For Europe and NATO, a Russian invasion is no longer unthinkable

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin once declared the collapse of the Soviet Empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” At the time, in 2005, few expected him to do anything about it.

But then came Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, its support for Ukrainian separatists and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and, most importantly, its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Now, with the rise of former President Donald J. Trump, who has promised in the past to leave NATO and recently threatened never to come to the aid of his alliesgrowing concern among European nations that Mr. Putin could invade a NATO nation in the next decade and may have to face his forces without US support.

That could happen in as little as five years after the end of the war in Ukraine, according to some officials and experts who believe that would be enough time for Moscow to rebuild and arm its military.

“We’ve always kind of suspected that this is the only existential threat we have,” Major General Veiko-Vello Palm, commander of the Estonian Army’s main ground combat division, said of a possible Russian invasion.

“The past few years have also made it very, very clear that NATO as a military alliance, many countries, are not ready to conduct large-scale operations – which means, in simple human language, many NATO militaries are not ready to fight against Russia,” he said. General Palm during an interview in December. “So it’s not very comforting.”

Concerns about what experts describe as Mr. Putin’s imperial ambitions have long been part of the psyche of states that border Russia or are uncomfortably close to it. “I think it was 1991 for Estonia” when his country’s alarm bells started ringing, General Palm said wryly, referring to the year Estonia declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Just as Putin played down warnings from the Biden administration that it was planning an invasion of Ukraine, Moscow dismissed concerns that Russia was planning an attack on NATO. The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said in interview last week with the state news agency RIA Novosti that they are part of a Western disinformation campaign to incite discontent against Moscow.

Europe’s concerns have been fueled in recent months by Putin’s militarization of the Russian economy and massive increases in spending on its military and arms industry, while at the same time some Republicans in Congress are seeking to limit US aid to Ukraine.

“If someone thinks that it is only about Ukraine, they are fundamentally mistaken,” President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky he warned at the World Economic Forum this month. “Possible directions and even a timeline for new Russian aggression outside of Ukraine are becoming increasingly apparent.”

NATO claims that it is ready to defend the borders of all 31 member states that, together, have increased their national defense costs by estimated at 190 billion dollars since 2014, when Russia first attacked Ukraine. But it was the beginning of restoring what had become a hollowed-out military network across Europe in the decades since the end of the Cold War, a process that could take years, analysts said.

That “peace dividend,” as the change was called, diverted trillions of dollars from military budgets to boost spending on health, education and housing. Europe’s defense industry has also shrunk as demand for battle tanks, fighter jets and submarines has declined.

In 2006, concerned about unpreparedness for conflict, top defense officials from every NATO country agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their annual domestic production on their armies. But it was not a requirement, and when military spending hit its lowest point in 2014, only three of NATO’s 28 member states met the benchmark at the time. As of last year, only 11 countries had met the 2 percent threshold, although a Western diplomat said last week that around 20 member states were expected to meet it in 2024.

The alliance will test its readiness in a months-long military exercise — involving 90,000 troops — that began last week in what officials say is NATO’s largest exercise since the end of the Cold War. That the exercise is a test of how NATO forces will respond to a Russian invasion has unsettled nerves in border states, particularly in the Baltics and the Nordics.

“I’m not saying that tomorrow will go wrong, but we have to understand that it is not a given that we are at peace,” Adm. Rob Bauer from the Netherlands, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, he told reporters on January 18.

Considering NATO’s response plans to its two biggest threatshe added, “That’s why we’re preparing for a conflict with Russia,” as well as what NATO considers its second biggest threat, terrorism.

A NATO exercise, known as Steadfast Defender 2024is just one reason allies are approaching a “fever” of concerns that Russia could invade sooner rather than later, according to Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

He said Russia’s resilience in the face of a Western-backed Ukrainian counter-offensive last summer showed Putin was “sustainable for the long term” and could refocus its economy and population to reconstitute its military within three to five years. “Just because everything is chewed up in Ukraine doesn’t mean they’re off the board for a decade or more,” Mr Skaluba said.

And the prospect of Mr. Trump’s return to the White House has forced Europeans to face the possibility that American support for Ukraine, or even its leading role in NATO, could be drastically reduced as early as next year, Mr. Skaluba said.

Taken together, “it exaggerates this broader concern about Russia,” Mr Skaluba said. “It’s this unique mix of factors that are combining to make this lingering fear of a Russian reconstitution, or a Russian attack on NATO, just a little bit more tense than it has been in years.”

Concerns have become more pronounced in the last few weeks.

In an interview dated January 21, Norway’s top military commander warned that “we don’t have time” to build defenses against an unpredictable Russia. “There is now a window of maybe one, two, maybe three years where we will have to invest even more in secure defense,” said the commander, Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen.

On the same day, the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, tried to calm the concerns raised reports that one scenario Steadfast Defender will test how NATO would respond to a Russian invasion of Finland. “None of the war games that have been played for decades have been played out in real terms, and I wouldn’t go too far here,” Mr Niinistö said on the national radio programme.

And this month, Sweden’s military commander-in-chief, General Micael Byden, and its civil defense minister, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, each warned that Sweden must be prepared for war.

“Let me say this with the authority of the service” and “with unadorned clarity: there could be war in Sweden,” Mr Bohlin told a security conference.

The warnings sparked a storm of criticism from Sweden’s opposition party and pundits, who called the remarks frightening and hyperbolic.

“Swedes wonder what the government knows and they don’t,” Magdalena Andersson, head of the opposition Social Democrats, he wrote in a subsequent opinion piece. “Scaring the population will not make Sweden safer.”

Still, Sweden is ready to join NATO, following Finland’s accession last year, as both countries put aside years of military non-alignment due to nervousness over Russian aggression. Even as he described the unrest as “exaggerated”, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson made it clear that Russia remains the biggest threat.

“There is nothing to indicate that war is now at the door, but it is clear that the risk of war has increased significantly,” Kristersson said in an interview with Sveriges Radio.

It hasn’t escaped the Estonian government that the land mass Russia seized in the early days of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – before being pushed back to the current front lines in eastern Ukraine – is roughly the size of the Baltic states.

“Their ambition is to regain their power,” said Colonel Mati Tikerpuu, commander of Estonia’s 2nd Infantry Brigade, which is located about 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, from the Russian border.

“We don’t think this is a question of whether Russia will try to invade or not,” Colonel Tikerpuu said last month from his command headquarters at the Taara military base. For many Estonians, he said: “It’s just a matter of when.”

Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki, Finland.

Leave a Comment