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Russian military threat to NATO inflated in Western media

NATOBy Shane Jacobs

In this week’s Economist magazine, an op-ed compared Russian President Putin’s move into Crimea to Hitler’s actions on the eve of World War Two. The article rightfully advocates that Putin faces severe international consequences for inflating the threat to Russian speakers in neighboring countries as a flimsy pretext to occupy and deny access to and from the strategic Crimean peninsula. Russian revanchism should not be allowed to threaten the laws and norms that underpin the international system.

Despite the troubling developments in Crimea, Western media has over-inflated the Russian threat by asserting that Moscow stands poised to use military force to extend its campaign beyond Ukraine and into the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe. Contributing to these anxieties is the treatment in Western media of recent Russian legislative initiatives. Press reports vaguely characterize the initiatives as a means to justify annexing territory in which Russian-speakers reside, and to streamline citizenship for Russian speakers residing in territories formerly belonging to the Soviet Union. While both initiatives will most certainly pass into Russian law, they should not be conflated to mean the latter would automatically lead to the former beyond Ukraine.

On 7 March, Russia’s ITAR-TASS News Agency described a new bill as a means of streamlining Russian citizenship for individuals meeting certain linguistic and cultural criteria that connect them Russia. However, the article indicated that to be considered, applicants must renounce their current citizenship, and further implies that they would have to immigrate to the Russian Federation. As such, the doctrine of protecting nationals abroad—which Moscow is currently using to justify its actions in Crimea and has used in Georgia—would not apply. While the description may be part of the Russian state-owned media propaganda campaign, Russian passports in the hands of European Union citizens in the Baltics is unlikely to pave the way for future intervention into Europe.

Russia does have ambitions of expanding its influence, as does any world power. However, the streamlining of its citizenship policy likely has as much to do with addressing its decreasing population as it does with expanding its control over its neighbors. Since at least 2000, Russia has had a negative population growth rate. Coupled with a consistently negative birth rate and the 10th highest death rate worldwide, this will have a long-term impact on Russia’s ability to reassert and maintain its global position. While a land grab in Ukraine and the Caucasus captivates international attention, by itself it will not fix Russia’s situation. Encouraging immigration increases its population—with the attendant growth in labor force, military-age pool, and intellectual base.

A secondary, more insidious effect of this migration would be its impact on the countries from which citizens would be emigrating, namely the former Soviet states in the Baltics. While Russia ranks 199 in world population growth rate, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia rank 217, 227, and 229, respectively. Although ethnic Russians comprise only 5.8 percent of Lithuania’s population, they represent 26.2 percent of Latvia’s and 24.8 percent of Estonia’s. From a “zero-sum game” perspective, Russia’s gain would be the Baltic States’ loss, particularly the latter two. However, ethnic Russians’ desire to abandon their European Union (EU) citizenship en masse for an uncertain future in Russia is far from certain. As such, media discussions of Russia’s citizenship streamlining initiatives should acknowledge this nuance.

A Russian attempt to expand its military presence into the Baltics is equally unlikely. Although it moved with relative ease into the Crimea, this was greatly facilitated by the permanent presence of its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and much larger Russian population on the peninsula (nearly 60 percent). Moscow is unlikely to risk overextending its military capabilities by threatening its Baltic neighbors in a similar fashion. As all three nations joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, they enjoy the treaty-ensured support of the alliance. Article V of the NATO charter considers an armed attack on any member state to be an attack on NATO. Although the article does not guarantee the use of force in all situations, it does authorize it. However, given the current standoff over Ukraine, the likelihood of NATO implementing at least some form of military action in response to a Russian move against the Baltic States is greatly increased.

The question then turns toward the economic costs of military action. The financial costs for military conflict would be exorbitant for NATO (to include the United States), the EU, and Russia. On the surface, an alliance of Western nations would logically be better poised to absorb the economic blow than a solitary Russia. Acting in concert with NATO and the EU, the United States could intensify the financial pain by imposing severe economic sanctions on Russia.

Perhaps the most significant economic weapon would be an embargo over Russia’s oil and natural gas. However, this would require tremendous coordination between the US and the EU. As the individual EU member states are dependent—to varying degrees—on Moscow for their energy supplies, this option would have serious immediate repercussions for a number of the member states. The domestic impact on countries like Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania would erode the unity of the EU’s position, causing fissures that would ultimately limit the effectiveness of the embargo.

Despite President Putin’s apparent recklessness in Ukraine, assuming he has not considered his nation’s ultimate limitations would be a mistake. Moscow has most certainly defined precisely how far it is willing to extend its use of hard power to reassert itself on the global stage at this time. While drawing NATO into a military conflict would probably weaken the alliance and the EU economically, the damage to Moscow would likely be worse. As such, sensationalizing the military threat posed to NATO would be a mistake at this point. While NATO should be poised to deter Russia from further escalating its use of force in Ukraine, the US and the EU should work quickly to align themselves in order to maximize their unity-of-effort toward Moscow on the diplomatic and economic fronts.

Shane Jacobs is an independent political commentator

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