Friday, February 20, 2015

In Anticipation

"If you have the first indication of self-proclaimed groups beginning to ask for autonomy or independence within one of the three countries, then you have to be involved immediately."
"The key is to maintain an element of ambiguity: to say to Putin, 'If you try it, then you might get a response which you never bargained for'."
"If you play some games in Latvia, you might find 20,000 NATO troops arriving in the country."
Jonathan Eyal, head, security studies, Royal United Services Institute
The retreat continues: Ukrainian servicemen approach Artemivsk after withdrawing from the key town of Debaltseve.
The retreat continues: Ukrainian servicemen approach Artemivsk after withdrawing from the key town of Debaltseve. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are more than slightly concerned that Vladimir Putin's ambitions may very well turn toward them when he has finished eviscerating Ukraine's geography to his satisfaction. They are under no illusions that Moscow has any moral scruples about abusing their sovereign borders. They have, after all, viewed at fairly close range in the Baltics what has been happening in Ukraine.

Of course the difference is that Ukraine is not a member of NATO nor the European Union. Although Ukraine's plight in reflection of the massive assault on internationally recognized norms of state conduct respecting national borders and the sovereignty of nations has been lost on no one. No one expected it, in fact, viewing Europe as more or less consolidated into one huge, comfortable continent once the fervour of imperial control had drifted into the past with the dissolution of the USSR.

Who might have imagined, in their naivety that the ambition had dwindled, not perished, and was resurgent in the talons of another Russian strongman, determined to return pride to Russia, restoring the honour of its pride of place as a world power. And the powerful have a propensity to inspire fear and foreboding in the lesser nations; always with good reason.

As members of NATO, however, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a powerful ally that circumstances denied Ukraine. They, unlike Ukraine, rest in the protective shade of the North Atlantic treaty Article V stating that "an armed attack against any signatory" be considered "an attack against them all", ensuring that counter-measures be undertaken "including the use of armed force."

But Vladimir Putin is cagey and resourceful; just as he has repeatedly denied ordering troops and materiel into Ukraine to aid the pro-Russian rebels, using evasive tactics to label aid humanitarian in nature, and troops not representative of the military at all, but merely 'volunteers' on their time off committing to aiding the separatists' goal, he would likely make use of very similar tactics in the event his acquisitive instinct focused on the Baltic states.

Guerrilla warfare has seen a new lease on life; as old as conflict itself, it has served Russia well in the last year, enabling it to eviscerate eastern Ukraine as it did Georgia earlier, with more to come. While thousands of Russian troops are known to have crossed the border into Ukraine with their mechanized war machines, they were artfully managed and camouflaged. Credible witnesses aside, Moscow still insists on the wounded innocence of non-interference and misunderstanding.

The invasion of a sovereign country for the purpose of aiding a rebellion that just happened to enrich the Russian sphere of influence and geography was indeed a reality, but one shaded in grey, a behind-the-shadows success of intrigue and blatant lies. The same kind of creeping assault that succeeded in humiliating and crippling Ukraine would leave NATO with the conundrum of an undeclared conflict posing as an innocent byproduct of help extended to Russian speakers whose welfare concerns Russia.

Unless, as diagnoses and prescribes Jonathan Eyal and doubtless others of his experience and professional interpretation, the first sparks from the first embers are stamped upon, and the flames extinguished before they flare into a full-bore wildfire. Beware the propaganda of subversion and its accompanying protests leading to 'popular' revolt.

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