Putin's 'Marshall Plan' Aims to Contain NATO

Russian president Vladimir Putin could be turning the tables on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Policies once enacted by the United States to contain Soviet expansion into Western Europe are now being used to restrict NATO's eastward expansion into regions deemed critical to Russia's national interest.

During his June 2017 interview with NBC's Megyn Kelly, President Putin chose to conclude their discussion with a particularly reflective comment: "I will never forget the state in which Russia was in 1991."  Having been an intelligence officer at the time, it is reasonable to assume that the events surrounding the Soviet Union's failure replay in Putin's mind quite often.  Surely, he has learned from them.

Perhaps most useful among these lessons are those extracted from the U.S. policies that brought this demise to fruition, such as the Marshall Plan and its ensuing containment policy.  Devised in part by renowned diplomat George Kennan and enacted by secretary of state George Marshall in 1947, the Marshall Plan is regarded as one of the most effective policies of the 20th century.

Secretary Marshall tasked members of his Policy Planning Staff to concoct the Marshall Plan when the further erosion of Europe's social and economic circumstances became untenable.  At its most basic level, the plan was designed to curtail Soviet expansionism, reduce Soviet political and economic influence in Europe, and stimulate the economies of European capitalist states, most notably by propping up West Germany after its partition from the East.  (Benn Steil's recent work on the subject is a refreshing new take on the advent of the Cold War – The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018].)

Decades later, shortly after his election in 1999, Putin found himself in a similar situation.  Russia faced an expanding NATO, a struggling domestic economy, and dwindling influence of its regional partners.

In response, Putin has strengthened his relationships with Syria, China, Belarus, and Iran; split Ukraine and gained access to its warm-water port; invested heavily in European giants such as Germany (which relies on Russia to support its energy infrastructure); and prevented NATO from expanding into contiguous states of particular strategic interest, such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Finland.

Far from a means of achieving peace quickly, the authors of the Marshall Plan understood that if they wanted to contain the Soviet Union, it was necessary to ramp up political and military tensions in Europe temporarily.  Moscow's shockingly strong 2016 response to U.S. Marines training in Norway and the increase of joint exercises in Sweden mirrors this idea.

Not surprisingly, saber-rattling remains a valuable political tool in Russia's internal affairs, but it is also in Russia's interest to avoid a military conflict with NATO.  These dynamics are echoes of Cold War policies, which, at their core, aimed to exert influence over an adversarial state while still avoiding a direct conflict between great powers.  Putin has taken precautionary measures accordingly.

There exists a school of thought among certain strategists that suggests that Putin's seemingly imperialistic actions in Crimea and Georgia were examples of pre-emption.  These purportedly belligerent acts of Russian expansionism may have been attempts to destabilize those states and preclude their being absorbed into the alliance at a later date.  Tolerating such expansion would lead to heightened military tensions on Russia's border and increase the likelihood of conflict with a NATO member.

While the idea of Georgia as a member of the alliance may have seemed far-fetched to some in 2006, more recent statements from U.S. vice president Michael Pence have reignited this discussion.  In addition to pre-emptive annexation and military incursion, there are other, more subtle ways through which Russia aims to contain NATO's expansion.

After the swift takeover of Crimea in 2014, any discussion involving Russian geopolitics tends to drift toward neo-imperialism – particularly regarding the Baltic and Balkan regions.  Although the threat of a Russian military incursion into these zones certainly exists, Russia doesn't need to invade countries to destabilize them and make them a liability to NATO.

The Marshall Plan proved that active measures, such as information operations, disinformation campaigns, economic warfare, political pressure, and espionage are capable of achieving these objectives without risking open war.  In turn, the use of such "hybrid" measures by Russia has become commonplace within NATO's sphere of influence – an observation that transforms ostensibly unconnected or random acts of political warfare into a comprehensive national policy of containment.

Keeping NATO busy with operations below the threshold of armed conflict is in Russia's interest.  Leaders in the Kremlin understand that it would require a catastrophic act of Russian aggression against a NATO member to trigger the alliance's Article 5 mutual defense pact, considering that Article 5 has been invoked only once (in response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States).

Pursuing policies that favor the employment of hybrid measures below the threshold of war limits NATO's decision space for countering Russian aggression, destabilizes Europe's security infrastructure, paints the West as provocateur when it responds strongly, and stirs apprehension within the alliance regarding the incorporation of additional states that may be vying for NATO membership.

Within this environment, Putin feels emboldened enough to draw red lines.

The brilliance of Secretary Marshall's plan was in its ability to align clear policy goals with strategic actions by highlighting what was off limits to the Soviets within the context of U.S. interests in the European theater.  Russia's head of state has certainly adopted a similar approach to NATO.

During his July 2018 interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace, when asked how he would respond to Ukraine or Georgia becoming NATO members, Putin didn't mince words: "It is a direct and immediate threat to our national security[.] ... The reaction would be extremely negative."

If NATO continues to expand, the question its political leaders in Brussels must ask is, to what end?

Too much expansion will grant Putin leverage with the argument that he is being unfairly enveloped – a position in which Russia understandably feels quite uncomfortable (Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler contributed to this uneasiness).  Too little inclusivity in NATO will embolden Russia and snub potential allies.

The challenge before NATO is an enduring one.  It must develop a focused, coherent policy on expansion that aligns with the political objectives of 29 economically disparate and geographically dislocated nations.  This is no small task, but the alternative of strategic stagnation is worse.  Moreover, this inaction is likely the desired outcome of Russia's containment policy.

Seventy years after the Marshall Plan hatched NATO, containment may be one of the alliance's greatest challenges.  Clearly, Putin refuses to entertain the idea of further NATO expansion.  Should Europe?

Michael Ferguson is a U.S. Army officer with operational experience throughout NATO's European footprint.  He has combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and holds a B.S. and M.S. in security studies.  The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the Department of Defense or the United States government.

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