To misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it.
Washington was blindsided on December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Washington was blindsided again on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Tragically, it happened again on September 11, 2001, when al-Qaida launched devastating terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
What if leaders in Washington, Brussels and the West more broadly are so focused on the threats emanating from North Korea, Iran and Islamic State – serious threats all – that they are blindsided by a Russian tyrant plotting the collapse of NATO?
In my new political thriller, The Kremlin Conspiracy, the fictional president of the Russian Federation is plotting a lightning-fast military attack to re-conquer the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – once enslaved by Moscow during the Soviet era. Given that all three countries have been NATO members since 2004, the move risks triggering a nuclear war with the US and NATO alliance.
The gamble at the heart of the Kremlin leader’s plot is that using upwards of 100,000 Russian troops, Moscow could grab one or more of the Baltic States in less than 96 hours but that in the end neither the US nor the rest of NATO would actually come to their allies’ defense. If that were truly the case – if the West really abandoned the heroic Baltic peoples – this would mean the collapse of the NATO alliance overnight.
There can be no alliance, after all, if no one is willing to enforce Article Five, the heart of the mutual defense pact which says that if one country is attacked, all other countries in NATO will consider themselves under attack and rush to their defense.
In the novel, of course, I portray a worst-case scenario. But with each passing day, I’m becoming concerned fiction could become fact.
Putin, after all, has directly threatened the Baltic States, among other European nations.
“If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest,” the Russian leader said to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in September 2014.
Consider just a few headlines out of the region since then:
• “Putin threat of nuclear showdown over Baltics” (The Times of London, April 2, 2015)
• “Putin threatens nuclear war: Russian leader will take any necessary step to drive NATO out of Baltics and defend Crimea” (UK Daily Mail, April 2, 2015)
• “Russia: The Baltic States were created illegally” (Real Clear World, July 1, 2015)
• “Putin explores legal loopholes to take back the Baltic nations” (Newsweek, July 16, 2015)
More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his State of the Union address, which was by far the most belligerent speech in his 18 years in power. He bragged about Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He warned Russia could not be “contained.” He demanded the world “listen to me now.” Then he showed a video of a simulated Russian nuclear missile strike against the State of Florida.
Last week, the foreign ministers of all three Baltic nations were in Washington, laying the groundwork for an April 3 summit between US President Donald Trump and the presidents of their countries to discuss the Russian threat.
Now, an exclusive new survey reveals a majority of Americans are increasingly concerned by the threat Putin poses and worried that President Trump is not doing enough to keep the nation and her allies safe.
The survey was conducted by John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates, who has done polling on behalf of a number of US and foreign clients, including President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. McLaughlin polled 1,000 likely US voters regarding three specific questions related to Russia, Putin and President Trump.
Of particular concerns was that only 34.5% of Americans said they were convinced the president truly understands the magnitude of the threat Russia poses and is doing enough to counter the threat.
On the other hand, 51.9% said they were not convinced that the president fully understands the threat and they want Trump to do “much more.” Thirteen percent weren’t sure.
When broken down by political affiliation, the survey showed 77.5% of liberals, 26% of conservatives and 61% of moderates said they were not convinced Trump understands the Russia threat and is taking appropriate action.
Three examples come to mind of actions President Trump should be taking but is not:
• Imposing sanctions on Russia – Congress overwhelmingly passed bill last year to impose sanctions on Russian officials, but thus far President Trump still hasn’t taken action. It is time to impose sanctions on Russia for their increasingly aggressive behavior, including unsuccessful efforts to subvert US elections and invasion of multiple countries.
• Increasing troop levels in the Baltic states – at the moment, there are fewer than 5,000 NATO troops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three NATO allies that lie right on the Russian border and feeling increasingly at risk of Russian subversion or outright invasion. President Trump could and should be sending more U.S. forces, tanks and other heavy equipment and ammunition to the Baltics to create a speed bump big enough Putin wouldn’t feel tempted to cross. So far, he has not, nor has he pressed other NATO countries to do enough.
• Speaking out against Putin – the president does not hesitate to tweet criticism of everyone from the leaders of North Korea to Alec Baldwin to his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Why then is he so quiet about Putin? I see no convincing evidence at this point that his silence has a criminal or corrupt motive. But it is odd and unsettling to many Americans, given what a grave and growing threat Putin is.
Given Russia’s history of invasions, aggression and interference, the poll found that 72.5% agreed that Putin and the government of Russia pose a “clear and present danger to the national security of the United States, our NATO allies in Europe and our Mideast allies, such as Israel.”
Most officials in Washington are focused on the threats posed by North Korea, Iran, ISIS and al-Qaida, but as serious as those threats are, leaders must not ignore how grave a threat Putin poses to the US and our NATO and Middle Eastern allies.
Indeed, found that fully 60.5% worry Putin could be planning other military attacks – perhaps the invasion of a small NATO country, or a Middle Eastern country – because he thinks the international community is not really willing to stop him.
To be sure, the national security team President Trump has put into place – from Vice President Mike Pence to Defense Secretary James Mattis to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, among others – are first-rate professionals. They clearly understand the threat and the stakes.
But President Trump and congressional leaders must urgently work together to develop and lay out for the American people a comprehensive and bipartisan strategy to counter the Russian threat and dramatically strengthen the NATO alliance. Before it’s too late.
The author is a dual US-Israeli citizen and New York Times best-selling author with nearly five million copies of his books in print. His latest political thriller, The Kremlin Conspiracy, was released on March 6.