Where will Russia invade next?
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In the dying days of his presidency, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHouse Democrats push back on Trump's efforts to take credit for the economy America's 'cancel culture' should not decide business and banking regulation The Iowa Democratic caucuses, mapped MORE has reignited the debate over whether or not the U.S. should adopt a no first use policy – a pledge not to fire nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an adversary using them. According to reports, Obama is in favor of ruling out any first use of nuclear arms, much to the horror of security analysts and many of America’s closest allies. Officials and commentators from countries including Britain and South Korea have warned the Obama administration against making such a pledge, suggesting that doing so could seriously jeopardize not only U.S. security, but that of the entire Western world.

According to a report from the Washington Post, countries including Japan (which sits under the U.S. nuclear umbrella) believe a no first use policy might make conflict more likely, while permanent members of the U.N. Security Council such as France and the U.K. worry that such a pledge would create inconsistencies between their own nuclear policies and those of America, making coordination more complicated in the event of an emergency.

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Obama’s detractors have good reason to be concerned. An expansionist China and aggressive Russia are demonstrating precisely why any weakening of America’s nuclear deterrent could hardly come at a worse time. A first use policy might not be much good in the fight against Daesh or lone wolf jihadists, but could not be more vital to global security at a time when conventional U.S. military power is spread so thinly around the world.

Russia’s recent muscle-flexing along its borders with the Baltic States perhaps presents the most compelling argument against a no first use policy. The West stood idly by and watched as President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and made land grabs in Georgia last year. Any dovish moves from the White House will reinforce Russian assumptions that the wider world will do nothing if its troops violate the sovereignty of additional neighboring states. This is hardly the time to be focusing on non-proliferation, particularly when an individual politician’s legacy might be the main driving factor for doing so—as appears to be the case for Obama.

Having watched a sizable build-up of troops along the Russian border with the above countries, many analysts fear that Russia is currently sizing up Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as potential targets. Shell-shocked Lithuania has built a fake village so it can practice fending off any future Russian aggression, and has even reintroduced conscription due to the threat posed by the Kremlin. Further north, traditionally neutral Finland is in the process of negotiating a new security deal with the U.S. over concerns about Russian aggression, while neighboring Norway has announced plans to boost its military spending in the face of an “increasingly unpredictable” Kremlin. This is certainly not a climate conducive to decreasing the strength of America’s nuclear deterrent.

With the exception of Finland, all of these countries are NATO members. Any watering down of U.S. nuclear weapons deployment legalization would embolden Putin, especially if Russia decides to try retaking some of its former possessions in the Gulf of Finland or in the Baltic Sea.

Rather than flirting with the idea of removing this deterrent and worrying about the current president’s legacy, America and NATO would be better advised to tackle Russia’s devious hybrid war tactics. Be it via the infamous online propaganda-producing Internet Research Agencythe financing of fringe parties in Europe, dabbling in the U.S presidential race or the extension of assistance to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and other so-called “whistleblowers,” Russia’s main strategic weight has been shifting away from the conventional and has forced policymakers into uncharted territory.

Russia’s new, asymmetric approach is perhaps best exemplified by its state-run nuclear contractor Rosatom’s strategy of creating security vulnerabilities in Europe. A recent report from a think tank in Finland - where Rosatom partly owns a nuclear power plant being built in Pyhajoki - suggested that the Kremlin is striking deals such as these to create dependencies in other countries. Separately, Lithuania has said it may file a lawsuit over the poor-quality construction of the Astravets nuclear power plant, which is being built by Rosatom in neighboring Belarus with no supervision and at a very low cost. Lithuanian officials are worried that Rosatom is using substandard Russian security systems that are likely much weaker than their Western equivalents – a state of affairs that analysts believe could pave the way for a nuclear disaster. Recent reports that at least ten workers died in mysterious circumstances while working at Astravets, and that a 330-ton reactor shell was dropped thus triggering an emergency situation, have hardly reassured Vilnius. Outside of Europe, Rosatom is also playing a very delicate role in Iran’s nuclear program, working on the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant while the Obama administration tries to preserve its controversial Iran nuclear deal.

While the threat of the Kremlin launching a conventional attack is far from dead, as a recent series of snap Russian military exercisesdemonstrated, policymakers and experts should understand that Moscow’s most successful tactics do not involve tanks and fighter jets. Not only is the Obama administration sending shivers down the backs of NATO allies by contemplating the no first use policy, it is also failing to address Russia’s new threats. Instead of toying with the country’s freedoms, the White House should spearhead unconventional policy responses, either legal in nature (such as subjecting Rosatom’s European nuclear power plants to careful inspections or fighting for better campaign financing disclosures) or involve cyber counter-intelligence that can debunk the Kremlin’s propaganda war.

Idealism and the desire to leave behind a lasting mark should not blind the outgoing president to the real dangers Russia poses to European security. While the prospect of nuclear non-proliferation is laudable and morally compelling, one should also remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions

McKinney is a private security adviser with hands-on experience in multiple conflict areas around the world.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.