The Ukraine is lost. It’s no longer a question of if the Ukraine will lose its sovereignty but when. The West doesn’t have the military capability to halt Russian aggression and more importantly, the will is absent. When the US can’t send more than MRE’s any discussion of Ukraine standing against Russia is a short one. Eventually Russia will undermine Ukraine’s ability to rule itself and take de facto control of the nation. There are numerous paths to that end ranging from an overt Russian invasion to long term economic warfare and subversion of Ukraine’s ability to govern itself.
The real question is what’s next? While the West’s response to Ukraine’s annexation will impact Russia’s decision making to some extent, it won’t change Putin’s ultimate goal, a return to the glory and borders of the defunct Soviet Union. That said, the US, like it or not is the West’s leader and will be looked upon to craft a response. So when I say “the West” I’m really saying, “the US & Co.” The current administration decidedly doesn’t like the role and operates as if that fact isn’t true. Further, the US is suffering from a huge credibility wound after the Syria “red line” fiasco as can be seen in the faltering Syria chemical weapon removal effort, China’s adventurism in the South China sea and Japanese Senkaku islands and Iran’s continued march to a deliverable nuke.
Moldova will be Russia’s next victim. There are over 1000 Russian troops in Moldova “protecting” ethnic Russians. The Russian attitude is exemplified by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin’s comment about returning to the region in a strategic bomber (a Tu-160) when Romania denied his plane clearance for an overflight when returning from a trip to Moldava to visit Russian troops. Moldova is a small non-NATO country with less ability to protect itself than Ukraine. It will go peacefully or take the same journey of subversion we saw in Crimea and/or is presently being waged in Ukraine. Russia will then turn its sights on nations like Georgia where it already occupies significant portions of an independent country with “peacekeeping” forces and the “Stans”( Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), former Russian republics with limited self-defense capabilities and no alliances.
Where my crystal ball becomes cloudy is divining the future of the nations that were former Russian Republics but now belong to NATO specifically Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. These will be the real rubicon determining if a shooting war between the West and Russia will erupt. Latvia is an excellent example of the issue of the Baltic nations (former Russian republics), Putin’s desire to restore the Russian federation and the relevancy of NATO.
25% of Latvians are ethnic Russians, 40% speak Russian and even after 23 years of independence a small number of ethnic Russians (about 15% of the total population) have not taken Latvian citizenship. They are not allowed to vote, practice law or serve as first responders. In 2012, Putin fiercely criticized Latvia’s (and Estonia’s) citizenship and language policies to quote, “We cannot tolerate the shameful status of ‘non-citizen”. A poll conducted by German-based GfK after Crimea’s annexation said 66% of non-Latvians fully or partly supported Putin’s actions and most disturbing Valdis Zatlers the head of Latvia’s national security committee reported Russia’s intelligence agencies are conducting public opinion polls in Latvia’s border regions reference Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This is a necessary first step in creating a viable psychological warfare campaign and/or a campaign of subversion.
There’s little doubt a shooting war between NATO and Russia would start if Russia invaded a NATO country but any country can be subverted to a point where it changes national policy. Note, Ukraine erupted after former President Yanukovych rejected closer ties with the EU despite the fact that was what the majority of Ukranians wanted and what he promised before his election. If a NATO nation rejects its NATO membership, NATO members are not required to defend it. So there exists a “peaceful” path for Russian annexation of NATO states all that is necessary is successfully subverting a nation and intimidating or bribing NATO nations not to take action. Consider for a moment Putin’s threat to cut energy shipments to Europe during Russia’s invasion of Georgia? Putin’s threats to cut off energy to Ukraine was also a threat to Europe. The pipelines are the same. The threats were effective in muzzling Europe’s response to Ukraine/Crimea. That’s a portend of what’s possible on the eve of a future annexation.
Company sized US paratrooper deployments to the Baltic States for a year and the first ever Reforger type exercise since the Cold War are positive developments. Sadly these developments are baby steps while the overwhelming majority of NATO states continue to fail to meet their meager promise of spending 2% of GDP on defense (we spend 4%). This is par for a Europe that has ridden the US defense welfare train for decades allowing for the creation of a plethora of welfare states in Europe.