Daily Telegraph, London, on February 5, 2015, reported that Vladimir Putin has dangerous ambitions beyond Ukraine and aims to test Western resolve in the Baltic states, the former head of Nato has warned. Excerpts below:
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary-general of the Atlantic alliance, said the Kremlin’s true goal is to shatter Nato solidarity and reassert Russian dominance over Eastern Europe.
“This is not about Ukraine. Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power,” he told The Telegraph.
“There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics to test Nato’s Article 5,” he said, referring to the solidarity clause that underpins collective security.
The fear is that the Kremlin will generate a murky conflict in Estonia or Latvia where there are large Russian minorities, using arms-length action or “little green men” without insignia to disguise any intervention. This may tempt weaker Nato members to play down the incident, either to protect commercial ties with Russia or because of pro-Kremlin sympathies as in Hungary or Greece.
Estonia’s relations with Russia worsened significantly last September when a squad of Russian security operatives allegedly crossed into Estonian territory and seized Eston Kohver, a veteran officer in the Estonian Security Service.
Mr Kohver was paraded on Russian television as a spy and is currently being held in a high security prison in Moscow. Analysts believe the abduction – which took place two days after a visit to Tallinn by Barack Obama – was designed to demonstrate Russia’s muscle in the Baltics.
Article 5 states that a military attack on any one Nato country is an attack on all of them, triggering collective mobilization. It has been invoked just once in the 66-year history of the alliance, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Nobody knows what would happen if one of the Baltic states invoked Article 5 protection but was turned down by the Nato Council. Failure to respond would devastate Nato’s credibility and undermine the principle of deterrence, though allies could still act as a coalition of the willing outside the treaty structure.
Mr Rasmussen, who had to grapple with the Ukraine crisis until stepping down as Nato chief in September, said Mr Putin’s immediate tactic is to create a frozen conflict in the Donbass rather than trying to conquer and hold large parts of the country. “He wants to keep the water boiling,” he said.
Mr Rasmussen said the Europeans have slashed military spending so deeply since the financial crisis that they can barely defend themselves without American help. “The situation is critical. We have a lot of soldiers but we can’t move them,” he said.
“Nato countries have cut defence spending by 20pc in real terms over the last five years – and some by 40pc – while Russia has increased by 80pc. The aggression in Ukraine is a wake-up call,” he said.
Belgium is the most extreme case, famed for its well-armed pension fund while fighting capability fades away. It spends 96pc of defence budget on salaries, retirement, and its Burgundian canteens. The share spent on military kit has been slashed to 4pc. “Military confidence is nearing the point of collapse,” said Alexander Mattelear from the Vrije Universtiteit in Brussels.