Russian President Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB colonel who would love to get the old Soviet band back together, has been on a global roll. Sure, the Russian economy has a case of oil doldrums, but no matter. He’s rebuilding his armed forces, upgrading the nuclear triad, rolling out new ICBMs, fighter jets and tanks — while beefing up his ground troops.
And they aren’t just for marching through Red Square.
In Syria, Putin is running pro-Assad airstrikes, augmented with Russian boots on the ground. He’s expanding military cooperation with a resurgent and enriched Iran, and cutting deals with other Middle Eastern countries.
And closer to the Motherland he’s gobbled up the Crimea and remains militarily active in eastern Ukraine. That’s a lot for the Bear to juggle, but the grand finale could still be in the offing.
According to recent NATO reports, Russia is conducting large scale “snap exercises” (SNAPEXs) in Eastern Europe, about twenty over the past three years. These aggressive maneuvers, frequently along Russia’s borders with the Baltic States, involve combined arms forces up to 130,000 Russian troops.
Many of these exercises also include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO countries.
This has European leaders, as well as U.S. military commanders, understandably concerned. In his 2015 Annual Report, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that "As part of its overall military build-up, the pace of Russia’s military maneuvers and drills have reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War.”
So is this just saber rattling or is there intent behind Russia’s capability?
Russians have long perceived former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as their rightful sphere of influence. It is a matter of national security; economically, geographically and ethnically (about one-quarter of the population are Russians).
But the Baltic States have spurned Russia. Worse, they’re now all NATO Members. That does not sit well for Main Street Russia, not to mention the Kremlin.
The SNAPEX’s are designed to probe NATO’s defenses, documenting the speed and capability with which we are able to react. Here’s the unfortunate reality: where speed, strength and mass matters, in this corner of the world Russia has the upper hand over NATO.
Russia also enjoys interior lines of communication and resupply, giving them a logistical edge as well. If NATO had to respond to a Russian incursion, say a SNAPEX turned real, it would take a month or more to put together a viable response.
By that time Putin could’ve parked about 100,000 troops and a couple hundred T-90 tanks in downtown Vilnius, should he choose to do so.
Talk about facts on the ground.
How is this possible?
Well, over the past few years NATO has morphed into an out-of-sector crisis response force optimized for counter insurgency operations. We’ve removed virtually all of our heavy ground combat assets from Europe and reduced U.S. ground strength from 40,000 in 2012 to about 26,000 now. Where Russia has thousands of tanks in theater.
The U.S., until recently, had zero, choosing to rely upon other countries for heavy armor.
Bad idea. In other words, we’ve totally taken our eye off of Russia, leaving them to grow a substantial conventional combat advantage in the region.
While we’re at it, Russian doctrine considers the use of tactical nuclear weapons to be a battlefield decision; employing them is a military, not a political, decision.
This brings us to another critical component that likely figures into Putin’s calculations.
A show of hands of those who actually believe that Obama has the stones to slug it out with Putin before, during or after a Russian incursion into the Baltics?
Exactly. And if America backs down, or if Obama resorts to his minimalist, check-the-block response, NATO would be sorely undermined.
Absent Uncle Sam leading the way, Western Europe, currently in the throes of an economic crisis, overrun with Syrian refugees, and reliant upon Russia for natural gas, will sit on their collective hands.
The UN will say that it is “gravely concerned,” and Russia will veto any Security Council action. #Don’tPoketheBear.
NATO’s viability and long record of Cold War success hinges upon Article 5 of the Treaty whereby if one Member is attacked, all Members respond.
That commitment, backed up by resolute U.S. Presidents like Reagan who ensured we had the combat capability in place and the political will to use it, was how we won the Cold War.
If a Russian invasion, large or small, into the Baltics does not provoke a full-throated response, NATO is exposed as a paper tiger. When it comes to presidential legacies, that outcome would make one hell of a resume — for Vladimir Putin.
That this scenario is viable after almost sixty-seven years of NATO success boggles the mind. At no time prior to the Obama era would it be contemplated, particularly not by Putin.
But such are the wages of a White House that believes in “leading from behind,” elevating domestic social engineering over a national security doctrine of peace through strength, and the inexcusable shortsightedness of overlooking a predator in the Kremlin.
Patrick Murray (colonel, U.S. Army, retired) was part of a military-diplomatic exchange program between the Pentagon and Department of State, where he served in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs in Washington, D.C. In 2005, Murray became the U.S. representative to the Military Staff Committee at the United Nations in New York under Ambassador John Bolton. After retiring from the Army in 2009, Patrick became the Republican nominee for U.S. Congress in Northern Virginia. He is the author of "Government is the Problem." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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