The world has truly entered a new era. Even Russia's nuclear blackmail has become such an everyday occurrence that it sometimes passes underappreciated. One concludes thus after last week's reports in British dailies The Times and The Independent about a meeting between Russian and US generals in March where Russia voiced threats of a nuclear response should NATO continue to deploy forces in the Baltic states.
These reports caused most reaction in the Baltic states themselves. Although when similar threats were made in public by Russia's Ambassador to Denmark Mikhail Vanin, who said that Danish ships might become targets for Russian nuclear missiles, that sent shivers throughout the world.
We know now that the similar threats from Vanin and the Russian generals came almost simultaneously. The difference was that Vanin's were made publicly, in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten on 21 March, while the Russian generals uttered theirs at a closed meeting in Germany on 18-20 March. It is therefore worth comparing and contrasting these two cases of what amounts to nuclear blackmail from Russia - and consider their relative weight and goals.
Special tactic for Baltic states?
Vanin's threats were more or less transparent - he said frankly that Denmark must be aware that Russian nuclear heads might be directed at its warships, should the country decide to carry out its plans to join NATO's anti-missile defence shield. Moreover, the threats were uttered publicly and directly, addressed to the country they were intended for.
There is even nothing particularly novel about them. Russia had voiced similar threats in public in 2007, when it said it might direct its nuclear warheads at Western Europe if the United States went on with its anti-missile shield plans. Back then, however, NATO refused even to consider these threats as something of substance.
Another important point to make: both in 2007 and now in Denmark, Russia only threatened to direct its missiles at targets in Europe, without going so far as to hinting at actual attack. The threats about the Baltics are much more ominous, although there were attempts to publicly deny that they were made. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said last Thursday there was no substance to British media reports about Moscow's alleged threats to use nuclear weapons in case of attempts to return Crimea to Ukraine or increase NATO presence in the Baltic states.
"This is a classic example of the continuing hysteria and the demonization of our country. They themselves are fanning the flames concerning this. However, it is not guided by any particular facts and they themselves are afraid of what they wrote,” Peskov said in an effort to make the reports about the threats look like little more than rumours.
Very important meeting
Peskov was simply lying, however, as has been the habit of the Russian leadership lately. There is no way he could not have known that these were not rumours and, moreover, the threats were uttered in the name of President Putin himself. One only has to look at the meeting they were voiced at and who attended it.
It was a regular meeting of the so-called Elbe Group, one of the legacies of Barack Obama's reset policy. Initially, the Elbe Group was known as the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, but it soon grew out of its eponymous mission. An idea to hold regular meetings of influential Russian and American retired generals (both from the army and security agencies) was presented in 2009 and the first meeting took place in October 2010 in Istanbul.
From the very start, both Russians and Americans made no secret - even underscored - that outcomes of these discussions were directly reported to the leaderships of the two countries, including the presidents.
Moreover, I was shown the document that was the basis for the reports in The Times and The Independent. The four-page document comprises of notes made by one member of the American delegation, a retired general. The notes state that Anatoly Kulikov, head of the Russian delegation and former minister of the interior, informed his American colleagues that, before the meeting, he had had an audience with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who had told him the basic message he was to communicate to the Americans. According to the notes, President Putin had also been briefed about the meeting and topics to be covered.
Different forms and goals of blackmail
This makes one wonder: Why Russia's nuclear blackmail in Denmark was open, while for the Baltic states, covert. And when the cat got out of the bag, why deny and pretend like it was just a rumour?
The answer is clear - these two moves have different goals, hence different forms of blackmailing. Russian Ambassador to Denmark Vanin addressed his statement to the Danish society, hoping to turn the popular opinion against plans of joining NATO's anti-missile shield. And if it adds to the image of "unpredictable Russia not to be messed with" - even better. Publicity is therefore Russia's very goal in this case.
The opposite is true in the case of the Baltic states. Russia, it seems, no longer expects to influence public opinions here. However, it does have faith in the power of covert diplomacy and, moreover, is very good at using backdoor meetings with the world's powerful. In recent years, Moscow has even used America's own invention for this, the so-called Track II diplomacy which encourages unofficial meetings between non-government figures to discuss important issues.
The goal of this message passed by Russian generals to the Americans was not to make a public statement, but to convince US decision makers (as opposed to the society) of the danger of permanent deployment of allied troops or modern weapons in the Baltic states. Danger not so much to the Baltic states, but to America's NATO allies.
Russia knows only too well it will not intimidate the Baltic states with threats. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would rather have tangible security guarantees against increasingly likely aggression from Russia, even under the Kremlin's threats of consequences, than be pushed to believe that Moscow poses no threat as long as it is "unprovoked".
The Baltic states are convinced that Russia only speaks the language of power and nothing can stop the Kremlin's threats and escalation better than a show of actual power (NATO, after all, is much more powerful militarily than Russia). Therefore, they think, Cold War-style deployment of forces by the borders of the hostile side (Russia's in this case, those of Warsaw Pact nations during the Cold War) will be a more effective strategy to end the current escalation of tensions than yet another attempt to talk to Russia.
The Baltic states are also acutely aware that Putin's Russia is aggressive, contemptuous of international law and treaties, but by no means unpredictable. Baltic politicians, diplomats and analysts spoke and warned about many things that are happening right now for years, but at the time their warnings would be dismissed as post-Soviet Baltic paranoia.
Right now, however, Baltic leaders sometimes find it hard to convince their partners of the opposite, that Russia's threats are just a bluff; that the cynical and criminal figures who currently control the Kremlin only care about their own wealth (not that of their country or people) and are not to be compared to truly unpredictable Islamist terrorists or ideological suicide bombers. Therefore nuclear blackmail is just a tool in Russia's diplomatic arsenal in seeking other goals - and not a statement of actual intentions.
Will we be fooled again?
It is not an accident that Russia picked the US as the target of its covert diplomacy - the one country that will, in the end, decide on what defence forces will be deployed in the Baltics.
In fact, such a strategy is particularly effective when the message is exchanged between "some generals" whose statements can be easily refuted or dismissed as out of line of Russia's official position. What matters, however, is that American and Western leaders believe (and not without justification) that the generals were simply passing on Putin's own message, despite all public denials from the Kremlin.
Why did Russia need to send such a message? Even before NATO implements all of the decisions made at last year's Wales Summit, there are already talks in Western capitals that these might not be enough to deter Russia from attacking the Baltic states, let alone effectively defend them in case of an attack.
Talks than the Baltic states can be under real threat can now be heard not just from politicians, but from military men, too, including US force in Europe commander Philip Breedlove. It is therefore natural to expect a real discussion to begin soon on permanent deployment of troops and modern weaponry in the Baltic states. This is exactly what Russia tries to prevent with its nuclear blackmail.
The point of the message is this: "No need to escalate the military conflict, but let's talk, or otherwise the consequences might be hard to predict." This message is reinforced by a sense that Russia has been trying to show good will lately - it has offered to share intelligence information in areas of common threats. Even in the said meeting there were suggestions to look for forms of cooperation that would prevent "accidental clashes" all too likely in the current climate of extreme tensions.
Russia is not offering to talk about Ukraine. In the meeting, the Russian delegates said that the Kremlin's goal was to create an autonomous region of the so-called Novorossiya within confederate Ukraine. Otherwise the conflict would remain frozen. It is noteworthy that while the generals discussed other issues rather openly, they said nothing on further escalation of war in eastern Ukraine.
At the same time, they threatened to use nuclear force (not just aim missiles, as in Denmark's case, but to actually use nuclear weapon against NATO) to defend Crimea, should anyone decide to return it to Ukraine by force.
Interestingly enough, there was less aggression when the Russian generals spoke about possible supply of arms to Ukraine, another key issue on Russia's covert diplomacy agenda. They said that "the Russian people" would in that case demand a forceful response, but did not mention the nuclear weapon.
Real threat to the Baltic states
One can conclude from this that right now Russia cares more about making sure there are no permanent NATO forces deployed in the Baltics than preventing weapons supply to Ukraine. Bearing in mind that Russia itself is mobilizing its forces, say, in Kaliningrad, one can plausibly speculate that such resistance to NATO presence in the Baltics might have a lot to do with Moscow's new plans of aggression - this time in the Baltic states.
In fact, the Russian generals also said they saw in the Baltics all the conditions that allegedly forced Moscow to "take action" in Ukraine. Their actual wording made it sound like it was all the Baltic states' fault. The message to Western leaders was no less clear: the conflict might turn dangerous, but you can easily prevent that if instead of poking at Russia you restrained the Baltic states. In that case, Russia might even resume cooperation with NATO, since right now just the Baltics and Poland stand in the way.
The conclusion one can draw from this is straightforward enough - the Elbe Group meeting and the threats made there are much more dangerous than the public statements against Denmark. However, they attracted much less public attention, even when the threats were leaked to the press.
Another takeaway for the West, and particularly the US, is that they must not succumb to either Russia's blackmail or enticement; quite the opposite, a show of force (since all attempts to talk with Putin's Russia has failed, sooner or later) is what can deter Russia from thinking about new aggressive campaigns.
However, it is likely that the Elbe Group meeting will have the consequences that Russia intended. There are still strong voices in the West, including the US, saying that one can and must talk with Russia, not confront it. These voices will be further reinforced by Russia's simultaneous nuclear threats and intimations of readiness to talk. But if Russia succeeds, this will be just another deception by Putin's regime, one we will soon be made painfully aware of.
Not the first time
One sign of success of Russia's covert diplomacy already came in the form of the so-called Boisto Group meeting. Although according to publicly available information, there has been only one such meeting last June, to my knowledge there was a Boisto-2 meeting last autumn.
True, back then it was an initiative of only some people in the Russian power elite. Leonid Reshetnikov, retired intelligence officer, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and a man of Dmitry Rogozin's clan, the main architects and perpetrators of the war in Ukraine, gave an interview in February where he confirmed that the idea for Minsk talks first originated in the island of Boisto, even though at first he and his colleagues had opposed it. Americans had brought identical ideas and proposals to his institute.
This time, Russia’s covert diplomacy looks less like an initiative of one power elite group than a concerted action to implement the Kremlin’s plan, even though it is true that many Russians who took part in the Elbe Group meeting are close to the clan of Yevgeny Primakov, the initiator of the Ukraine peace plan.
Another important point to note is that the Boisto Group meeting split the American security and defence community into two camps: one holds that such secret meetings are neither acceptable nor effective, just Russian trap, while the other insists that they are an important and efficient way to look for agreement with Russia and solutions to the conflict.
Should the Elbe Group meeting and reactions to it prove to be another dividing point for the Western community, rendering it incapable of a united determination to resists Russia’s nuclear blackmail, it would mean a diplomatic victory for the Kremlin, something it was seeking all along.
Marius Laurinavičius is political scientist and senior analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre
This article originally appeared in The Lithuania Tribune