A bungled campaign in Ukraine leaves a little Russia with fewer – and more dangerous – options for retaliation against NATO’s dramatic new deployments.
Russia on Wednesday threatened to further escalate its military posture in Europe to defend against new deployments by NATO that leaders within the alliance call “historic” and “transformative.”
“What is happening will invariably lead to compensatory measures on our part,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters Wednesday morning. “We have the capabilities and resources. Security will be 100% guaranteed.”
Ryabkov was responding to announcements out of the ongoing NATO summit in Spain that the alliance would increase its high-readiness force to well over 300,000 troops, that the U.S. would station a major military headquarters in Poland – the first permanent basing of American forces on NATO’s “eastern flank” – and that the historically neutral Nordic countries Sweden and Finland on Russia’s northern periphery now face a clear path to NATO membership.
The sudden developments – many unthinkable at the end of last year – come as the U.S. and its Western partners seek new ways to impose costs on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February, gambling that what they consider acts of deterrence won’t, in fact, push Russia into expanding its war into other parts of Europe.
And the potency of Russia’s response also remains a question as it continues to sustain its war in Ukraine by diverting the bulk of its military capabilities there – though stopping short of declaring war and fully mobilizing its forces. An at-times bungled campaign has created intense strains on many of its reserves, leaving the Kremlin and Putin to rely instead on more malevolent forms of posturing, including growing references to its nuclear arsenal.
“We are sending an unmistakable message that NATO is strong, united,” President Joe Biden said at the summit on Wednesday morning. “In our meetings today we are going to approve a new NATO strategic concept and reaffirm the unity of determination of our alliance to defend every inch of NATO territory.”
“Putin was looking for the Finlandization of Europe,” Biden said, referring to Russian leaders’ historic pressure on their consequential northeastern neighbor with a border roughly 100 miles from St. Petersburg. “He’s going to get the NATO-ization of Europe.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies were meeting “in the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced since the Second World War,” adding, “This will be a historic and transformative summit where we will make decisions that will actually change this alliance for many years to come.”
The summit comes as the alliance drafts a new strategic concept to include permanent deployments of aircraft to the U.K., navy destroyers to Spain and other rotational forces to Romania and Poland. As evidence of how much European security has changed since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, the last time the alliance drafted a strategic concept – in 2010 – it referred to Russia as “a strategic partner.”
Putin also finds himself further isolated by previously friendly governments. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – whose autocratic tendencies have included closer ties with the Russian leader in recent years – announced this week that he would not block the ascension of Sweden and Finland to join NATO despite previously expressing concerns about their support for Kurdish groups that Ankara consider terrorists.
The alliance’s latest moves put further pressure on mainland Russia but also on the isolated oblast of Kaliningrad, the strategic bastion of Russian territory encircled by Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea. A burgeoning diplomatic crisis has emerged there in recent weeks after Lithuania limited the transit of goods there.
Despite Russia’s latest threats, it remains unclear whether it could field an army of any consequence in response to the buildup from Europe. It has relegated itself to unearthing mothballed tanks to replace those destroyed by Western-supplied precision weapons in Ukraine, and has had to reactivate retired generals – some of them visibly unfit for combat – to command forces on the ground as a replacement for the dozen or so that have been killed at the front lines.
Western intelligence indicates that many of these forces appear unfit for battle, with Russian commanders cannibalizing units with reservists with combat experience to fill out its front-line battalions.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense’s military intelligence concluded in an assessment this week that the Russian leadership likely remains reluctant to order a general mobilization, “despite a continued shortfall in the number of deployable reservists for Ukraine.”
The Institute for the Study of War, which has tracked Russian movements, documented earlier this month that Moscow was sending some recruits into battle with less than a week of training.
“Russia continues to deploy insufficiently prepared volunteer and reserve forces to reinforce its ongoing operations,” it concluded in an analysis note published June 13.
These realities don’t necessarily mean that Russia is without options to intimidate its Western adversaries.
Following its standoff with Kaliningrad, Lithuania suffered a massive cyberattack on the scale of what other Western countries expected would follow their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Russian hacker group claimed credit for that attack and said they would continue until Lithuania acquiesced to Moscow’s demands.
And, more dramatically, Putin this week noted he planned to move nuclear-capable missiles into Belarus, one of his few remaining allies along Ukraine’s northern border. The Pentagon blasted his rhetoric as “cavalier.”
“I can’t think of a more irresponsible thing for a senior leader to say than talk about the employment of nuclear weapons in this case,” a senior defense official told reporters from the Pentagon on Monday.