Douglas J. Feith, who served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy for United States for President George W. Bush, and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, writes that if Vladimir Putin's gamble works in Ukraine, the Russian leader might be tempted to directly take on the Baltic states, and 'perceive a rare opportunity to wreck NATO.'
In a piece in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Feith said that the challenge for U.S. President Barack Obama is to head this possibily off, one that could lead to war in Europe.
Putin, he suggests, could use the same playbook as he has in Ukraine, by claiming danger to ethnic Russians in one of the Baltic states and intervening to protect them.
When Boris Yeltsin, the head of the Soviet Union's Russian republic, declared Russia's independence in 1991, he did so in an agreement with the heads of the the USSR's Ukrainian and Belorussian republics. Signed on Dec. 8 of that year, the Minsk accord specified that the U.S.S.R. "as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality no longer exists." It was important for Ukraine and Belarus that Russia formally renounced any claims to Soviet territory outside Russia, Feith said.
Putin, however, ignores those legalisms. Putin, Feith believes, is determined to reconstitute the Russian empire: "In an April 2005 speech in Russia, Mr. Putin said that 'the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century' — a century, it bears noting, rife with catastrophe, especially for the Soviets. Mr. Putin added that the (Soviet) disintegration was a "genuine tragedy" for the Russian people in that 'tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.' "
The invasion and occupation of Georgian territory in 2008 came without a substantial cost for Russia. The Ukraine is "even bolder challenge to the post-Soviet order," Feith writes, one which resolve in the Western world seems lacking, and allowing him to cow his neighbors:
"Western officials may persuade themselves that they have no good options in Ukraine — that they cannot counter Russia there or even impose consequential penalties. If they do so persuade themselves, might they not come to the same conclusion even if Mr. Putin's next target is one of the Baltic states? The Russian leader could perceive a rare opportunity to wreck NATO," Feith writes.
"With a victory in Ukraine under his belt, Mr. Putin might manufacture grounds for a Russian military intervention to protect the ethnic Russians in Latvia. They could be for him what Czechoslovakia's Sudeten Germans were for Hitler in 1938: a pretext for aggression. If Mr. Putin thinks NATO is bluffing when it says it will defend the Baltic states, he may call that bluff. If he's right, he could destroy NATO without war, the very alliance that destroyed the Soviet Union without war. Nice.
"But President Putin may miscalculate in thinking that the NATO allies, because they didn't fight for Ukraine, won't fight for Latvia. Those allies may defend Latvia precisely because it's a formal member of the alliance. It's not in NATO's interest that Mr. Putin would misinterpret their indifference to his Ukraine incursion and make such a mistake," Feith writes.
"Will President Obama and other NATO leaders find ways to impose significant costs on Russia for aggression in Ukraine? Will they shore up NATO's credibility regarding the sovereignty of the Baltic states and the former Warsaw Pact countries? Staying home from the next G-8 economic meeting, planned for Sochi in June, won't suffice. The stakes are huge and extend far beyond Ukraine."