Nato has no choice but to strengthen its bulwarks against Putin

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The writer is the director of Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin

A growing number of senior Nato officials are warning of a direct military confrontation between Europe and Russia in the not-so-distant future. The Kremlin denies any intention of attacking Nato, dismissing the idea as fear-mongering to the benefit of western militaries and defence manufacturers.

Certainly, assaulting the most powerful military alliance in history would have catastrophic consequences for Russia. The problem is that two years ago, invading Ukraine was also counterproductive to Moscow’s security interests and yet Vladimir Putin has opted for this course. The president’s increasingly dark tunnel vision on the war is now the gravest risk to European — and Russian — security.

Putin’s mistaken prediction on the odds of subjugating Ukraine in a swift “special military operation” led to disastrous action. Yet after painful defeats and costly adjustments, Russia appears to have the advantage in the looming war of attrition. The Russian president, so fond of second world war parallels, believes he is now in the same position as Joseph Stalin at the end of 1942: the toughest battles may still be ahead, but the trajectory points to victory.

In the first year of war, some of the Russian elite privately challenged Putin’s wisdom. Now these whispering doubters have been silenced completely, helped by the fiery end met by mercenary-turned-mutineer Yevgeny Prigozhin and, this week, the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison. With Putin set to extend his presidential mandate by another six years next month, it’s hard to see any obstacle in the ageing leader’s path if he chooses to raise the stakes in what he views as an existential confrontation between Russia and the west.

Putin describes the war not as against Ukraine, but as against Nato and American global hegemony. Cherry-picked quotes from western officials about the need to destroy Putin’s regime and humiliate Moscow, as well as the west’s delivery of weapons to Ukraine and sharing of intelligence, including targeting data, have boosted Putin’s narrative that this is an existential war. The Russian president is desperate to secure his place in history as the man who avenged the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With no checks on his capacity to make fatal mistakes, an ageing Russian ruler surrounded by sycophants may embark on more reckless moves in coming years than anything we’ve seen so far. If the Kremlin believes that no major western power has the resources and will to fight for minor allies like the Baltic states, it may be tempted to test Nato’s Article 5 commitment to collective defence. The rhetoric of former US president and likely Republican nominee Donald Trump also creates a dangerous illusion that America would not intervene if Putin uses military force to divide Nato.

While the chances of these scenarios are still low, not taking them seriously is an invitation to future trouble. There are no quick fixes other than Europe’s investment in its military deterrence capabilities that will serve as costly but imperative insurance against Putin’s malign adventurism. A Ukrainian victory under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s definition — including a return to Ukraine’s 1991 borders — looks unrealistic for now and, in any case, will not resolve Europe’s Putin problem. Increased western military support for Ukraine remains essential both for Kyiv and as a strategy to limit Russia’s resources, but is not enough to secure Europe.

This bulwark against Putin will not only be expensive, but will also have political consequences for Europe’s leaders. Military expenditure will create jobs and gross domestic product growth but given the continent’s struggle to issue sustainable new debt following several rounds of quantitative easing, rising defence budgets will plunder resources from healthcare, education and social services. The end of the peace dividend, coupled with growing inflation, is one of the many second-order effects of Putin’s war. Striking the right balance between security and social spending will involve hard choices.

This predicament will not last for ever. There is no guarantee that the next Russian leader will have a more co-operative foreign policy outlook, but at least he might not share all of Putin’s dark obsessions. Some checks and balances may return to Kremlin decision-making. However, since Putin’s departure is likely to still be years away, the principle of “wish for peace, prepare for war” is a costly but necessary insurance for Europe’s fragile security.

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