Russian President Vladimir V. Putin once called the dissolution of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Back in 2005, few expected him to do anything about it.
But then came Russia's occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, its support for Ukrainian separatists and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and, most notably, its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Now, with the rise of former President Donald J. Trump, who has vowed in the past to leave NATO and recently threatened never to come to the aid of his allies, concern is growing among European nations that Mr. Putin could invade NATO in the coming decade and that they may have to face its forces without U.S. support.
According to some officials and experts, this could happen as early as five years after the end of the war in Ukraine. They believe this would be enough time for Moscow to rebuild and rearm its military.
“We have always suspected that this is the only existential threat we have,” Major General Veiko-Vello Palm, the commander of the Estonian army’s main land combat division, said of a possible Russian invasion.
“The last few years have also made it very, very clear that NATO as a military alliance and many countries are not ready to conduct large-scale operations – which means, to put it in simple human language, many NATO militaries are not ready. “To fight Russia,” General Palm said during an interview in December. “So it’s not very reassuring.”
Fear of what experts describe as Mr. Putin's imperial ambitions has long been part of the psyche of states that border Russia or are uncomfortably close to one another. “I think for Estonia it was 1991,” when his country's alarm bells began to ring, General Palm said wryly, referring to the year Estonia declared its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.
Just as Mr. Putin played down warnings from the Biden administration that he was planning an invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has dismissed concerns that Russia is planning an attack on NATO. The head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said in an interview with state news agency RIA Novosti last week that they were part of a Western disinformation campaign to stoke discontent against Moscow.
Europe's concerns have been further fueled in recent months by Putin's militarization of the Russian economy and huge increases in spending on the army and the weapons industry, at the same time that some Republicans in Congress are trying to limit American aid to Ukraine.
“If anyone thinks that this is only about Ukraine, they are fundamentally mistaken,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned at the World Economic Forum this month. “Possible directions and even a timeline of new Russian aggression beyond Ukraine are becoming increasingly apparent.”
NATO claims it is prepared to defend the borders of all 31 member states, which have collectively increased national defense spending by an estimated $190 billion since 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. But that was the start of rebuilding what had become a hollowed-out military network across Europe in the decades after the end of the Cold War, a process that could take years, analysts say.
This “peace dividend,” as the transition was called, diverted trillions of dollars from military budgets to increase spending on health care, education and housing. Europe's defense industry also shrank as demand for battle tanks, fighter jets and submarines collapsed.
In 2006, fearing they would be unprepared for conflict, the top defense officials of each NATO country agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their annual domestic production on their armed forces. However, this was not a requirement, and when military spending hit a low point in 2014, only three of NATO's then 28 member states met the benchmark. As of last year, only 11 countries had reached the 2 percent threshold, although a Western diplomat said last week that around 20 member states were expected to reach it in 2024.
The alliance will test its readiness in a month-long military exercise involving 90,000 troops that began last week and is, according to officials, the largest exercise NATO has conducted since the end of the Cold War. That the exercise is a test of how NATO forces would respond to a Russian invasion has caused excitement in border states, particularly in the Baltics and Nordic countries.
“I'm not saying things will go wrong tomorrow, but we have to recognize that it's not a given that we're at peace,” Adm. Rob Bauer of the Netherlands, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, told reporters on Jan. 18.
He pointed to NATO's plans to respond to its two biggest threats, adding: “That's why we are preparing for a conflict with Russia,” as well as what NATO sees as its other biggest threat: terrorism.
According to Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, the NATO exercise, known as Steadfast Defender 2024, is just one of the reasons allies are reaching a “fever fever” of fear that Russia could invade sooner or later.
He said Russia's resilience in the face of Ukraine's Western-equipped counteroffensive last summer showed that Putin would be “in the long run” and could transition his economy and population to the military's restoration within three to five years. “Just because everything broke in Ukraine doesn’t mean they’re off the table for a decade or more,” Mr. Skaluba said.
And the prospect of Mr. Trump returning to the White House has forced Europeans to grapple with the possibility that American support for Ukraine, or even its leadership role in NATO, could be drastically reduced as early as next year, Mr. Skaluba said.
Taken together, “this exaggerates these broader concerns about Russia,” Mr. Skaluba said. “It is simply this unique combination of factors that is causing the long-held fear of a reconstitution of Russia or a Russian attack on NATO to become a little more tense than it has been in recent years.”
Concerns have increased, especially in the last few weeks.
In a Jan. 21 interview, Norway's top military commander warned that “we don't have time” to build defenses against an unpredictable Russia. “There is now a window of time, maybe one, two, maybe three years, during which we need to invest even more in secure defense,” said the commander, General Eirik Kristoffersen.
On the same day, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö sought to allay concerns raised by reports that a Steadfast Defender scenario would test how NATO would respond to a Russian invasion of Finland. “None of the war games that have been played for decades have actually been implemented, and I would not overreact here,” Mr. Niinistö said on a national radio broadcast.
And this month, Sweden's top military commander, General Micael Biden, and his civil defense minister, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, both warned that Sweden must be prepared for war.
“Let me say it with the power of the office” and “with unvarnished clarity: There could be war in Sweden,” Bohlin said at a security conference.
The warnings sparked a storm of criticism from Sweden's opposition party and experts, who described the statements as scaremongering and exaggeration.
“Swedes are wondering what the government knows that it doesn’t know,” wrote Magdalena Andersson, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, in a follow-up article. “Fearing the population will not make Sweden safer.”
Still, Sweden is poised to join NATO following Finland's accession last year, as both countries abandoned years of military non-alignment over fears of Russian aggression. And although he called the excitement “exaggerated,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson made it clear that Russia remains a major threat.
“Nothing suggests that war is now around the corner, but it is clear that the threat of war has increased significantly,” Kristersson said in an interview with Sveriges Radio.
It is not lost on the Estonian government that the landmass Russia seized in the first days of its Ukraine invasion in February 2022 – before it was pushed back to the current front lines in eastern Ukraine – is roughly the same size as the Baltic states.
“Their goal is to restore their power,” said Col. Mati Tikerpuu, the commander of Estonia’s 2nd Infantry Brigade, stationed about 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, from the Russian border.
“We don't believe this is a question of whether Russia will attempt an invasion or not,” Colonel Tikerpuu said last month from his command headquarters at the Taara army base. For many Estonians, he said: “The only question is when.”
Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki, Finland.