Make no mistake: Russian President Vladimir Putin is running rings around NATO and the West. His seizure of Crimea and the incursion into eastern Ukraine two years ago awakened NATO from a lengthy siesta in which the alliance was coasting when it came to defense. Putin's intervention into Syria and Turkey's shoot-down of a Russian fighter late last year complicated matters.
Combined with the expansion of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war has created a massively disruptive flow of refugees into Europe, exceeding the capacity to assimilate this migration. And the spread of IS terrorists to Europe and America has made actual attacks against NATO states a reality that did not exist during the Cold War.
Now challenged by Putin's intent to "push the envelope" for Russian engagement and the menace presented by the IS, NATO has no choice but to respond. Conditioned by the binary nature of the Cold War, NATO has reacted to Russia with traditional responses based on increases in the readiness and deployment of military forces. And it has deferred real action against IS so far.
At the Wales heads of state NATO summit in September 2014, the alliance agreed to an ambitious readiness action plan in response to Russia's Ukrainian intervention. Training and exercises would be increased. A very high readiness force was established should Russia make threatening moves west. And the United States created and funded a European Security Initiative to provide money for a strengthened military posture in Europe.
NATO nations promised to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a goal only a handful of members would reach. In many ways, the military responses exceeded initial expectations. However, while these steps reassured many of the nations, Russia still maintains formidable means to intimidate its neighbors.
The first is geographic. America is 3,000 miles from Europe. Russia borders NATO's Baltic and Black Sea states and has interior lines of communications. Further, if Russia were to threaten the Baltics, NATO reinforcement would have to overcome serious defenses and the Kaliningrad oblast that blocks direct access by sea, air and road. Communications would have to move through a part of Poland that does not have well-developed transport nodes or Belarus, a state more closely aligned with Russia.
Second, Russia has advantages in its Spetznatz or Special Forces; propaganda; cyber; and a huge numerical superiority in theater nuclear weapons.
Third, much of Europe is still dependent on Russian oil and natural gas.
Finally, Putin does not have to make decisions based on gaining approval from 28 other peers as is required in NATO.
NATO, however, has many options if it breaks out of a traditional mindset. Despite intimidation tactics, Putin will not gamble on provoking a war. Despite his preponderance of theater nuclear weapons, strategic deterrence still works.
The worst (and unlikely) case is Putin's use of "hybrid" tactics against the Baltic or the Black Sea states. Propaganda, cyber and "little green men" to infiltrate a target state would be the means. What should NATO do?
Beyond the current increases in readiness, training and deployments, NATO must shift to a "porcupine" defense on its flanks against a "hybrid" campaign. Instead of depending on reinforcement by large numbers of forces facing the challenges noted above, defense of the Baltic and Black Sea states should rest initially on large numbers of Stinger-like anti-air and Javelin anti-vehicle missiles to bloody an initial incursion. Declaratory policy will be to shoot any "green men" on sight. And NATO must bolster its capability for cyber and counter-propaganda capability that can be moved quickly to the states where it is needed. None of these steps need be overly costly.
More important, a high-level dialogue with Russia must start aimed at reducing tensions. This column has argued for a P-5 Plus Two--the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union and NATO--as a better venue than the Russia-NATO Council. However, negotiations are imperative and must include Ukraine and Syria.
The leverage will be through sanctions relief in exchange for changed behavior--a more potent weapon than military force in these conditions.
The IS is more problematic. Some form of NATO troop deployments to the region may be required as a quid pro quo for creating an Arab/Muslim ground force. But without U.S. leadership, NATO will not act. Even with U.S. action, obtaining the needed unanimity for decision will be difficult.
Throughout its history, NATO has faced many seemingly existential crossroads. Yet it survived. But for history to repeat, NATO needs a new strategy. And it needs one now.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave distinguished columnist; chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; and senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is "A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not alive to say it. But if he were, his advice to the nation would be this: "Buck up, America! Things are not as bad as they seem."
From the presidential campaigns of both parties to chaos in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan to falling stock markets and rumors of Europe imploding as Vladimir Putin invents ways to further divide the Western alliance, finding good news is not easy. It is much easier to become depressed.
About the presidential sweepstakes, not a single vote has been cast in primaries. Iowa holds a caucus Monday and when New Hampshirites, South Carolinians and Nevadans make their decisions, only slightly more than 1 percent of the necessary votes for the nomination will have been determined. Yet the media is reporting as if every primary were a Super Bowl or World Series that, by the way, occur only once a year.
One can argue that the current race is the inconceivable running against the incredulous. This column has long argued that one of our political parties has lost its soul and the other its mind. The reader can chose which is which. On one side, the leading candidates are without qualification or experience for the presidency. On the other, a democratic socialist and a credibility impaired rival are jousting for the honor.
Meanwhile, Americans are being falsely frightened by how much danger they face from jihadist terrorist attacks at home--which is virtually negligible even though the Islamic State is surely interested in keeping the fear factor high. Putin is being elevated into cosmic threat levels rivaling the bad old days of the Cold War. Iran is peremptorily accused of using the many billions of dollars it will receive now that sanctions are being lifted to underwrite terrorists who will make the region more violent. And China's economy is described as so fragile as to trigger an international recession--or worse.
Is this paranoia deserved? Certainly, paranoids conceivably have enemies. Instead, what the nation is undergoing is a collective crisis of confidence. This crisis is manifested in how Americans perceive institutions most important to them and to their lives.
The presidency is held in low esteem. Congress is even worse with approval ratings barely touching double figures. From the Boy Scouts to police forces to the Catholic church, Americans show little to no confidence.
The media is far from blame. Worse, talk radio and cable news have polarized the public into a partisan zero sum game. In believing one set of views, all others are categorically rejected with extreme venom, vitriol, anger and prejudice. This partisan polarization has stricken Congress and partly explains why government remains badly broken.
Optimists, particularly political ones, are a disappearing species. In the presidential debates, Republicans label Barack Obama' s seven years in office among the worst in our history. Clearly, political amnesia has sunk in. It might be impossible and surely insane to repeat the catastrophes of George W. Bush's administration. Yet, to Republicans, Obama is worse.
The Democratic side is little better. Hillary Clinton has to overcome a credibility and honesty gap wider than the Grand Canyon. Bernie Sanders cannot be optimistic about a democratic socialism platform that has almost universally failed and of course long rejected by Americans perhaps until 2016.
Can anything be done to eject this malaise that is adversely affecting the United States---even though Jimmy Carter never used that term? Theoretically, the answer is of course. Operationally and practically, reversing this crisis of confidence is far more a Herculean labor.
Two unlikely Herculeses inhabit both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The first is the president. The second is the speaker of the House. And the models are Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich---odd couples of the first instance.
Obama and Paul Ryan have it in their ken to change the national mood. Neither has the outgoing personality of the odd couples noted above. Yet, on one hand, conditions are not as dire as they appear. On the other, perception invariably trumps, if I may use that word, reality. But both offices are meant to represent the larger polity rather than one party--the public regarding the president and the whole Congress, not just one side of the aisle, by the speaker.
If the president and speaker can work together with good will and intent, we stand a chance, even if it is slim of reversing this crisis of confidence. If not, then morning in America will be the morning after the worst night one ever had.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is "A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace."