After the end of the Cold War, one of NATO’s main military and political goals was to encircle Russia, a then-weakening power after the dissolution of the former communist Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and prevent it from expanding its influence outside its borders.
About three decades later, the reverse is happening. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership, Moscow is pulling strings in different directions — from Ukraine to Syria and most recently Libya, gaining the upper hand over the NATO forces and European Union, Washington’s main ally.
“The Kremlin has been conducting a far more aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy, significantly ratcheting up provocative military maneuvers near NATO members’ borders with Russia, intimating nuclear threats, and deploying nuclear-capable missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad,” wrote Richard Sokolsky, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
Since late 2013, Moscow has backed Russian separatists in Ukraine, a country with a massive Russian influence ever since its capital Kyiv was the center of the first Russian state in the late 9th century. Moscow also issued threats against other European nations like Sweden and Finland, which have close proximity to its borders.
“Moscow has also threatened a military response if Sweden or Finland decides to join NATO; according to NATO’s secretary-general, Russian exercises have included simulated nuclear strikes against Sweden,” Sokolsky noted.
In 2014, Russia also illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, which could do nothing to stop the invasion, as the opposition from Europe and its allies remained confined to mere protests.
Last week, Putin inaugurated a 12-mile rail bridge, which joins the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula, showing Russia's long-term tactics and commitment to the region.
Russia’s aggressive anti-Ukraine measures also showed its ability to use unconventional or hybrid warfare to overwhelm its enemies.
In east Ukraine, Russia has empowered pro-Moscow elements through carefully-crafted guerilla warfare against Kyiv, supplying weapons and military advisors. On diplomatic and economic fronts, Moscow has also put maximum pressure over Ukraine to force the country to submit to its will in Russian-majority regions.
Like its Ukrainian odyssey, now Moscow marches on another European state, Belarus, which happens to be closer to the areas designated as part of NATO’s eastern flank.
About two decades ago, the two states signed a union agreement, which has been understood differently by Russia and Belarus. According to the Russian understanding, Belarus should be part of the Russian federation soon in the implementation of the agreement.
European allies have seriously worried that after Ukraine, with Belarus, Russia could also have a critical hold in a strategic location to geographically divide NATO’s Baltic allies, which used to be part of the former Soviets, being located between Moscow-held Kaliningrad and Belarus.
It could even make the defenses of the Baltic states more vulnerable to a possible Russian attack.
Russia enjoys favorable geography and numerical advantage over NATO in manpower and in every major category of combat weapons and equipment that would be used in an initial military attack against the Baltic states,” Sokolsky viewed.
“This is the case even when considering the standing forces of the Baltic states, the forces that other NATO members would deploy in peacetime or on a rotational basis on Baltic [and Polish] territory, and the early arriving forces that NATO has assigned to reinforce its eastern flank in response to a strategic warning of an attack,” Sokolsky estimated.
Russia’s Balkan agenda
Beyond Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics, Russia also has an eye on the Balkans, whose Orthodox and Slavic-majority populations have historically and politically been the subject of Moscow’s long-standing pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox tendencies.
On the other hand, as part of its expansion plan, NATO also wants to reach the Balkans, mostly using the EU, which offers memberships to the former Soviet Union states to break them up completely from Moscow’s orbit, as its political cover to threaten Moscow from its western flank.
“Russia is trying to obstruct both the EU and NATO in the Western Balkans for as long as possible,” wrote Maxim Samorukov, who is a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of Carnegie.ru, in an article in September.
According to Samorukov, Moscow aims to fuel ongoing Balkan conflicts to secure its interests in the region.
“In the Kremlin’s logic, the more attention and resources the West has to devote to its Balkan neighborhood, the less appetite it will have to integrate its eastern neighbors such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, thereby preserving those states as territory of Russia’s privileged interest,” Samorukov noted.
From Syria to Libya
More worryingly for European powers, Russian assertiveness is not limited to its Western flank.
In recent years, Moscow is also marching across the Middle East from Syria, an East Mediterranean country to Libya, an oil-rich North African state located across Italy, a southern European and Mediterranean power.
It’s a far-fetched political equation for a country, which has long aimed to reach “warm waters” of Europe. Having a grasp of the Mediterranean has historically been a part of landlocked Russia’s political mindset, since the rise of its imperial power, under Peter the Great in the early 18th century, over the Eurasian landscape.
In Syria, Moscow has been the enabler of Assad's brutal regime to stay in power in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, enhancing its presence in the war-ravaged country.
Putin’s Russia has recently announced that the country will invest 500 million dollars to Syria’s Tartus port in the Mediterranean Sea, signaling to widen its scope in the region, where various East Mediterranean powers conduct gas exploration efforts in the newly-discovered rich gas reserves.
Russia has also recently been on the move in Libya, where it supports another Assad-like figure, a warlord, Khalifa Haftar, who claims to power against the UN-recognised Tripoli government.
Like its Syria intervention in 2015, when the Assad regime was on the verge of losing power to opposition forces, Moscow is now deploying hundreds of mercenaries, who are reported to have been recruited by Russia’s Wagner Group, to support Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, the country’s capital.
Advanced Russian weaponry
To enforce its various military adventures from the Middle East to the Baltics, Russia has also heavily invested in its military technology, increasing stakes against NATO.
Last week, Putin unraveled the country’s recent hypersonic military advances, claiming that "not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons," which can not be detected by even American missile defense systems.
“It was not too long ago that many experts gave NATO a decisive edge in the event of a military confrontation. According to the current consensus, however, a Russian invasion force could quickly overwhelm NATO defenses, largely because it has narrowed the qualitative gap with NATO in conventional capabilities,” Sokolsky analysed.