Europe's next steps

How Eastern Europe and NATO are suddenly scrambling to confront the new reality of Putin’s aggressive, expansionist Russia

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The plan for 2014, in the countries around the western rim of the old Soviet Union, was for celebration. This is a year of anniversaries. Ten countries joined the European Union in 2004, including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Slovenia. Three countries entered the NATO military alliance 15 years ago, and seven more five years later, and two more five years after that. The concerts and conferences have been coming in waves.

But something else has gripped the region—a pervasive despair prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the fear that Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions are far more vast. The mood was perhaps best expressed by Adam Michnik, the Polish dissident turned journalist, in the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper he founded at the end of the 1980s as Poland’s Communist old order was collapsing.

“We have to understand,” Michnik wrote, “that we are now witnessing the end of the best quarter-century of Polish history in the last four centuries.”

Note that there is nothing conditional in Michnik’s expression of despair. He was not arguing that Poland’s security and prosperity were endangered. He was saying that the country’s best years have come to a crashing halt. And even though the supporting evidence is scant—the annexation through trumped-up plebiscite of a mostly Russian corner of Ukraine—Michnik is hardly alone. Across the region, there is the same sense that something changed permanently when Putin decided his proper recompense, after Ukraine’s parliament deposed the country’s crooked former president Viktor Yanukovych, was to swallow up part of Ukraine and eye the rest.

Outside Ukraine, even in countries that were Soviet satellites within living memory, few believe Russia poses a pressing military threat. But that does little to improve the mood. At a joint news conference last week in Riga with Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was touring the region to consult on international response to Russia’s aggression, Latvia’s minister of foreign affairs, Edgars Rinkevics, was dismissive of the notion that Russia could stir up Latvia’s substantial Russian-speaking minority, as happened in Crimea. “There is a quite obvious difference between the Russian situation in Latvia or Estonia and, for instance, Ukraine,” Rinkevics said. “The living standards are much higher. There is already a whole new generation of Russians who enjoy all the privileges of living in the EU: free [that is, unrestricted] travel, free possibility of choosing their studies. As I have said to some of my colleagues, I really doubt that Russians are going to choose between visa-free travel to the EU and visa-free travel to Siberia.”

But in the next breath, Rinkevics suggested that while he doesn’t expect the Ukraine crisis to spread, he fears it will deepen. “Let’s concentrate more on things as they are developing in Ukraine, because what’s happening there is very, very troubling. If we see full-scale invasion of Russian troops . . . I think we can see a full-scale military conflict and such bloodshed as we haven’t seen since the Second World War.”

Already, Ukraine’s neighbours are scrambling to adjust to the new reality. Sixty fighter aircraft from nearly a dozen NATO member nations have been moved into the region to begin air patrols. It has not always been clear where they would even go; Canada announced it would send six CF-18 fighters and, for a week, nobody in Europe could say where they would be stationed. (The answer, in the end, is Romania.) U.S. AWACS surveillance planes are monitoring (from a distance) airspace over Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, and its neighbours. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Poland and the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—a tiny contingent in a vast territory, but more than zero, and therefore more than NATO bothered to station for many years when few observers thought Russia would ever pose a military threat to a European neighbour.

All those assumptions are now being questioned, said James Appathurai, a Canadian who serves as NATO’s deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs.

“One thing we need to understand: This is not a temporary, in my view, state of affairs,” Appathurai said in a telephone interview from NATO headquarters in Brussels. “It’s not like Moscow has suddenly had a psychotic break, to use the psychological term—in other words, sort of a rare moment of irrationality. This is a manifestation of a pattern.” Appathurai listed several countries where Russia has used military intervention or diplomatic strong-arm tactics to limit neighbouring countries’ independence: “Georgia, Belarus, Moldova—let’s not forget Armenia, where they twisted their arm to get rid of their European ambitions, and now Ukraine. If you look to the east of Russia, they have a lot of influence or control in a lot of central Asian states.

“So this is not a break from Russian behaviour; it’s the next step in Russian behaviour, based on policy that is signed and public and official, so it’s not Kremlinology,” Appathurai said, referring to the Cold War practice of trying to interpret the old Soviet leadership by analyzing body language and seating arrangements at Communist Party events. “It’s simply reading what’s on their website and reading Putin’s speeches, so this will not go away, in my view. It will not stop.”

Indeed, Appathurai argues, the new Russian expansionism won’t necessarily change whenever Putin ceases to be Russia’s president. “Look at the levels of public support in Russia for this course of action. Look at historical patterns.”

As a result, a second NATO official said on condition of anonymity, “We’re going to have to re-evaluate a lot of our assumptions—on funding levels, on force postures,” which is to say, which military assets are stationed where. The troops and hardware that have been hustled into place in the past several weeks are currently scheduled to stay in the European theatre until the end of the year. Will they stay beyond? “That’s still to be decided,” the NATO source said.

In countries that suffered brutally under the old Soviet Union, officials are grimly satisfied that NATO is finally playing catch-up. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recalls a lively debate 15 years ago about what kind of forces would be put on the territory of new members. Russia argued it should be about 4,000 soldiers, while on the NATO side people suggested it should be double that. What happened was nothing was deployed, he says.

But Sikorski is unwilling to blame earlier generations of Western leaders for failing to treat Russia as a threat. For the longest time, Russia didn’t act in a threatening way, and Putin seemed anxious for progress. In 2009, Putin joined German and Polish heads of government in Gdansk to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War—a war that began when Hitler and Stalin conspired to invade Poland from either side. Seven months later, he visited the Katyn forest near Smolensk, where Soviet troops had slaughtered thousands of Polish military officers in 1940. Both gestures were taken in Poland as evidence that Putin wanted to repudiate Russia’s bloody Soviet history. “We sincerely want Russian-Polish relations to be also cleared of this residue of the past, developing in the spirit of good-neighbourliness and co-operation to be worthy of the two great European nations,” Putin said at Gdansk.

The thaw extended beyond symbolic gestures. Poland and Russia concluded a border-traffic agreement around Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Trade between the two countries boomed, to the point where Russia is now Poland’s second-largest trade partner after Germany.

But Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose tiny country has one-20th Poland’s population and was once constitutionally a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, said Russia was already being “nasty” to weaker neighbours, even as Putin was ostentatiously making nice to more powerful countries. “This became clear to me in 1994 during our border negotiations” with Russia, Ilves said. One item on the agenda was an attempt to conclude agreements to simplify border crossing for people who live close to the border. “The Finns have an agreement like that, so we said, ‘Why don’t we take as a model the Finnish agreement?’ And then the [Russian] chief negotiator looked at our chief negotiator and said, ‘You are not Finland. You will never be like Finland. We are never going to treat you like Finland.’ I think that explains a lot.”

Lately, the hints have been a lot less subtle. Last September, the Russian army carried out its annual Zapad (“West”) military exercises, working with elements of the Belarusian army. Ostensibly, the war games were designed to practise a fight against a “terrorist” attack. But the exercise mobilized six times as many soldiers as the Russians claimed. Stephen Blank, an analyst with the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, noted that the scale and geometry of the operation “suggested Russia was practising for a large-scale war against a conventional army.” The hypothetical army in question would have come from Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.

“Considering Russia’s current threats against the independence, integrity and sovereignty of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia, as well as Vladimir Putin’s admission that the war in Georgia in 2008, including the use of separatists, was pre-planned, clearly, European security cannot be taken for granted, even if no war is currently in sight,” Blank wrote.

And by the recent standards of these things, Zapad 2013 was actually relatively subtle. Among the war-game scenarios the Russians rehearsed in Zapad 2009 was a nuclear strike against Warsaw.

The simulated hits just kept on coming. On Good Friday 2013, two Russian bombers with four fighter escorts scrambled from the St. Petersburg area, flew over the Gulf of Finland, and carried out simulated bombing runs against Swedish targets. In the surprise and confusion, the Swedish air force didn’t scramble its own aircraft in response, although Baltic air forces did, Ilves notes with pride.

“So there’s a new aggressiveness in the nature of the exercises, in the nature of the rhetoric—and now in practice in Crimea, and even more so in the practice with eastern Ukraine,” Ilves told Maclean’s. “You’d be rather silly to ignore that, right?”

Perhaps. But what does not ignoring it entail? Ilves is not used to displays of uncertainty. He almost never appears in public without a bow tie, and his feats of oratorical virtuosity extend as far as punning in Latin. But he frankly admits he’s not sure what the future looks like for Europe. “This has changed everything. You know the term ‘game-changer’? Basically, we’ve all been playing chess until someone comes along with a jackboot and just kicks the whole game. It’s just gone. We don’t know what the new game is.

“People say Putin is not Hitler. I agree; he’s not Hitler. But if you use the ‘gathering of the lands by co-ethnics’ argument, you are using an argument that was used in 1938, and that should be reason to be concerned. Let me put it another way: What would you do if somebody in the United States today said, ‘54-40 or fight?’ ” The reference is to the Oregon boundary dispute of the 1840s, in which the U.S. Democratic Party claimed that U.S. territory along the West Coast should extend right up to Alaska. Most of present-day British Columbia would have been annexed to the U.S. under that scenario. “You’d think you were beyond that, and you are beyond that. And we thought we were beyond this, but here we are.”

John Baird used less picturesque but equally grave language as he travelled from Prague to Bratislava to Warsaw, Riga and Tallinn, meeting his European counterparts. “We need to be resolute,” he told Maclean’s in Warsaw. “We need to be clear that it will not be business as usual if one man in the Kremlin thinks he can redraw the borders of Europe in the 21st century. These are Soviet-style tactics that aren’t acceptable with the security architecture of the 21st century.”

There is a limit to what outsiders can do for Ukraine, a non-bloc state that formally decided not to join NATO during the 20 years after it won its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. NATO has no intention of shipping arms or armies into Ukraine. But the fighter jets and AWACS surveillance planes and soldiers being hustled into NATO countries implies the response would be different if Putin tried to play out a Zapad-style confrontation in the Baltics. Would it?

“I don’t want to answer hypothetical questions,” Baird said. “I think the action of sending Canadian military assets—and American, British, other—sends a pretty clear message. We don’t want to escalate the situation. We want to de-escalate it.” At the same time, Baird said, all the men and metal being shoved forward into a formally neglected area of operations “should send a clear and unequivocal message.”

A military message? “It should send a strong message.”

For how long? There is precedent. Thousands of Canadian soldiers and, in many cases, their families, were stationed at CFB Lahr and CFB Baden-Soellingen in Germany for decades, until the government of Jean Chrétien closed the bases in the early 1990s. It seems absurd to think Canadian soldiers would move to Europe for a new waiting game even a fraction of that time, but, as Ilves points out, we don’t know what the new game is yet.

What is pretty clear is that it cannot only be a military game. Cordial trade relationships with Russia have been interrupted—although how much so depends on the willingness of Western governments to pay the cost that sanctions will exact against their own populations, as well as Russia’s. Sikorski notes that willingness to pay that cost increases with countries’ proximity to Russia. “I know it will be politically and economically painful,” he said of tightened sanctions, “much more for Poland than for Canada. I mean, incomparably more.”

Nor is punishment and threat the only response. In Warsaw, Baird announced Canada is spending $9.2 million to collaborate with two democracy-promotion agencies, Poland’s Solidarity Fund PL and the EU’s European Endowment for Democracy (EED). The two agencies work well together; the EED was created at Poland’s urging, and both organizations are run by former deputy ministers in the Polish foreign ministry.

The two agencies will advocate the establishment of strong multi-party democracy in Ukraine, where they will be welcomed by the current government in Kyiv. It is work that gently greying Poles know first-hand: Krzysztof Stanowski, the bearded and ebullient president of Solidarity Fund PL, spent three months in jail in Lublin as a member of the Solidarity labour-union movement in the 1980s.

Working in partnership with the two agencies is the Harper government’s way of edging delicately back into the democracy-endorsing business, which used to be the bailiwick of the government-funded agency Rights and Democracy until Baird shut it down in 2012 amid controversy over its management.

The Canadians are still clearly nervous about the democracy-promotion business, Stanowski said in an interview. As he was negotiating the new partnership with Canadian officials, he said, “I was asked, ‘Do you have risk-management procedures?’ ” He rolled his eyes. “The answer is, mainly, this is only about risk.” The risk is mostly borne by democrats in host countries, he added. “If we make mistakes, we will be taken out by our ambassadors. They will stay in jail.”

The Russian government’s moves in Ukraine were swift, assured and—despite all the advance warning that seems so significant in retrospect—surprising to European democracies and their military alliance. The next moves—sanctions, military deterrence and democracy promotion—will take more time, and their effect is uncertain. What is most depressing to the leaders of Central and Eastern Europe is how familiar the whole vocabulary is. This is a dance the world danced for 45 years after the Second World War.

There are two consolations. First, Russia today is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union Putin grew up in. The stakes are grim but they have been far worse and, recently, enough to be vivid in the memory of all the leaders interviewed for this article. Second, the first time around, tens of millions in Central and Eastern Europe were trapped inside Russia’s sphere of influence, praying for a way out. Now they are out, and free, and their highest aspiration is to stay that way.