Since the end of the Cold War, the West has implicitly acted as though Russia was, for the most part, a European power no longer. Its membership on European diplomatic and economic bodies was qualified, limited to observer status, or non-existent. Its diplomatic overtures were increasingly directed toward Asia and its influence appeared limited to the “Near Abroad” of the former Soviet space. To the extent that Russia occasionally reasserted its former role as arbiter of political and military outcomes on the European continent, Moscow’s efforts were often perfunctory, abortive, or merely menacing to a point that betrayed the impotence of the new Russian Federation. The presumption that Russia was a spent force was always an erroneous Western conceit, and now it’s been revealed as also a dangerous delusion. Russia is set on demonstrating that it was and continues to be a European power.
At long last, the United States seems to have been disabused of the notion that the West could contain Russia without much in the way of additional deterrence on the continent. For the first time in decades, the Pentagon revealed this week that at least one Army brigade will soon be permanently deployed to the European theater. The shift in force posture in Europe is the result of a reluctant conclusion, confirmed apparently by a series of still classified NATO exercises, that the Atlantic Alliance would be quickly overwhelmed by Russian forces in the event of a full-scale breakout.
“By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place,” read a terrible conclusion in a February RAND Corporation report summarizing NATO’s discovery, “potentially inviting a devastating war, rather than deterring it.”
This augmented deployment is a welcome, albeit belated, response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of neighboring European territory (the first of its kind since 1945). A series of targeted Western economic sanctions and non-lethal aid to combatants in the Kremlin-led war of attrition in Ukraine have not neutralized the Russian threat. While the Pentagon is starting to take Russian military threat to NATO’s Eastern fringes more seriously, this is not Russia’s only front in the war on the West’s unity of purpose. Moscow long ago inaugurated a campaign of agitation designed to de-legitimize long established Western European political norms. For Kremlin apparatchiks who dream of regained Soviet glories, the nightmarish civil war in Syria and its associated humanitarian catastrophes have provided perhaps the greatest of tactical advantages.
The refugee crisis linked to Syria’s terrible, five-year-old war is intensifying. It is exacerbated by a region-wide human tide compelled to make the dangerous trek north by as poverty, authoritarianism, and war spread from the Arabian Peninsula to the North African coast. As mostly Muslim refugees stream into Central Europe, inviting cultural and economic conflict throughout the continent, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis to undermine one of his most aggressive European critics: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Janis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, recently told reporters that not only is the Russian Federation is funding radical nationalist extremist groups in Europe, but it is also promoting propaganda aimed at undermining Merkel’s political position by exacerbating tensions over the refugee crisis. “[Russia] is establishing a network that can be controlled. You can use it as they have tried to do in Germany, combined with the legitimate issue of refugees, to undercut political processes in a very serious way,” Sarts said.
While the issue of precisely how to handle the flood of millions of refugees from the crisis-plagued Middle East is, indeed, a “legitimate issue,” some of the information Russia is disseminating is nothing more than familiar Soviet-style agitprop. As a recent Deutsche Welle investigation revealed that Russian news outlets are prone to appealing to dubious authorities when sourcing stories about the conduct of Russia’s antagonists. Tales like those about an alleged Ukrainian crucifixion of a three-year-old boy and the supposed abduction of a 13-year-old German-Russian girl by a swarm of immigrants turned out to be poorly sourced fabrications, but they were devoured with passion and intensity by Germans who consume Russian media. “Roughly six million people with Russian or Soviet roots currently live in Germany, and they watch Russian television,” Deutsche Welle reported.
This phenomenon wouldn’t be quite as galling were it not for the fact the West continues to rely on Russia to resolve the very same crisis in Syria that Moscow is using to its advantage. The West leaned on Russia to prevent military action against Bashar al-Assad in 2013 in exchange for the surrender of the regime’s chemical stockpiles, neither of which occurred despite much hopeful fanfare. Russia has since intervened in Syria outright, targeting CIA weapons caches, U.S.-backed rebel forces, and harassing NATO assets to the point of provoking an international incident. And yet Washington still relies on Moscow to impose some discipline on the various factions at war in Syria. Today, a Russian-imposed ceasefire in Syria is predictably coming apart, with Turkish news outlets blaming Russian warplanes and regime-aligned rebels and Russian sources blaming Turkish-backed “terrorists.” This dynamic underlines precisely why it was folly to pursue a ceasefire in Syria while all sides believe there is still plenty of fighting to do.
The reality should be clear, if it were not already, that a deterrent to Russian aggression in Europe in the form of U.S. troops will not save Europe from the revanchists in the Kremlin. Russia’s aim is to decouple the United States from its European partners, and it has chosen as the instrument through which it will achieve that goal rising European nationalist elements. Those nationalist political factions are gaining traction today as a result of the unending crises cascading out of the Middle East, and Syria in particular. Given all this, the fact that the West continues to trust Moscow to serve as a partner in the region is not merely mind-bogglingly unwise but near suicidal.