Peter Brookes: Russian chest-thumping causing unease in Nordic, Baltic states

Peter Brookes

Peter Brookes

HELSINKI – With its ongoing military intervention in Syria and new allegations of its involvement in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine two years ago, Russia looks troubling enough from a distance.

It’s even more menacing up close.

In the Baltic, Russian fighters have buzzed American warships operating in international waters and harassed U.S. patrol planes and Polish helicopters flying in international airspace. There have been 
no-notice, “snap” ground force exercises, too.

But it’s not just NATO members who are in the Kremlin’s cross hairs of late.

Russia’s stealthy submarines have also been swimming in the waters of Nordic, non-NATO countries Sweden and Finland; Russian bombers made dry runs at Sweden’s strategic Gotland island in the Baltic Sea.

Of course, Russia also seized and annexed Crimea in 2014. Moscow still supports the rebel insurgency in eastern Ukraine with soldiers and materiel, keeping Kiev – and the region -on edge.

But what’s behind all this chest-thumping?

The simple answer is that Russia wants what Russia – imperial or Soviet – has always wanted: If not control over its surroundings (or “near abroad”), then a strong sphere of influence.

Unfortunately, Russia considers – wrongly – that the democracies of Europe and the United States are the main threats to its interests and security.

To counter this “threat,” Moscow is deeply involved in overt and covert efforts to weaken, intimidate or fracture the West, especially the European Union, NATO and transatlantic ties between Europe and the United States.

How?

It’s reportedly called “New Generation Warfare,” or NGW, a concept associated with Russian General Valery Gerasimov. Some loosely compare NGW with “hybrid” or “gray zone” or even “full-spectrum” war.

NGW uses military (e.g., capable conventional, special and strategic forces) and non-military (e.g., economic, legal, political, informational) means to achieve political-military goals – such as regional dominance.

The Cold War-like “active measures” are particularly interesting, running from open propaganda (using Kremlin-controlled media outlets) to secretive “fifth columns” that support Russia’s self-perceived interests.

These subversive supporters could include dissatisfied social groups, penetrated political parties, recruited spies, co-opted journalists and cyber “hacktivists.” While trying to win the “war” without a shot, they can aid military action if needed, too.

For example, these provocateurs could create the conditions (social media agitation, street protests, violent riots) that “justify” a limited invasion of Russian “Spetsnaz” special forces to seize the country’s leadership, media, etc. in a quick coup d’etat.

Think Crimea.

This possibility is especially troubling for the small Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) that were once in Russia’s iron grip. In theory, Moscow could take a Baltic capital before the EU or NATO could react.

While this is pretty chilling, Russian assertiveness and aggression seems largely counterproductive so far, creating alarm in frontline Nordic and Baltic states.

Some countries, instead of bowing to Russian belligerence, are stiffening their spines. Finland is doing more with NATO while Sweden is debating joining the alliance and may bring back the draft. This will bolster regional security against Moscow.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is nationalistic, opportunistic, revisionist – and seemingly emboldened. The last thing we should show is complacency, division or vulnerability to the Kremlin’s ambitions in Europe – indeed, anywhere.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald. Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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