May 03 2014

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NATO and the Seeds of the Ukrainian Crisis

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NATOThe violence in Ukraine is escalating and spreading. Russia is behind most of it, using an effective mix of covert and overt intimidation to destabilize the transitional government in Kiev ahead of the May 25th national elections.

As the crisis has evolved, the West has found itself in the worst of all worlds. Russia’s new, retro-Cold War posture challenges the long and widely held belief in the Atlantic Alliance that Europe had moved beyond the great power crises of the 20th century.  Worse, given the proximity of Ukraine and with existing political and economic agreements among the players, the West will be hard pressed to find a coherent policy that advances Western interests constructively, without making the situation worse.

But in a very real way, the West is at fault along with the Russians for the current turmoil. Today’s strategic dilemma has its roots in the hubris and naiveté of Western leaders following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent expansion of NATO, which lies at the heart of the problem.

America, NATO and the “German Problem:”

In 1991, NATO became the most successful military alliance in recorded history. Without firing a shot in anger, NATO watched as its adversary, the Soviet Union, simply collapsed. More than four decades of collective vigilance had prevented a third cataclysm on European territory during a single century. It was an unprecedented achievement.

But epic success created profound uncertainty. What was next?

From a certain Western perspective, disbanding NATO was out of the question.

It was once famously said that NATO was created to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.

Although NATO had fulfilled its mission, the collapse of the Soviet Union created a new, troubling anxiety for a cohort of America’s European allies – Germany. A re-united Germany would again become the most powerful country in Europe. Those non-German allies, with still fresh memories from the early and mid 20th century, insisted on continued American involvement in Europe, through an American-led NATO, as an indispensable tool of reassurance as the new, post-Cold War world took shape, and Germany’s future path became more clear.

From Military Alliance to Security Office:

The collapse of Soviet communism represented a unique triumph of Western civilization. Autocrats, fascists and communists had all challenged the basic precepts of liberal democracy and free markets, and all had been bested.

From an ideological perspective, Western nations, particularly the United States, believed that the philosophical/ideological debate over the best manner to organize societies had been finally settled.  The future of human progress was inexorably tied to the Western model of governance, which for a bright, but ultimately brief period, seemed to be sweeping the globe.

Balance of power was out. Cooperative security was in. Free nations, it was said, do not make war on each other.

But how to square an American-led NATO in Europe when there was no apparent enemy?  The solution was to morph NATO from a multinational combat force with a defined foe, to a more nebulous pillar of common European security; a multilateral defense counterpart to the economic union of Europe, both of which were designed to so deeply entrench Germany in collective institutions, that it could not pursue and independent path.

Under this paradigm, NATO took on the mantle as a more political organization, consolidating Western defense policy as it always had – keeping US troops and equipment in Europe of course – but importantly,  reaching out to eastern European nations, Russia and the former Soviet republics, to coordinate security policy, promote military exchanges and design confidence building measures that would reduce tensions and improve understanding.

Had it stopped there, history today might be different. But instead, the West chose the worst of both worlds with NATO.

NATO Moves East:

As Europe organized the European Union (EU) for political and economic integration of the continent, American and European leaders chose to position NATO as the security pillar of that integration.

From a Western perspective, the decision appeared obvious and logical. European economic union was incomplete without a security component, and NATO was already a known quantity, and happily already had the US as a charter member. Indeed the core European members of NATO had been original members of the European Common Market – the forerunner to the European Union. Why create a new structure when a proven structure already existed?

To the extent there were criticisms to this approach, they were drowned out by a chorus singing NATO’s new talking points – that the Alliance wasn’t a threat to anyone.  Indeed, it was a defensive alliance, in transition to a  quasi-European security clearinghouse, creating common understandings and the like to promote security stability in Europe.

How could that be threatening to anyone?

But despite all the benign talk of NATO’s future posture, no underlying changes were made to the NATO treaty, specifically Article 5.

Article 5 states that an attack on any one NATO member would be seen as an attack on all the members requiring a collective response, critically, including the United States. During the Cold War, Article 5 committed all US forces up to and including its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Europe. If Hamburg were vaporized by a Soviet warhead, the Soviets would face certain American nuclear retaliation under the American nuclear umbrella.

Article 5 represents the “teeth” of NATO, binding its members together and binding all of them to the US. In this respect it is significant that despite the end of the Cold War, NATO has never altered its nuclear war fighting doctrine. To this day, NATO still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in response to an attack, conventional or nuclear.

For the defense minded, an Article 5 guarantee still looks pretty good on paper.

What NATO was creating then was a paradox. It could not function as a European forum to coordinate common security issues, and at the same time add new members who were eligible for American nuclear guarantees.

But that is exactly what the West did.

Between 1994 and 2009, policy inconsistency notwithstanding, NATO expanded its membership to  28 countries; not only including most of the former Warsaw Pact nations, but also three, former Soviet Republics that physically border Russia.  If a stranger was briefed on the history of the Cold War until 1989 and then shown a map of current NATO members, it would not be far-fetched to conclude that NATO had decisively won a war against the Russians a generation ago.

A Russian View:

Russia is an “old soul” among nations.

It became a European power under Peter the Great and it was convulsed by the wars that plagued Europe for 250 years; from the 18th to 20th centuries.

As we consider Ukraine and European security writ whole, it is worth remembering that Russia has been invaded three times in 129 years; two of those three times occurred just 26 years apart. Twice invaders made it to Moscow or the outskirts. In each of these conflicts, Russian losses, in people and infrastructure, were of a magnitude that would astonish and overwhelm Western sensibilities. Total Russian military deaths from WWI and WWII would equal the current population of Texas.

Whatever the nature of its government –  be it autocrat, communist or nationalist – the Russians sought a balance of power in Europe that would protect its western frontier, mostly in eastern Europe. Though an anathema to the West narrative, Russia’s greatest security was achieved after WWII with the creation of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe that kept potentially threatening adversaries 500 miles to the West, away from Russian borders, with Russian forces forward deployed to grind down any adversary before they could reach “the Motherland.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that. But the Western narrative of a collective, post-Cold War order did not fundamentally change the Russian fixation on a balance of power, and the sense of entitlement that Russia should have influence in countries close to its borders. However, given the internal upheavals after the Soviet collapse, Russia was ill-positioned to object to what appeared to be obvious military encroachments, even as the West was proclaiming the end of the Cold War and balance of power politics.

In retrospect, three events catalyzed current Russian attitudes about NATO and the West.

First, was the use of NATO forces in Afghanistan after 9-11. Despite constant assurances for nearly a decade before, that NATO was essentially a conference organizer for European security,  the Alliance was suddenly deploying combat troops well outside its traditional theater of operations in support of the United States. This was a shock.

Second, in 2004, despite Russian protests, NATO admitted three, former Soviet Republics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – into NATO. For the first time NATO member states physically bordered Russia, a mere 95 miles from St. Petersburg; a distance closer than the drive from Washington, DC to Richmond, Virginia.

Additionally, from the Russian point of view, NATO was effectively recruiting new members from among the former Soviet Republics, including Georgia Armenia and, for a period up to 2008, Ukraine – moves that could be interpreted as a NATO encirclement on Russia’s very borders.

Finally, there was Libya. While NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan could be justified by the collective defense requirements of the Alliance following Al Qaeda’s attack on the US, the Libya intervention was something else entirely.  No NATO member state had been threatened or attacked.  This was a war of choice by the West.  And while the military operation was conducted under the guise of a humanitarian operation, its true purpose was clearly to overthrow the Libyan government and install an acceptable Western substitute that could guarantee energy contracts to supply Europe with oil.

For the Russians, it was not a big jump to conclude that the value of  Western assurances regarding NATO expansion into the heart of the Russian “near-abroad” were suspect and excessively elastic if the Alliance could assert power in any manner that Western nations saw fit.

For keen Russian observers, it was clear that NATO was trying to have it both ways – benign security structure when it came to expansion on Russia’s borders, but a credible – and pro-active – military force when it came to Western security policy priorities on an “as needed” basis.

Having such an organization (and potential threat) on Russia’s borders was thus intolerable. At some point, whether under Putin or someone else, a new nationalism was likely to take root, with NATO expansion as its catalyst.

Seen in this light, Russian actions remain objectionable and illegal, but critically, understandable.

The Ironies of the Current Situation:

The ironies of the Ukrainian situation in light of the narrative presented, are manifold.

Caught up in the post Cold War, collective security construct, Western leaders passed out NATO membership – and the Article 5 guarantee – without fully appreciating how antithetical NATO expansion would be to the Russians, and thus how potentially important (and costly) those guarantees might one day be to the US and other NATO allies.

Despite the show of force during the Afghan and Libyan interventions, NATO is only a shadow of its former, Cold War self. Every nation but the US has cut defense spending, troop deployments and procurement of modern weapons. The Alliance was heavily dependent on the US during the Cold War, but is only more dependent on the US today, which itself is in the midst of a large-scale defense retrenchment. Economic upheaval in the EU and dislocation in the US has made the NATO allies more inward looking and less supportive of assertive foreign policy.

The hard truth is that NATO is both larger and weaker than it was in 1989.  An alliance that is over-extended geographically and militarily unprepared geo-politically. As a result, NATO enlargement, intended to enhance Europe security, has served instead to destabilize it. Antagonizing the Russians, but with no real plan for dealing with the Russian response to such antagonism.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is Germany.

NATO itself, and American involvement post-Cold War, were implicitly designed to keep Germany tightly knitted to the West. Today, a credible, economic Western response to the Ukrainian crisis depends on Germany.  However, Russian economic and energy ties with Germany are so strong that short of an inflammatory Russian provocation, no meaningful Western action will likely occur against Putin and his associates.

The much feared linchpin of Europe is effectively inert in the first major European crisis of the 21st century.  NATO and the West are weaker for it.


Putin’s moves in the Ukraine have exposed a deep strategic fault line that Western leaders must address – 20 years of Western contradictions on European security policy that  have finally come home to roost.

Failure to do so expeditiously ultimately threatens NATO itself and trans-Atlantic ties.

















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