in April. The troops with a year of training under their belts (such as it is, and it isn’t much) will be replaced by new grunts, who aren’t likely to be thrilled by their thrust into combat or competent at carrying out the mission. If Putin wanted to invade eastern Ukraine, the best time to do so would have been less than a couple weeks ago.
Then again, and this is another source of nervousness, Putin has shown himself to be an irrational actor. He already possessed Crimea, really, and probably could have hardened de facto into de jure through more peaceful methods, over time. He operated many levers of influence in Ukraine, and could have maneuvered the upcoming elections in his favor, whether through bribing key candidates or any number of other time-honored techniques.
Putin didn’t have to take the route he took. Few predicted that he would, if only because it would do him no good and he had other ways to accomplish his goals. This is another reason to be nervous now. He doesn’t have to make incursions into mainland Ukraine either: It would really do him no good, and there are other ways to continue Russian influence in that country.
He seized Crimea anyway. Will he dive into Donetsk, too? Nobody knows, and this is cause for concern. But it’s not cause for panic, the NATO nations aren’t in mortal danger, and to claim otherwise by citing comparisons with the state of NATO in 1990 is profoundly misleading and, in any case, irrelevant.
Fred Kaplan is the author of "The Insurgents" and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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