Granted, the crisis in Ukraine is worrisome, Vladimir Putin’s behavior is unpredictable, and the 30,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border arouse a sense of dread and danger unfelt since the Cold War. That said, the alarmism is getting out of hand. Legitimate concerns are spiraling into war chants and trembling, a weird mix of paranoia and nostalgia, needlessly inflating tensions and severely distorting the true picture.
A bizarre example of this is a March 26 New York Times story headlined “Military Cuts Render NATO Less Formidable as Deterrent to Russia.” The normally seasoned reporters, Helene Cooper and Steven Erlanger, note that the United States “has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago.” For instance, during “the height of the Cold War” (which was actually three decades ago, but let that pass), we had about 400,000 combat-ready forces defending Western Europe—whereas now we have about 67,000. In terms of manpower, weapons, and other military equipment, they write, “the American military presence” in Europe is “85 percent smaller than it was in 1989.”
Yet the article contains not one word about the decline of Russia’s “military presence” in Europe since that time. It only takes one word to sum up that topic: disappeared. The once-mighty Warsaw Pact—the Russian-led alliance that faced NATO troops along the East-West German border—is no more. And its erstwhile frontline nations—East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland—have been absorbed into the West, indeed into NATO. This is hardly an esoteric fact, yet its omission makes the Times’ trend lines seem much scarier than they really are.
Nor, even with its own borders, is the Russian army the formidable force it once. According to data gathered by GlobalSecurity.org, Russian troop levels have declined since 1990 from 1.5 million to 321,000. Over the same period, tank divisions have been slashed from 46 to five, artillery divisions from 19 to five, motorized rifle divisions from 142 to 19, and so it goes across the ranks.
In short, the United States “drastically cut back its European forces” because there’s no longer a threat to justify those forces. Nor does Putin’s seizure of Crimea augur a resumption of that threat—not to any degree that warrants anything like a restoration of NATO circa ’89.
Putin’s moves have rattled the nerves of the newest, most eastern NATO members, especially Poland and the Baltic nations. They once belonged to the Warsaw Pact; their adult populations remember Russian occupation; and, lacking the long-standing ties that bind the alliance’s western members, they naturally wonder whether we’d really honor the treaty’s Article 5 commitments (i.e., an attack on one is an attack on all). President Obama has tried to allay these fears by sending more troops and advanced fighter jets to those nations. His speech in Brussels—one of his more rousing—was meant to signal a commitment as well.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO. President George W. Bush thought about putting Ukraine on a fast track for inclusion in 2008, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, but pulled back for good reasons. First, polls revealed that few Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Second, high-level discussions revealed that few allies were keen on going to war to defend Ukraine. Third, Bush’s father and President Clinton had assured Russian leaders that NATO’s eastward expansion wouldn’t extend right up against the motherland’s borders, and even George W. recognized the wisdom of that restraint.
Still, a Russian invasion of Ukraine—or an incursion into the southern and eastern parts of the country, where pro-Russia sentiment can easily be mustered—would rouse enormous fear and tension across Europe—not just for the fate of Ukraine, but for what Putin might do next. This is the real reason for the West’s countermoves (the sanctions, the deployments, the speeches, the meetings): not to regain Crimea (it’s gone, and everyone knows it), but to deter Putin from going further. Putin has dreams of restoring Great Russia (he once, famously, lamented the Soviet Union’s breakup as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”), but his actions are those of an opportunistic tactician. He will go as far as he can, but—so far—no farther. Crimea was easy: He already had troops there, as well as the headquarters for a large naval fleet. Most Russians regarded the peninsula as theirs already. He exploited the turmoil in Kiev to grab it for good. The task now, as Obama and other Western leaders see it, is to convince Putin that grabbing more land will mean real trouble.
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