This week, Russian aircraft have probed NATO defenses to a degree unseen since the Cold War. Fighter aircraft from eight NATO members were reportedly scrambled to intercept more than two dozen aircraft just on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As the Wall Street Journal report details, the intercepts of Russian aircraft have occurred more than one hundred times this year, which is about three times the number of intercepts conducted last year.
Though those intercepts didn’t intrude on NATO airspace, they are consistent with the high number of Russian challenges to American air defenses and with the apparent intrusion of a Russian submarine in Sweden’s territorial waters I wrote about last week. It’s not obvious what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing, but these actions – coupled with his own explanation in a major speech – do lead us to a few conclusions.
Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, recounts the many historical world orders both before and since the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 which, by recognizing the sovereignty of nation-states re-ordered a world order that had previously been ordered by religions. Putin’s speech, delivered on 24 October, was alternately threatening, conciliatory and a statement of what Putin apparently wishes a new ordering of the world to look like.
Putin – who has said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century – emphasized his view that America’s actions since the Cold War denigrated national sovereignty in an effort to impose universally American ideals. He accuses the United States of destabilizing nations and supporting the rise of “neo-fascists and Islamic radicals.”
Putin’s alternative is to create a world order in terms of institutions such as the UN and regional alliances: “I am certain that if there is a will, we can restore the effectiveness of the international and regional institutions system. We do not even need to build anything anew, from the scratch; this is not a ‘greenfield,’ especially since the institutions created after World War II are quite universal and can be given modern substance, adequate to manage the current situation.”
In short, Putin’s view injects Russia as a regional power with influence everywhere. He would invest the United Nations with the power it had to deter American action and increase Russia’s influence – first regionally, and then globally – to essentially the same power it had during the Cold War.
Putin spoke of Russia’s efforts in Asia, not in clear terms of offsetting President Obama’s supposed shift of military power to the Pacific, but in actions with and through various economic alliances — the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — as well as in other areas. His aims are global, not just regional.
This explains why, at the same time many nations have lost faith in their alliances with America and let their own defenses crumble, Putin is challenging NATO nations – as well as nations such as Sweden – not only by operating combat aircraft on their borders, but also by absorbing the Crimea, which Russia did in a much-ballyhooed treaty. The Baltic nations, some of which are NATO members, have seen the same increase of Russian aircraft – and naval operations – near their borders.
Putin’s speech, and the accompanying actions of his air forces, is left unanswered by NATO. Last week, I noted that the NATO Treaty didn’t require any specific investment in defense by member nations. However, in 2006, NATO members agreed that they would each invest at least 2% of their gross domestic product in defense. But most NATO members have ignored that agreement. Only the United States and Britain exceed the 2% and most of the others invest far less in their own defenses. Defense spending cuts among NATO members haven’t, by any measure, become less popular among them.
Putin sees the weakness of NATO’s defenses and, in them, also sees opportunities. He must be especially encouraged by the continuing sequestration of defense spending in the United States, which even if the Republicans take control of the Senate in next week’s elections, isn’t likely to end.
Putin disclaimed strongly any inference that Russia is attempting to reassemble the old Soviet Union. Indeed, it isn’t. It aims for a far stronger neo-Soviet Russia with global alliances to fill the vacuum left by America’s growing weakness.
Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H. W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research and the author of several books, including “In the Words of Our Enemies,” and “The BDS War Against Israel.