At some point, likely during the term of the next U.S. president, Putin may test NATO’s resolve further by orchestrating a movement among “ethnic Russians” in one of the Baltic states — Estonia, for example — akin to that which took place in Ukraine. They will seek to split away and they will have Russian help, but this time the scenario will be different. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members. They enjoy Article 5 protections: NATO is obligated to intervene in their defense. But will it? Will it if the “invasion” can be spun as an ethnic group simply seeking to express its right of self-determination? My guess is that under the current NATO leadership, the answer is no — rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. The question is whether the next U.S. president might not be quite as accommodating to Putin as Barack Obama has been.
Perhaps even more worrisome are Putin’s growing ties to nationalist parties throughout Europe, from Syriza in Greece to the Northern League in Italy to the National Front in France. These are groups that are likely to gain in influence as decay in the Middle East and North Africa and weakness in Southern Europe open the door to even greater flows of immigrants into Europe. This will feed the power of these right-wing European political allies of Putin, creating a one-two punch of hateful nationalism across the EU (a play we have seen before in Europe) and of growing influence of European politicians willing to tolerate or even encourage the depredations of a Russian leader who would like to see his country return to greatness.
Also impacting the changing situation in Europe is the striking decline in influence and ambition of the United Kingdom. Not only is the country drawing down its military capability, but it is at risk of fragmentation with the rise of the Scottish National Party.