Putin's next move won't be a Baltic invasion that could unify NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin needs a way to boost his popularity at home, but is he likely to launch a military campaign targeting the Baltic states, as Russian studies expert Leon Aron argues in a recent Politico op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analysts Alex Brideau and Zachary Witlin take out the Red Pen to break down why a Baltic invasion is unlikely to be on Putin's agenda.


Today we're taking a look at a recent op-ed from Politico, penned by Russian studies scholar Leon Aron of AEI.

And the title asks a provocative question, "Could Putin launch another invasion?" Aron links the current political moment in Russia, big protests, struggling economy, and Putin's own thirst for power and popularity, with the factors that led to Russia's incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. He lays out the possibility that Russia could make military moves yet again, potentially against Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, the three Baltic states that all happen to be members of both the European Union and NATO.

Some context: This has been quite a week for US/Russia relations. President Biden in an interview with ABC News agreed with an assertion that Vladimir Putin is a "killer," I think he called him "soulless," too. And Russia responded by recalling their ambassador to the United States. All this comes as the American intelligence community released a report this week claiming that Russia had launched yet another campaign in the 2020 election to undermine Biden.

So a logical question would be: What is Putin's next move? Could he wage yet another military campaign?

Now, as with many of the pieces that we look at, some points Aron makes are right on the money. Yes, Putin did gain a lot of popularity after the operation in Crimea, especially. And yes, NATO faces real issues; Turkey is barely an ally these days, countries are slow rolling in terms of spending cash that they're promised, the French are talking about strategic autonomy, and yes, Putin always seems to have a surprise or two up his sleeve. But we are completely not convinced by the argument that an invasion of the Balts may be on its way.

So let's take out the Red Pen.

First, Aron writes that Putin's interventions, especially in Ukraine "worked," driving a "Crimean consensus" that victory in war overshadows troubles at home.

Sure, the Crimea intervention "worked" for Putin. Until it didn't. Putin has had to downplay military involvement in Ukraine of late to avoid a backlash from a Russian public that cares primarily about domestic issues still, like pensions, for example. And let's not forget that getting involved in Libya, in Syria, even in Nagorno-Karabakh didn't yield any real popularity bump of note for Putin.

"Putin used the 'return' of Crimea to replace economic progress and income growth as the keystone of his popularity...And it worked." The Crimea intervention "worked" for Putin. Until it didn't.

Next, Aron writes that "we tend to repeat what worked." That is, Putin reached for the military lever before when he faced trouble, so he might do so again.

Well, Putin's decision making doesn't occur in a vacuum. Every past intervention was driven by national interest and foreign policy goals. Does Putin care about Putin? Of course. But Putin can't be sure that cooking up a foreign war would help matters it home. In fact, it might actually make them worse.

"Putin may reach for that which has done very well by him in the past: short victorious wars."  But Putin can't be sure that cooking up a foreign war would help matters at home. It might actually make them worse.

Finally, Aron says that Putin may consider a "fast and victorious poke at NATO's eastern flank," targeting the Baltic states and breaking NATO.

An attack on the Balts may be fast or it may be victorious, but probably not both. And Putin knows this. Western leaders are conflicted about the alliance, but an assault on full-fledged NATO State and EU members is exactly the kind of provocation that could awaken it. Putin understands this. He hardly wants to bring the alliance together as it's eroding. Low-cost efforts to steadily undermine legitimacy and grabbing targets of opportunity when available, that is much more Putin's speed.

"That criteria would be met by a fast and victorious poke at NATO's eastern flank." It would be a hell of a gamble.

Putin certainly seems to want to be president for life and probably is going to end up running for a fifth term, though a lot can happen in three years. Military moves that diminish his popularity or lead to further widespread protest, never mind bring together his adversaries, that is a strong NYET for now tovarishchey.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal