Is this the face of Putin's 2015 aggression to escape the problem of absorbing Ukrainian territory?
The new year will be filled with many Kremlin operational games of various kinds. Expect regular media reports of “unattributed” cyber attacks, “unexplained” acts of sabotage, “unresolved” online scandals, and “mysterious” terrorist incidents across the West. This can be stopped, and must be; there is little time to waste. I will be spending 2015 doing my part to assist the West as it learns to wage Special War against the number-one-ranked team in the game.
Putin finds himself in need of carrying out further aggression to compel a Western retreat because he is still embroiled in conflict in Ukraine which the West has been forced to notice by his attempts to take Ukraine's territory. The economic problems from sanctions, loss of investor confidence in Russia, and loss of energy income as oil prices plunge make more aggression Putin's only real option to escape these problems since he won't give up his territorial gains.
This, of course, reinforces my basic feeling that when possible, one should pull off the band-aid fast when it comes to military intervention. Which is why I worry that our basically sound approach to defeating ISIL in Iraq could be short-circuited if ISIL successfully preempts our plan rather than waits for us to strike.
Back to Russia, if Putin had restricted his territorial ambitions to Crimea which he rapidly secured, Europe and European-Americans here probably would have been happy to look the other way as they did after the rapid seizure of Georgian territory in 2008.
If Putin had even rapidly used his ground forces to take the Donbas from Kharkov down to the Sea of Azov rather than mess with astro-turf revolt that Ukraine was able to react to successfully before Russia escalated to restore the stalemate there, the same thing might have happened even with that conquest.
But no, Putin did not try to pull the band-aid off fast. And so the affront lingers on, and Europe and America are shamed into doing something to help a victim of aggression.
On the bright side, Putin's failure to rapidly pull off a conquest reflects the fact that Russia's military isn't that good overall. It has some pockets of excellence but it has a lot of ground to cover with relatively few troops. Putin may have wanted to rapidly conquer the Donbas, too, but found he didn't have the assets to do the job.
But there are some good Russian troops. Could Russia seek to use their relatively few quality troops on a narrow front rather than try their "little green men" astro-turf revolt tactic again that we will be more attuned to reacting to if applied to Estonia, a member of NATO, with its relatively large (a quarter of the population) ethnic Russian minority?
What if Russia attempts a page out of Pakistan's long territorial struggle against militarily superior India in the 1999 Kargil War?
What if Russia sends in their regular troops--while denying they are their troops--to seize the Estonian ethnic-Russian city of Narva on the northeast border and dares NATO to counter-attack, which would devastate NATO's reputation if we did nothing?
Remember, Russia recently stated that NATO expansion is a threat to Russia:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a new military doctrine, naming NATO expansion among key external risks, the Kremlin said on Friday, days after Ukraine made fresh steps to join the Atlantic military alliance.
Moscow's previous military doctrine, signed by Putin in 2010, also identified NATO expansion as a top risk to Russia, but the stakes have risen sharply over the past year.
Do they mean just future NATO expansion? I imagine Putin considers NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact states and especially former Soviet territory in the Baltic states as falling under that threat category, especially since NATO troops--in wholly theoretical terms--could be within marching range of St. Petersburg.
Since NATO expansion was already considered a "risk" I don't see how Putin could not want to roll back NATO if he can.
If Russia chose to try some roll back in Estonia, Russia could challenge NATO on a narrow front that NATO could not safely widen to Russian territory without risking nuclear war, just as India did not risk a wider confrontation with Pakistan and accepted a narrow fight.
Unless we could evacuate the city--which the Russians would be unlikely to cooperate with--we would have to bring our A-game of precision-targeting to avoid killing civilians as we dug out Russian defenders.
To me, we'd need a Marine brigade with it's integrated ground support air power (we have equipment stored in Norway) reinforced with armor in cooperation with Estonian troops and NATO special forces to liberate the city, which would be backed by NATO heavy armor formations to guard against a Russian effort to escalate the fight and perhaps drive deeper into Estonia to cut off the Marines.
We'd also need to reinforce Riga in Latvia and add forces to Lithuania to guard against even bigger efforts by Russia to widen the war if the Narva War goes poorly for them.
NATO air power would try to keep the Russian air force from intervening in the fight.
We could cooperate with Russia's fiction of non-involvement by not naming Russia as the aggressor in triggering NATO's collective defense provision (and hopefully give Russia an excuse not to escalate the fight) and work to inflict a defeat on Russia on a battlefield of Russia's choosing.
Let's hope we can manage this crisis with Russia to prevent a direct clash between Russia and NATO. But if Putin decides to escalate, because he is willing to take risks because he sees Russia is in a weak position on the global chess board, let's win at that level of escalation. If we win that narrow war, Russia has little to go up to short of nuclear war to get their way by force of arms with Russia's current military.
Of course, Russia might have a supporting role in a new crisis rather than being the central figure in a new dangerous crisis in the new year.
World wars start out small, remember.