News yesterday was that the Obama administration has decided to quadruple military spending in Eastern Europe, and that the Pentagon has now judged Russia the greatest threat to the US. The New York Times editorial staff disagrees with this assessment, arguing that $3.4 billion is too much and that fending off Russia will distract from the more immediate threat, Daesh.
Actually, the Pentagon is right. (No, really, I actually wrote that. I can't believe it myself).
Putin has been very strategically exploring NATO's weakness on the Eastern Flank. Russian warplanes have gone into European airspace, testing air defenses. Russian agents have kidnapped Estonian intelligence officers. Capturing breakaway provinces in three East European countries seeking to join NATO and the EU (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) has allowed Russia to use the threat of full invasion to effectively dictate whether those countries can join Western European institutions. (Mike Bobick and I write an article, "The Empire Strikes Back," that argues this in more detail).
Now Russia has created a missile defense system that could prevent NATO forces from accessing European airspace, including the skies over a big chunk of Poland. The Baltics and Poland are naturally screaming bloody murder and are asking the US and/or NATO to prepare to defend them.
We ignore Putin's increasingly aggressive moves at our peril. Yes, ISIS is a flashier and more attention getting target. ISIS is an insurgency masquerading as a state, and so it deforms the practices of states in attention-getting ways. The beheadings, the morality police, the chopping off of hands for food safety violations.....Da'esh knows how to grab eyeballs. But realistically, these are rank amateurs. They are not heavily armed. They do not control nuclear weapons, an air force, or even a respectable armored cavalry (what they have, they captured from the Iraqi military, which was donated by the United States).
Putin is another story. The huge revenues from oil and other natural resources that he's amassed over the last decade have led to a serious arms buildup. The Russian Army, which was sadly out of date in 2000, has now been modernized topto bottom. Putin adopts many of the tactics of insurgencies, including sponsoring rebel groups, funneling arms in secretly, and launching surprise attacks. But make no mistake: this is a state, one of the largest and most powerful in the world. It controls the military material that a state does. And that makes Putin very, very dangerous.
We ignore him at our peril. So in refocusing attention on Russia, the Pentagon is making a very savvy move.