The End of Yalta
The decision to deploy American troops to Poland will change the map of Europe forever, but it does not eliminate the threat emanating from Russia. We should expect new and even more creative forms of hybrid warfare.
It might not be a round anniversary, but it is a date worth remembering. After 71 years, the framework agreed to at the Yalta Conference has finally come undone. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and Poland officially becoming a member of the NATO alliance, American military forces are now due to stationed on our Eastern border. Despite Yalta and despite agreements made in 1989. However, what is more important than the symbolism of the declaration made by President Obama is that this move marks the denouement of modern Russia’s doctrine. It is not any less aggressive and destructive than during the times of Soviet Russia, which used to terrorise half of our continent. Four thousand American soldiers supported by British military land troops, tanks, armoured vehicles, self-propelled guns (SPGs) and potentially NATO’s entire arsenal necessary to repel any threat, means that Putin’s intricately constructed doctrine has been blown into the air. The bad news is that before American troops build their bases, the Russians will most likely adapt their hybrid strategy to meet the new realities on the ground.
Testing the West
Even before Obama’s announcement of the deployment of armoured divisions to NATO’s Eastern Flank, Russia knew that it does not have a good chance should it come to a direct conflict with the West. But the West also knew that a direct confrontation would lead to serious losses. NATO’s current strategy predicts the loss of countries and Polish territory up to the Vistula. Western armies would lead a counter-attack from German territory and Western Poland. This was not some new treaty or a Yalta-style agreement, but rather strategic plans based on calculations made to minimise the loss of life on the side of the West. The reasoning was: better give away a bit of territory and focus your forces on defending the core of Europe. However one sees this – a cynical calculation or sober reasoning – the West’s strategy gave Moscow hope that it would be able to extend its influence into the Baltic States and Poland. Perhaps not full control but at the very least a Finlandisation of Central Europe – that is influence over strategic decision making, in areas such as energy policy.
This was the foundation on which Moscow built its new strategy for weakening Europe from its core, exploiting every little weakness and continually testing the periphery of the NATO alliance. It was based on the premise that the willingness to defend Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and perhaps Poland would diminish, that a day would come when the Russian military would intervene in defence of its citizens, for example in Estonia, and would not be attacked by NATO forces.
This had led Russia to flex its nuclear arsenal muscle. Deploying its nuclear rockets to the Kaliningrad region in order to send a message to European leaders that perhaps it is not worth risking total war every time there is an incident in the East. The understanding is that if we are not ready to defend the Baltic States then perhaps it is best to also turn a blind eye on the little green men in Suwalki and Klaipeda.
The annexation of the Crimea and the presence of forces in the Donbas region was exactly such a test of how the West would react.
The repeated occurrence of strange “incidents” on the borders of Estonia and Latvia is becoming commonplace. Increasingly, “realistic” London and Berlin-based think-tanks have been producing analytical reports which argue that in light of Russia’s powerful Baltic fleet and armoured divisions on the border, the defence of the Baltic States as well as the Isthmus of Suwalki would be too costly. According to the predictions, Russia would make territorial gains on the condition that it manages to weaken European solidarity and the economic situation and internal conflict will be so pronounced that Europe will sacrifice its periphery in return for peace. Military doctrine will replace international law. This is the defining concept behind the propaganda hybrid war with the West.
For centuries, this has been the backbone of Russian strategic thinking. One leader after another acted with inconceivable flexibility (given the dictatorial nature of his rule) in reacting to changes around him. By hook or by crook, no matter the ideology and alliance, means were found to weaken opponents. In his famous book “Conversations with Stalin” Milovan Dilas writes how one of Tito’s advisors observed with amazement that when Germans forces marched in during World War 2, Communist commissars encouraged – and even actively helped – priests distribute encyclicals and called for prayers in protection of their motherland. Within a different strategic and ideological reality and with new technologies, Russian strategists are working on a wider scale and with even fewer scruples.
One has to admit that the circumstances are particularly favourable to Putin. Waves of refugees continue to hit Europe’s coasts. In two months, Great Britain will be faced with a referendum, the result of which is difficult to predict but if Britain leaves the EU then the consequences for Europe will be monumental. Apart from economic perturbations we can also expect secession efforts in Scotland, Catalonia, Corsica and the Basque region. In Spain, Portugal and Greece extreme left-wing parties make up strong parliamentary factions and in some cases are already in power. In France, the anti-EU Front Nationale believes that it will come to power during the next election cycle. In Germany, the far-right is gaining ground and hasn’t been this powerful since the Second World War. Anywhere that you see the EU wobbling, there are traces of Russian agents – the knights of hybrid warfare. They support the separatist movement in Great Britain through funding of Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme leftist movements on one hand and extreme right-wing separatist movements on the other. Britain was forced recently to expel four Russian diplomats actively influencing domestic British politics. They included Sergiej Nalobin, someone who is well-known in British political circles and is active in the Conservative Friends of Russia political interest group.
French intelligence services have reported on the influence of Russian agents in the lead up to riots by refugees in Calais. The CIA have pointed to groups steered by Russian intelligence which take part in smuggling refugees from Turkey to Greece and now, after the Brussels agreement, from Turkey to the Balkans or Italy. The head of American Forces in the Middle East warned that some residents of northern Syria were being deliberately pushed to leave the country. Attacks on civilians targets, creating panic in the provinces and later spreading rumours and distributing flyers encouraging people to emigrate…The traces of Russian intelligence services can be seen in the Dutch referendum scheduled to take place this month regarding the ratification of the EU-Ukraine deal. A little known clause in the Dutch constitution that allows a referendum to be held on association agreements has suddenly taken on a life of its own. A previously unknown organisation collected 140,000 signatures for the vote to take place. It is unclear how it managed to receive funding for its television campaign. What is interesting is that recent polls show that 58% of Dutch people believe that the campaign was paid for with Russian money. Similar contributions also made their way to the bank accounts of Slovak, Croatian and Portuguese nationalists.
What else can we expect from this form of warfare? Most definitely a more intense campaign against Angela Merkel. Provocations have become commonplace, such as recent claims that a girl in Germany was raped by immigrants. Doused in sensationalist television coverage, the rumours were planted within the Russian diaspora in Germany. The situation led to an attack on a refugee centre. Every opportunity to sow instability is welcomed. The attempt by Norway to send back refugees who had entered Norway through Russia resulted in a media campaign focusing on the country’s attempts to deport refugees to their certain death in Syria. Western security services are particularly worried about attempts to infiltrate Western political parties. After France’s Front Nationale, which has officially declared itself as Putin’s “partner” using Russian money to fund its election campaign, we now have evidence of attempts to infiltrate German right-wing organisations.
These trends were reinforced recently by the account of one of the founders of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who claims to have received an offer of “strategic co-operation” with Russia while setting up the eurosceptic party. Russian television is an important component of hybrid warfare. It is broadcast in most European countries and its tone is tailored according to the society targeted. In Germany, for example, the annexation of the Crimea was continuously compared to the unification of Germany. It is difficult to say how plans to build Nord Stream 2, a new pipeline under the Baltic, fits into the hybrid warfare strategy but it is undoubtedly one of the more important initiatives to divide European unity. It is yet another attempt to weaken EU determination and solidarity.
The deployment of American and British forces to the Eastern Flank is a game changer in the region. Even the slightest incident on Poland’s or Estonia’s border could mean total engagement by NATO forces. The killing of several American or British soldiers would mean war, from which Washington and London would not be able to backtrack from and a war that Russia would not be able to win. It is not that these several thousands soldiers actually change the balance of power in Central Europe, but they do radically change the level of Western engagement. It has become impossible to enter and occupy little Estonia on the pretext of hunting down terrorists or in defence of the Russian minority without risking total war.
For us, it is undeniably a historical decision. In effect, it means the moving of NATO borders to the Bug River. It increases the sense of security and limits the possibility of possible confrontation or invasion from the East. And who knows, in the event of future instability in Ukraine it might also reassure investors that Poland should not be treated uniformly as part of the region.
Under the patronage of Peter the Great
In theory, it is possible that Obama’s decision will allow – or force – Russia to re-evaluate its political strategy. In return for accepting new geopolitical realities, Moscow could demand the lifting of sanctions and a guarantee that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. It will return to the negotiating table and allow its economy to regenerate after the biggest crisis that Russia has suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the ruble lost half of its previous value, it has started to stabilise. The decrease in the value of the dollar was heralded as a great economic success of Putin’s economists. The inflation rate is still at 17% but it is increasing at a slower rate than expected. The predicted 5% shrinking of the economy ended up being a 3% fall in GDP. The events in Syria, although they leave no doubt about the criminal role that Russia is playing in the region, give Putin a sense of worth and international esteem. It would seem that it is an ideal moment for a shift in political policy and protecting existing gains. The problem is that the building of prosperity and a return to peaceful co-existence is not something that motivates Russian leaders.
In order to better understand Putin’s motivations, it is worth looking at a recent article by Siergej Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, who wrote in the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs” that his country wants a new European architecture. He is pushing for a formal treaty that outlines the division of influence in the region. Furthermore, Lavrov writes that stability and peace in Europe will not be possible until a new “stable political foundation” is put in place. “For the last nine years, all attempts to unite Europe without including Russia, or even deliberately going against Russia’s interests, have ended disastrously,” Lavrov writes and, in typical Russian-Bizantine style, points out to the overwhelming chaos that engulfs Europe each time that Western nations refuse to co-operation with Russia. He refers to Catherine the Great, who was told by the chancellor in Berlin: “Not a single canon can be fired in Europe without our permission”. He also alludes to the Napoleonic War and the Crimean War. According to Lavrov, every single conflict in Central Europe was evidence of humiliating and destroying his “proud nation”. However, all of these historical events were only a warm-up to events in 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the new European order, which does not include Russia as part of the systemic solution, will lead to a new disaster. This could all be waved off as harmless paranoia if it wasn’t for the closing argument where Lavrov recalls Peter the Great and his incredible contribution to Russia and his efforts to create international respect for Russia. This is the essence of the article.
Putin’s policy on international aggression is above all about internal politics. It is a means to rally society around the Kremlin and enforce obedience. Putin is not the first Russian dictator to understand that he will not leave the Kremlin alive. He will either die there, maintaining and escalating terror just like Stalin did in his time, or he will be killed. There is no third way. This is why there is permanent conflict and the finding of new threats is an aim in itself. According to this narrative, sanctions and now the deployment of NATO forces on the border is further proof that Russia is being attacked by all sides and the nation needs to unite against this threat. Russian media has accused the United States of “provoking a new political-military dispute”, of “looking for ways to feed its defence complex”. There are also headlines that warn about the next waves of refugees, provocations, espionage, terrorist activity and, in our backyard, also attempts to isolate Poland from the West and create tensions within the EU. The safer that we feel about our national borders, the more we should worry about internal security.
The author is the editor-in-chief of "Wprost" weekly and vice-president of the Warsaw Enterprise Institute