Despite realist scholar John Mearsheimer’s efforts to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, first in 2014 after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and now with Moscow’s current onslaught, by blaming the West and NATO, Putin’s shifting of Russian troops away from NATO’s borders and into Ukraine proves Russia hardly felt threatened.
Since the beginning of the war in February as his battlefield losses mounted, Putin has gradually drawn down his military forces tasked with defending against any NATO operations originating in Poland and the Baltic States. One of those units was the 11th Army Corps, tasked with the defense of Kaliningrad. It oversaw “approximately 12,000 Russian troops, 100 T-72 tanks, a couple hundred BTR fighting vehicles, Msta-S howitzers, and BM-27 and BM-30 rocket-launchers.” In the late spring of 2022, after the failed assault on Kyiv, the 11th Army Corps was deployed to Ukraine — and systematically destroyed by the end of October.
Now, after its retreat from Kherson, Russia is hastily working to reinforce Crimea. It needs even more military forces to complete “fortifying the peninsula’s defensive positions.” A likely Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake Crimea has, according to Lithuania’s defense minister, forced Moscow to denude additional Russian troops in Kaliningrad and replace them with newly conscripted soldiers. As Russia’s defenses fall back to their pre-Feb. 24 battle positions, it’s just a matter of time before Russia calls upon its Collective Security Treaty Organization partners, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, to invoke the treaty’s Fourth Article, “aggression against one signatory would be perceived as an aggression against all.”
Still, NATO may be the least of Putin’s concerns. Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko has balked at providing direct support to Russia, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan publicly called out Putin for failing to come to the country’s aid over aggression by Azerbaijan, and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared Kazakhstan had “no intention of recognizing the independence of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine” during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum this past June.
If Moscow seriously feared an all-out invasion by NATO, the Kremlin would not be exposing its most vulnerable front to NATO. Mearsheimer’s assessment of Moscow’s motivations has been completely misguided — and wrong from the beginning.
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian, and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.