Putin will exploit shifts in NATO’s security policies to reinforce his domestic position.
– NATO’s capability-building in Eastern Europe will enable the Kremlin to shift the Russian public’s attention away from domestic issues to the ‘NATO threat’ narrative
– Russia will aim to cooperate with and exploit NATO’s increasing anti-terror focus in order to strengthen the Kremlin’s anti-extremism narrative, thereby increasing the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of Russian citizens
– Putin will push to build on signals by key European leaders that they are open to the idea of bilateral relationships with Moscow in the face of President Trump’s abdication of US security leadership in Europe
– Montenegro’s accession to NATO membership won’t be much of a blow to Russia as Moscow still holds numerous overt and covert strategic levers of influence in the Balkans and Central Europe
Four features were evident at the NATO Brussels Summit in late May that have noticeable strategic implications for Russia. The Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) plan is being strengthened through capability-building; NATO is pandering to President Trump’s wishes and increasing its anti-terror posture; the Western Balkans are becoming an increasingly key area of focus, headlined by Montenegro becoming NATO’s 29th member; and the Euro-Atlantic orientation of the security bloc may be starting to splinter.
In order to strengthen his domestic political capital, President Putin will likely exploit the strengthening EFP and anti-terror postures as they align with and serve his political narratives. Additionally, Moscow will attempt to exploit any weakening of traditional US leadership of the European security environment. Furthermore, by relying on its established legitimate and illegitimate patronage networks in the Balkans, Russia will aim to counterbalance NATO’s growing presence there.
A RENEWED FOCUS ON FOREIGN POLICY NARRATIVES
Russian foreign policy is wholly geared to serve and respond to the domestic political necessities facing the Putin regime. Putin has regularly focused on foreign policy to distract the Russian public from the shortcomings of the regime in serving the needs of its people. However, by the end of 2016, the international agenda had become comparatively irrelevant for the Russian polity compared to domestic necessities, which had become too pressing not to occupy centre stage. Reflecting this sentiment, Putin switched to an overwhelming focus on the domestic agenda for the first time in three years at his major public addresses, namely his annual press conference and his annual Federal Assembly address.
Two of Putin’s primary foreign policy narratives were served by the Brussels Summit; this may provide an opportunity to pivot away from the uncomfortable discussion about domestic policy that exposed Kremlin shortcomings. First, NATO’s strengthening of its Enhanced Forward Presence plan and engagement in other capability-building exercises will enable Putin to gain momentum for his ‘NATO threat at Russia’s doorstep’ narrative. Russia will likely do just enough to keep NATO engaged in Eastern Europe at its current intensity without overreaching and risking a military retaliation.
Moscow will want the stand-off to remain a political distraction for the Russian public, and not escalate to an actual conflict that would consume a crippling amount of resources. In line with this, expect to see a continued Russian focus on military training—like its annual Zapad exercise, to be held in Belarus this year—which will ensure NATO remains tied up in the region. To this end, Russia may leave a significant portion of the 100,000 troops purported to be involved in Zapad 2017 stationed in Belarus once the exercise is complete.
The second narrative that the NATO summit reinforces is that of the growing scourge of terrorism and extremism on Russia’s security and national interest. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has doubled down on portraying the instability facing Russia from this threat and the need for heightened security to counter it. As such, NATO’s increasing focus on strengthening anti-terror capabilities—in no small part due to moves by Trump to turn NATO into more of an anti-terror bloc—in cooperation with Russia will be welcomed.
Afghanistan will be a key indicator of whether NATO-Russian cooperation on this front has hopes for continuity. Moscow believes that undermining Islamic State and al Qaeda in the region can be achieved through empowering the Taliban but such a collusion poses a stark clash with US policy. Hence, the manner in which Russia and NATO work through this issue may be the litmus test for whether we can expect to see Russian-NATO anti-terror cooperation become more than just rhetoric.
PUSHING BACK IN THE WEST BALKANS
It is unclear whether Russia’s reaction to NATO’s acceptance of Montenegro as its 29th member will be as vindictive as many predict. The Western Balkans had already been consolidated as a NATO-aligned region (the majority of Balkan nations are NATO members), so the status quo hasn’t significantly shifted. While official Kremlin rhetoric will likely continue along the lines of the usual anti-NATO bluster, privately Russia’s leaders may not be overly upset with how they’re faring in the Balkans. Russia has maintained multiple strategic levers in the Balkans and up into Central Europe that Moscow can use to exert considerable influence. At the beginning of June, Russia, Serbia and Hungary resumed talks concerning re-starting the South Stream gas pipeline project. If it gets off the ground, this pipeline will add another string to Moscow’s energy diplomacy bow to exert influence in the region when desired.
Moscow has furtively cultivated networks of economic and political patronage across the Balkans and Central Europe that it exploits to influence these nations’ institutions and policies. Tactics range from standard above-board political and economic relationships to more underhanded methods like information warfare. Russia holds considerable soft power in Montenegro amongst large swathes of the population, leaving it vulnerable to this latter tactic. According to polls, only about half the population supported joining NATO, due in no small part to the remaining bitterness of the majority ethnic Serb population at NATO’s bombing campaign during the 1999 war in Kosovo. While the Balkans and Central Europe will ostensibly look to the EU as its major trade partner, and NATO as its security partner, Moscow will continue to build its opaque methods of influence to ensure it maintains leverage in the face of increasing NATO presence.
Unlike Russia’s overt engagements with NATO, which are heavily influenced by the Kremlin’s political narratives, Moscow’s cultivation of soft-power networks will be less dictated by the domestic political cycle. Hence, Western governments can rely on this being a more predictable cornerstone of Russian foreign policy in the longer term.
Nick is a Russia expert in the Former Soviet Union team, as well as a Sino analyst.