President Barack Obama appears poised to deploy small American forces in the Baltic nations and Poland. If he follows through, he’s likely to ratchet up tensions with Russia in the short term — and ratchet them down long term.
Call us paranoid, but Putin appears to have begun following a play book written in the 1930s. He’s not a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler: he’s shown no interest in crushing ethnic minorities or invading Western Europe. But he doesn’t have to be a Nazi to be a very dangerous man.
If he’s not deliberately borrowing Hitler’s early foreign policy, he might as well be. Hitler posed as the champion of ethnic Germans under foreign domination. Putin is doing the same for ethnic Russians in neighboring countries.
Hitler’s strategy was to intimidate Germany’s potential enemies and dissolve treaties of alliance among them. He soon discovered that France and Britain caved easily. He began by violating disarmament pacts, then violated the German pledge not to move troops into the demilitarized Rhineland of Western Germany.
He “liberated” the ethnic Germans of Czechoslovakia, seizing that country after persuading Britain and France to abandon their treaty to defend it. Their lack of spine ultimately led him to believe he could safely invade Poland. World War II followed.
Like Hitler, Putin is testing treaties and probing for weaknesses. He grabbed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine easily. In Ukraine, he’s been posturing as the defender of ethnic Russians, this time by arming militias and supporting actual warfare. He’s been testing the borders of nuclear disarmament treaties with the United States.
Putin wants to restore the old Soviet Union, minus the communism. His obstacle is the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, whose 28 members include eight countries once in the Soviet orbit. Three of those are the Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were actually part of the Soviet Union.
Estonia and Latvia border Russia; they are natural flashpoints in a Russian challenge to NATO.
Russia of late has been ginning up disputes with Estonia, 30 percent of whose population speaks Russian. Putin perhaps sees Estonia and Latvia as the key to unraveling NATO’s commitment to defend the rest of Eastern Europe. If the Western allies won’t defend the Baltics, Putin will reasonably conclude they won’t defend Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and other former Soviet satellites.
Intimidation is part of the game. His recent announcement that Russia is building 40 new nuclear missiles invincible to U.S. missile defenses wasn’t a peace overture.
Under a plan floated by the Obama administration, the United States would put small military units and caches of heavy weaponry in each of the Baltics and in Poland. They couldn’t defend the Baltics against a full-on Russian invasion — realistically, that may be impossible. Instead, they’d serve as a “trip-wire” that would automatically turn an invasion into a larger armed confrontation with NATO.
NATO has begun assembling rapid deployment forces to counter Russian threats to front-line treaty members.
Sadly, that’s the only kind of response that impresses dictators tempted to expand their empires at their neighbors’ expense. If Putin does hope to challenge NATO, military preparations have to be part of any peace plan.