Burying the lede

Figuring out what Vladimir Putin is going to do next is understandably kind of a hot topic right now. I kind of got in on this act a couple of weeks ago when I first wrote that Crimea might be a flashpoint in the wake of Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, though to be totally honest I wrote that post after hearing one of CNN’s reporters mention Crimea as a potential issue, and the Washington Post beat me to the punch by a couple of hours with their trenchant “Crimea is where the Crimean War was fought” piece. The obvious place to watch is, well, the other parts of Ukraine that have lots of Russians and Russian-speakers living in them, where “Russian separatism” (though wanting to secede from one country and be annexed by another isn’t really “separatism,” is it?) is reportedly increasing, and the seizure of which would greatly simplify Russia’s most immediate problem with respect to Crimea, how to supply it with basic utilities once Kyiv (yes, I’m switching over) cuts it off.

The challenge that Putin would face in eastern Ukraine is that, while eastern Ukraine is home to a very large Russian minority, it is still a minority, mostly concentrated in the large eastern cities. A poll from only a couple of years ago, which admittedly doesn’t reflect the post-Maidan state of anxiety and hostility that exists throughout Ukraine right now, found that, apart from Crimea, 93% of the Ukrainian population identified Ukraine as its mother country. Crimea, with its Russian majority and having actually been part of Russia for over a century and a half before it was administratively handed over to Ukraine in the 1950s (which was purely a formal change since both Russia and Ukraine were provinces of the same country at the time), was a comparatively easy acquisition for Russia. Eastern Ukraine would be considerably more difficult. Putin, for what it’s worth, insists that he’s not interested in annexing eastern Ukraine, although considering he said the same thing about Crimea two weeks ago it’s probably not worth very much.

But there are other possibilities, given Russia’s new (old, really) insistence that it has the right to “protect” all Russian speakers, wherever they may be (Brighton Beach, you’re next!). The most talked about, because it’s being talked about by Russia herself, is the Baltic nation of Estonia. A few years back the Estonian government made a concerted effort to marginalize Russian in official uses, much as the new Ukrainian government unadvisedly attempted to do right after Yanukovych fled. Russia, which is obviously a champion of civil rights, otherwise this whole “protecting the rights of Russians” thing would just be incredibly hypocritical, is “concerned” that Russians living in Estonia are being mistreated. Russian “concern” over the treatment of Crimea’s Russians was followed by the unmarked Russian special “Crimean self-defense” forces in ski masks seizing checkpoints and surrounding Ukrainian military bases all over the peninsula, so Estonia has good reason to worry. This is what Daniel Berman, from the London School of Economics, is thinking (via). I’m not singling Berman out because he thinks Russia may try Estonia next; he’s not the only one who thinks that and he may well be right. But his piece on the subject is one of the most outrageous cases of burying the lede I’ve ever seen. Berman thinks that Putin is looking to shatter Europe by discrediting NATO and the EU, and that Estonia is the right place for him to make his next move:

Putin needs three things in a target at this point. First it needs to be of less strategic value than the Crimea so that the arguments for fighting for it are even less. Second it needs to be politically vital, preferably as part of both NATO and the EU so that if the West chooses not to fight for it both organizations will be shattered. Thirdly, Russia’s moral case must be so impeccable that in the game of political chess that will precede the Western defeat, Russia at all times maintains at least a moral deadlock if not a moral ascendancy. In effect, he needs an Eastern European Verdun.

Estonia meets all of these criteria. It is poor and geographically isolated. Furthermore, more than a third of its population is Russian, a legacy of Soviet rule, and that minority, unlike that in the Crimea, has legitimate cause for complaint. Soviet rule was imposed with almost unspeakable brutality in 1940, during the course of which nearly 20% of the adult population was deported to Siberia, and the settling of Russians was a deliberate effort by Moscow to destroy the Estonian nation demographically. As a consequence, when Estonia gained independence in 1991, it saw its Russian minority as a fifth column and has treated them accordingly. There is no official discrimination on the basis of ethnicity; but fluency in Estonian is required for state employment, the franchise, higher education, and many jobs in the private sector. A concerted effort has also been launched to challenge the residency of Russian-speakers and to deny them Estonian citizenship.

The thing is, though, Estonia is a NATO member, and Article 5 of the NATO charter says that if you attack one member (in Europe or North America; overseas colonies don’t count) you’ve attacked them all. Putin seems to be enjoying confronting Europe and the Americans right now, but let’s just say I’m skeptical that he wants a shooting war with NATO.

All of this makes Estonia’s position vis-e-vis Russia far weaker than that of Ukraine except for one thing; Estonia is a member of both the EU and NATO.

Oh, OK, so we agree the–

If Russia is able to stir up chaos in the form of riots and unrest within a member of both organizations it will discredit them totally. It makes no sense for Europe to risk destruction to defend Estonia, less than it did over the Ukraine, but the EU and NATO are based on the lie that an attack on one is an attack on all. Putin’s goal is to exploit this as a lie; Estonia is Verdun, a strategically worthless target that political factors forced the French army to defend to the death. In this case its Putin’s goal to draw NATO and the EU into a battle not of armies, but of political capital, and to destroy that capital in the open fields of the Baltic shore.

Well, I guess if you–wait, WHAT?

the EU and NATO are based on the lie that an attack on one is an attack on all

The…lie? NATO’s Article 5 has been invoked precisely one time in the history of the organization. You may have heard about it. In that case, the alliance did what it was supposed to do. Other than that, there is no historical basis for the claim that Article 5 is a “lie.” Maybe it is, but I’m not prepared to say that, and I don’t see anywhere that Daniel Berman has offered any evidence to support his claim. It’s a shocking statement, especially given that the US is insisting it will protect its fellow NATO members and that we know the alliance has plans for defending the Baltics against Russia if it comes to that. Failing to uphold the requirements of the charter would, indeed, wreck NATO, making the charter more worthless than the paper it’s printed on. If the argument is that it makes no sense for NATO to defend Estonia, that may be true if we’re just looking at Estonia’s strategic/geopolitical importance. But NATO wouldn’t just be defending Estonia in this situation, it would be defending Estonia and its own existence. Assuming that NATO’s membership sees value in maintaining the alliance, then it would actually make a great deal of sense for it to defend Estonia against a Russian invasion. At any rate, arguing about what it might make sense for NATO to do is hypothetical, and certainly doesn’t offer any evidence for the claim that NATO is “based on [a] lie.”

Look, for all I know Berman is right and a Russian incursion into Estonia would elicit no NATO response at all, and the whole alliance would just dissolve in the face of Russian aggression. But unless Berman is privy to some very high level intel, he doesn’t actually know either. He’s guessing, but doing it very forcefully so it seems like sage analysis. When I say he’s “burying the lede,” I mean that, if NATO has been based on a lie this whole time, that’s a much bigger story than anything that’s happening in Eastern Europe right now. But there’s just no evidence to support that assertion.


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