The last few months of 2008 were among the most important in recent history. They saw the tail end of a tired presidency, the Russians on the warpath in Georgia, and a long-approaching economic crisis about to reach its climax. The last few months of 2016 may repeat the pattern.
Start with Russia. Over the last few weeks, I have met with a number of Eastern European and Baltic diplomats and politicians. All are convinced Russia will invade Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the late summer, perhaps in August, when the world is distracted by the Olympic Games.
But there is another date that looms large: Sept. 28, the anniversary of Josef Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic republics in 1939. In that regard, one of Vladimir Putin’s recent remarks is chilling. Last month, the Russian president commented that Vladimir Lenin had been wrong to give the USSR’s republics the right to leave the Soviet Union.
By saying this, Putin identified explicitly with Stalin. In itself, that isn’t new: Putin has been burnishing a cult of Stalin for years. But if you know your Soviet history and communist doctrine — as Putin does — there is more to it than that.
Stalin’s only real contribution to communist theory was on nationalities policy — how communists should think about ethnic differences. He concluded that differences like these were acceptable provided everyone was a communist. In practice, this meant control from Moscow.
So Putin is arguing the Baltics should not have had the right to leave the USSR. He’s also saying — indeed, he said it last month — that the USSR, including the Baltics, was really just greater Russia. A man like Putin doesn’t say things like that unless he means them. Putin is making a threat. It is a clearer threat even than Russia’s snap military exercises near the Baltics. Putin is laying claim to the Baltics as a matter of history and right. And we know from past invasions (such as Georgia and Crimea) that he likes to have a claim in place before he attacks.
Unlike the diplomats I’ve met, I’m not sure Putin will act on his words. But all the pieces are in place. NATO has scrimped on European security for years. The result: NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove now describes Russia as an “existential threat.”
What Moscow needs is for Europe to drop the sanctions it imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And conveniently, the sanctions are scheduled to expire in July.
At that point, the United States will be in the throes of the presidential campaign. President Barack Obama, never one to spoil for a fight, will be on his way out. The Europeans will be grappling with the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been driven their way, in part, by deliberate Russian bombing.
And then there is the economy. While this doesn’t feel like a recovery, the U.S. economy has been growing for 80 months. That’s the fourth longest expansion since 1945. At some point, another recession will start, not just in the United States, but around the world.
Indeed, countries that profited from high oil prices — like Russia — are slumping. So are other nations that grew rich selling raw materials for China’s boom, which also is collapsing. If this blossoms into an emerging markets crisis, it will be all the worse for arriving as the West’s recovery ends.
The stage is set for a paralyzing continuation of the Syrian spillover into Europe, coupled with an uncertain American political transition and a worldwide economic crisis. And under that dark horizon, Russia is laying the groundwork for a European war. I fear this fall will be grim. Watch this space.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.