Just as the Atlantic Alliance was in the process of reinventing itself by ‘going global,’ establishing a web of political partnerships with organizations and countries around the world, Russia’s annexation of Crimea reminds everyone of its core purpose, the defense of its member states. But the Ukrainian crisis also calls upon NATO and its members to be emphatic in the way they engage other actors. NATO, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, must become accustomed to managing the relationship with Russia in terms of an East-West dialogue balancing mutual security interests.
If not empathy, NATO and its members at least need a higher level of sophistication in dealing with Russia. This should not be rocket science, given Russia’s many warnings against growing Western influence in East European politics over the past years. Russia’s military doctrine from 2010 lists NATO expansion first among ‘dangers’, which can lead to an actual military threat. Putin has made it clear that Russian national security is not based on promises. Russia has launched several initiatives to redefine Europe’s security architecture to halt NATO and EU expansions. Moreover, Russia has said it is prepared to protect its citizens abroad with particular attention to regions of privileged interest. Russia acts on the premises of its history and the strategic advantage of its territorial depth.
The Ukrainian crisis highlights the absence of strategic thinking in the way both Americans and Europeans conduct foreign policy. Strategy, after all, is about thinking two or three steps ahead, taking into account the anticipated reaction of one’s adversary. One can wonder why Western capitals did not anticipate a hostile Russian response to the attempt to win over a vast neighboring country with which it has deep historical and ethnic ties. Add to the equation the fact that NATO maintains a membership pledge to Ukraine and it becomes obvious why Moscow was going to interpret the loss of Ukraine as a question of national security. Russia was not bluffing when it consistently voiced its commitment to contain what it perceived to be Western expansionist moves.
The Western decision to rush to a swift recognition of the Ukrainian interim government instead of awaiting the national elections in May could only reinforce Russian perceptions that the West was working to undermine its ally and promote regime change similar to the example of Libya. Seeing Yanukovich’s ouster as unlawful, it can come as no surprise that Russia was going to react to the new government’s flirting with Western institutions. Putin played a precarious game by resorting to a quick and resolute annexation of Crimea. But this response should not have come as a big surprise either given how Russia reacted to a similar situation in Georgia in 2008. NATO cannot ignore Russia’s opinion in its attempt to cultivate cooperative security relations throughout Eastern Europe.
Ukraine, at best, will constitute a buffer state between East and West, with limited outside interference in its domestic politics. Although commonly considered to be ‘old-fashioned’ geopolitics, the creation of a buffer state in reality should be uncontroversial, because it involves military neutrality but also the possibility of accommodating closer ties with the E.U., which holds powerful economic means to keep Kiev financially afloat and to invest in improving its geoeconomic conditions. For NATO, the current circumstances call for it to unwind further enlargement pledges eastward as delicately as possible (both Ukraine and Georgia). NATO now should avoid bombastic rhetoric about ‘enhanced partnership’ because it in reality can offer little more than symbolic embraces.
The good news is that Putin’s occupation of Crimea has revitalized NATO’s purpose as the alliance this year is pulling back from Afghanistan, its most demanding operation ever leaving the alliance fatigued and dismayed with grand social engineering projects. NATO prepared for this moment already in 2010 when it launched its new Strategic Concept, which outlined the intention to renew the alliance by linking it to the management of new risks such as failed states and globalizing in a complex network of partnerships. NATO now suddenly has a far less urgent need to renew itself. Putin’s actions revive the strong historical anti-Russian animosities predominant among most East European nations and refocus U.S. foreign policy on the East European neighborhood.
The Ukrainian crisis underlines the importance of NATO military planning and exercises to guarantee the territorial integrity of existing members. NATO now should increase its air and troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic States. But it is also a wake-up call for how strategy can be optimized by trying to see oneself through the eyes of the adversary. Whether we like it or not, Russia now has backed its words with action. No permanent sanction or Cold War-style confrontation can alter Russia’s interest in a permanently neutral Ukraine. It is time to strike a deal based on a NATO pledge of nonenlargement in return for a Russian pledge not to interfere militarily further into Eastern Europe.
Henrik B. L. Larsen is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he studies NATO and East European politics.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Brigade Piron. CC BY 3.0.