The data show that aggression toward neighboring countries generally favors Russian President Vladimir Putin at home. The rapid improvement in attitudes toward Putin and the lack of lasting consequences could explain why the Kremlin repeats even ineffective tactics. The potential payoff is high. Maintaining power is a life-or-death matter for Putin today. The cost to both the leadership and the Russian public has not dissuaded either that aggression abroad is unwise.
Whether the tactics, like energy blackmail, are judged to be successful depends upon the aim of these actions. Russia’s continued aggression abroad has done more than increase the government’s approval rates. It also has achieved a desired geopolitical outcome: Preventing or delaying states from joining NATO. If the objective has been to delay or deter accession to NATO, then Russia has succeeded with Georgia and Ukraine.
Just as Putin has adapted to the surrounding system, NATO can too. The boost in support associated with taking military action–if genuinely explained by it–is remarkable and lasting. Still, approval consistently wanes when Putin violates the unspoken norms of their social contract, as with raising the age for pensions or mobilizing them to fight in Ukraine. NATO can adapt to the current situation, which seems to incentivize these behaviors from multiple angles.
Policymakers who wish to deter Russia from what is now a well-worn series of tactics must tie aggression abroad to costs that the Russian people will perceive as violating Putin’s social contract with his subjects. The common behaviors or happenstances accompanying Russian escalation and aggression are detailed here.
How Russia treats NATO and non-NATO countries
In 2008, Hedenskog predicted the invasion of Ukraine shortly after the Russian war with Georgia earlier that year.¹ He notes that Ukraine has several risk factors and is without a way to protect itself from Russia:
Logic suggests that Crimea, the only region in Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority (in addition largely pro-Russian and anti-Western), with its historical links to Russia and contested affiliation to Ukraine, and with its Hero City Sevastopol (the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet), would be an easy target for the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist policy. Other conceivable targets, such as Estonia and Latvia – both with substantial Russian minorities – are now members of NATO, which increases the risk for the Kremlin. However, Ukraine is still left on its own, without reliable security guarantees from the West.
When Hedenskog wrote the excerpt, Russia had already acted covertly in Crimea. Credible media had heavily covered the “separatists” in Ukraine and thus lent legitimacy to the Kremlin’s claims about Ukrainians who wanted to be Russians.² Tactics commonly used in science denialism, like the magnified minority, appear to have contributed to the overestimation of “pro-Russian separatist” support.
Despite the fact that the majority of the organisations supported by Russia are still rather small and that their actions and demonstrations rarely gather more than a couple of hundred activists, the activities of these organisations attract large coverage in the mass media and are supported at a high political level in Russia.
Although Russia was aggressive toward Estonia, notably during Estonia’s relocation of the Bronze Soldier,³ the threat from NATO likely encouraged Russian restraint. Compare that with the treatment of Montenegro, which NATO hesitated to accept. The GRU later plotted to kill Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to dissuade the country from joining NATO.⁴
Despite this extreme act, Montenegro joined in 2017, but the two years between its invitation to join and its actual accession permitted Russia to act. Montenegrins have elected a pro-NATO leader every year since they gained their independence in 2006, so the desire to join NATO alone was not enough to trigger such treachery.⁵
A self-perpetuating cycle
Russia’s behavior incentivizes countries to join NATO by unleashing wanton devastation against non-NATO states while exercising restraint toward NATO countries. The Second Chechen War was part of the motivation for Georgia and Ukraine to join. Headlines can largely convey the sequence of events:
- The Georgian parliament voted to integrate Georgia into NATO in 2006.
- Russia warns Georgia against joining NATO.
- Russia signs a treaty to defend Georgia separatists.
- In August 2008, the war in Georgia lasted five days.
- Raids suggest Russia targeted energy pipelines.
- November 2008 headline: Georgia, Ukraine years away from NATO seats.
- And in 2014: NATO will not offer Georgia membership step, avoiding Russia clash.
- Attacking Georgia has delayed its accession to NATO by over a decade, and the aggression cost Putin little. Many countries encouraged Georgia to “make peace,” and Georgia is still not a NATO member.
Although some conclude that allowing new members into NATO somehow increases the risk of violence, no evidence supports this claim. Decades of evidence show the precise opposite.
- Russia has never attacked or invaded a NATO country.
- Russia has attacked and invaded non-NATO countries multiple times.
- NATO has never invaded or offensively attacked another country.
Nuclear war has become Russia’s answer to everything.
Russia threatened nuclear retaliation in Sweden, and Finland joined NATO.⁶ When the two joined, Russia pretended the situation made “no big difference.”⁷ Juxtapose this sequence of events against what happens when NATO meets expressions of interest with hesitation and delay, as with Georgia and Ukraine. With more time between the decision and accession, Russia might have likely attempted to dissuade both countries.
Nuclear threats have become something of a standard potential response to anything that offends Russia:
- 2008 - Putin issues nuclear threat to Ukraine over plan to host U.S. shield
- 2014 - Russia simulating nuclear strikes on Sweden
- 2014 - Russia threatens nuclear strikes over Crimea
- 2015 - Russia threatens to use ‘nuclear force’ over Crimea and the Baltic States
- 2015 - Russia threatens to aim nuclear missiles at Denmark's ships if it joins NATO shield
- 2016 - Russia threatens Norway with nuclear attack if it hosts 350 U.S. Marines
- 2019 - Putin Threatens to Target the U.S. if it Deploys Nuclear Weapons in Europe
Living up to a grand idea and noble promise
We see a grand promise: Anyone may join. When countries face serious security threats, an obvious impetus for interest a desire to join NATO, their interest is often met with hesitation or delay, leaving them vulnerable to sabotage and military action from Russia.
Russia understands the rules–though it certainly doesn’t follow them–which is why it threatens other countries’ territorial integrity.
NATO must also learn from the situation and find a path to NATO membership that removes the incentive to attack. Consequences for aggression that lead Putin to violate the Russian social contract may be most effective.
Berlin Wall Fall to 2015