NATO is not brain dead. But it is experiencing a deeply altered mental state. To be efficient, a defensive alliance needs a formidable foe. In 1981, the army of the USSR counted 55,000 main battle tanks; see (Wikipedia) Cold War tank formations. The number does not address readiness or functionality, but that much steel is impressive regardless. The rest of the Warsaw pact is not included by this number.
The Soviets had various plans to use this massive force, typified by one titled Seven Days to the River Rhine. Battlefield nuclear weapons were abundant, and their use was part of the plan.
The existence of a plan does not equate with intent. But NATO did not have offensive plans. The NATO problem was holding the Fulda Gap, an area of flat, even terrain, surrounded by what tankers call “rough terrain.”, of which many varieties are totally impassable by tanks. In the eastern U.S., the familiar Appalachians are an impenetrable barrier to armor, except in three spots, provided there is no access to man-made transportation corridors.
Around this time, Mike Pompeo was an armored commander in the Fulda Gap. He probably had three thoughts:
- It probably isn’t going to happen.
- If it happens, there’s a good chance I’ll die or wind up with severe radiation sickness from the tac nukes.
- And then comes the joke. If shit happens, curl your body, place your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.
Fear holds alliances together. Without fear, they disintegrate. How much fear is there?
- Turkey, once a linchpin of NATO, buys Russian weapons. They have no fear of Russia. They have calculated that Russian depredates weak states, pushovers like Ukraine. The Turks are right, though the margin in their favor is not of historic proportions. It holds for now.
- Hungary’s margin is even thinner, but Viktor Orban’s chosen form of corrosion is to taste the delights of Russian economic subversion.
- Germany, once the linchpin of NATO, has allowed their military to decay through lack of machine maintenance, while becoming ever more dependent on Russian gas.
- Wavering commitments to democracy by some of the newer members complicate the question further. After all, a country can be a corrupt Russian vassal more easily than a member of the Western alliance.
- The EU, a co-identity for many NATO members, is under existential threat from both nationalism and a defect in the Euro currency concept. Weakening of the EU weakens NATO.
For Sergei Lavrov, this is all good news. As an alliance with the principal function of deterrence to Russia, NATO is better off dead. Since this cannot be achieved with the suddenness of Seven Days to the River Rhine, the strategy is corrosion, executed for the Kremlin by the criminal element that is an essential component of Russian governance and economy.
- Corrosion is the preferred method to attack NATO and the EU. It does not inspire enough fear by itself to strengthen NATO.
- The use of force by Russia against weaker powers is opportunistic. We might see it again, or we might not. Putin works below the level that inspires panic, yet…
- The Ukraine conflict is a significant boost to NATO. Had the invasion never occurred, NATO might actually be brain dead instead of merely delirious.
The most durable treaties between the U.S. and Russia date to a period when leadership in Russia was at least somewhat collective. Russia was then a bureaucratic state in the sense we understand. It had policy inertia that favored the honoring treaties because of the many bureaucrats who had signed onto ratification.
In dealing with Sergei Lavrov, which means, negotiating with the Russians in-general, there is a significant difference from the past. We are dealing with a single authority, Vladimir Putin. While his authority over all of Russia has been exaggerated, foreign policy is concentrated in his hands.
Since Vladimir Putin is a consummate tactician, we cannot assume that treaties will be honored with the same durability afforded by the combination of collective leadership and bureaucracy. A recent casualty is the Open Skies Treaty. From (FAS, pdf ) INSIGHT The Open Skies Treaty: Background and Issues,
According to the U.S. State Department, Russia has restricted access for Open Skies flights over Kaliningrad, over Moscow, and along the border of Russia with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has reportedly also failed to provide priority flight clearance for Open Skies flights on a few occasions. The United States has raised these issues in the Open Skies Consultative Commission, and some have been resolved. Nevertheless, the United States responded to limitations imposed by Russia by limiting the length of flights over Hawaii and removing access to two U.S. air force bases used during Russian missions over the United States.
The pattern will continue. This is not a time for formal treaties. It’s a time to take notes and give them, for informal commitments that can be tested, and modified, in time.
If collective leadership emerges in Russia, this can be revisited.