Hard Realities: NATO Options in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis

Posted By April 30, 2014 No Comments

The timing of the invasion and ostensibly “democratic” annexation of Crimea, is advantageous to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. From a military standpoint, the Crimea/Ukraine crisis comes as European NATO members have undertaken substantial cuts to military expenditure in recent years, to the tune of some $45 billion. [1] The result is that the European defence burden has once again been left to the United States to assume. [2] This bottlenecking by European alliance members was a subject of the U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel’s February visit to NATO’s defence ministers meeting in Brussels. [3] These events have occurred in the wake of the Fall 2011 announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama that America’s attention was turning to the Asia-Pacific region [4] in anticipation of the challenges from China.

The underlying reason for this strategic “pivot” by the United States was the evolving concern within the Obama Administration that the Asia-Pacific region represented the new focal point for American foreign policy, defence and security, and economic interests. [5] Meanwhile, a reinvigorated Russian military, predicated upon a massive investment in defense expenditure reportedly up to 92% during the last four years with a further anticipated rise of 18% for 2014, [6] has done much to modernize their once gutted armed forces. Another point of synchronicity in this mix is that most of Europe is still experiencing serious unemployment and continues to recover from the tumultuous global economic downturn that began in 2007-2008 and the 2009 EUROZONE Crisis. [7] As a result, a number of governments in NATO had to undertake serious cuts to domestic and military spending, thereby, impacting their respective contributions and capabilities to the alliance. [8] Lastly, there was no perceived direct threat to Europe.

In 2008, President George W. Bush openly supported the acceptance of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. [9] This unilateral presidential initiative did not go unnoticed, as Mr. Putin clearly warned NATO at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest that Russia would never accept Ukraine or Georgia being signatories to the NATO Alliance. This political situation was further exacerbated when the proposal was rejected by both France and Germany. [10] For Putin and the Russian leadership, this rejection by two predominant alliance members underlined the political reality that the United States and NATO were not speaking with one concerted voice. This dearth of consensus regarding future NATO expansion, and therefore the status of Ukraine and Georgia, was not lost upon the Russian leadership who were closely monitoring these events.

European diplomats and NATO leadership are weighing the options in order to punish Russia and pre-empt further invasive initiatives upon Ukraine. Some pundits argue that one military option is deployment of NATO forces in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The geographic locations of these countries represents a distinct problem for NATO, because they are distant and, in some cases, have a substantial Russian population that could pose a problem similar to that experienced in the Crimea, should Moscow react in kind. This appears to be happening now in some of the cities in the Ukraine. [11] As the situation relates to the Baltic States, compounding their concerns is the proximity to Russia itself–making the issue of a Russian “snatch and grab strategy” a possible but not probable scenario. Notwithstanding, Poland’s concern due to its shared 144-mile border with Russia and historical experiences has resulted in its request to NATO to deploy 10,000 troops, consisting of two heavy armoured infantry brigades. [12]

The possibility of NATO deployments to frontiers bordering on Russia has provoked concerns from Germany and other alliance members. The Dutch have stated that there is no current requirement for NATO troops in Poland. The pursuit of such an option would exacerbate the already tense situation, and, in fact, would be perceived as a direct threat to the Russian homeland. To placate the fears of vulnerable alliance members, the United States and Great Britain have temporarily deployed token forces in the form of fighter aircrafts. Other NATO members, such as Bulgaria, Czech and Slovak Republics, Romania and Hungary have also voiced security concerns due to their geographic proximity. Their concerns are buttressed by lingering memories of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the latter case, Czechoslovakia’s calls for support went unheeded [13] by the West who feared sparking a nuclear conflict [14] over an East Bloc nation in the Soviet sphere of influence. These historic but salient experiences still resonate amongst their respective populations and politicians.

With over a decade of military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the last major European operation in Kosovo in 1999, there appears to be little appetite for a NATO military expedition on behalf of Ukraine. NATO was notably reticent in challenging Russia’s military foray [15] during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. This posture was reaffirmed in a recent speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who stated that the European Union’s interest is in a collectively enforced peace. In one stroke this statement ruled out any likely military action over Ukraine at the present time. [16]

Some analysts have described NATO’s initial response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as, “underwhelming”. The deployment of air assets to the Baltic region, the increase of aerial surveillance patrols over Poland and Romania, and the positioning of American F-16s to Poland [17] are notable but in reality are, “temporary” and are viewed as NATO, “feel good” missions that do not deliver an appropriately strong message to Moscow. Additionally, no NATO ally has seen these events as a threat vital enough to warrant any level of mobilization in the face of this Russian-orchestrated event. President Obama has stated that he would not permit the United States to get involved in a military venture in the Ukraine. [18] Republican Senator John McCain has argued that the United States should provide military assistance to Ukraine, but did not push for a formal American military intervention. Rather, he believes the American government should undertake a long-term military assistance plan. [19]

These political pronouncements from the United States and European alliance members may have only politically and militarily isolated the Ukrainian government by underlining the fact that NATO intervention is unlikely. [20] These statements have also relieved Vladimir Putin the possibility of a direct NATO intervention.

Although Ukraine has had a long-standing interest in joining NATO, it is not a signatory member. While Brussels and Washington view Ukraine as a potential ally and a future member of the European Union, there has no apparent obligation of these member countries to defend and attack against Ukraine. At present, the strategic interests of NATO and Europe in Ukraine are not considered to be vital. [21] Although many Western nations broadly supported [22] the popular uprising that ousted President Vicktor Yanukovich, the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president, there appears to be little appetite for any NATO-sponsored assistance or intervention other than reaffirming NATO’s responsibility in protecting alliance members. Importantly, neither NATO nor member states individually have any legal obligations to the Ukraine government. Any substantial form of military involvement by NATO would risk escalating conflict between two nuclear superpowers.

Politicians, it would appear, can strongly sway political outcomes without escalating or exacerbating the situation. It is important to note that NATO itself has developed into a political platform though the NATO-Russian Council (NRC) which was created to address issues of common concern, and to serve as a crisis management tool, however, appearing not to have been so utilized. Reflecting upon the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, NATO pushed for diplomatic solution eschewing calls for intervention. It has been argued that “not a single NATO single (sic) ally was prepared to provide real help to Georgia, which showed that the promise that “it would one day be invited to join NATO was vacuous.” [23] As a result of that conflict, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are now considered as protectorates of Russia. [24] This historic precedence could see the same with the Ukraine.

Many former Warsaw Pact nations joined NATO, because it was strategically advantageous to do so. They desired an established and credible security umbrella in the form of a nuclear armed United States and NATO. The events orchestrated by President Putin have surfaced concerns over present and possible future scenarios that most Europeans thought could never occur again on the continent. For many of the 28 member NATO nations, there appears to be a greater appreciation for retaining a credible Alliance in 21st century Europe.

The Crimea/Ukraine crisis has been a reality check for NATO and for all Europeans. As lead nation, the United States may have to rethink the pivot to the Pacific, and undertake a fresh look at European security. Many of the recently-joined NATO partners were viewed as extended defense guarantees, because there was no perceived threat to Europe. Recent events have proven otherwise. Undoubtedly, this new reality will force politicians to seriously reflect upon the issues surrounding NATO enlargement, inlcuding the Russian leadership’s perspective and the traditional Russian requirement for territorial depth in homeland defence. At the same time, politicians may determine that NATO may have to increase its European presence through soldiers stationed in Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when large numbers of NATO troops drawn from Great Britain, France, the United States, Canada and others in the Alliance were stationed permanently in West Germany. [25] Although a return to Cold War era tactics may be comforting to some European Alliance members, this could renew the traditional Russian fears of encirclement. This situation could provide a spur for Putin to further pursue other regional political aims. The old NATO saying was that the Alliance was created “to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Soviets out.” [26] Today this saying still resonates, with Russia replacing the Soviets.

At this time, it would appear that political and economic initiatives trump any military options. However, these political or economic measures must consider a full spectrum cost benefit analysis. European countries’ course of action is limited by its relatively poor economic position, and therefore may not be able to undertake certain courses of action, based on a reliance of Russian oil and gas, as well as the respective interconnected economic implications that this situation poses to NATO members in domestic economic terms. [27]

At the very least, these recent events will force NATO to reflect upon the peace dividend that every Alliance member sought in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union. These recent Russian-orchestrated events in the Crimea have reinvigorated the debate about the relevance of the Atlantic alliance. [28]

In Russia, a wave of nationalistic fervour pervaded the population as a result of its annexation of Crimea. Many informed observers proffered the view that Putin must pay closer attention to the wants, welfare, and aspirations of the population. Moreover, Russia depends upon an energy-based export economy which can be turbulent. The recent Sochi Olympic games cost Russia an estimated $51 billion, [29] which compounded by the accrued costs of the Crimean annexation, will impact Russia’s already precarious economy. These economic costs upon the Russian Federation by Putin may well be viewed by Russians themselves, sometime in the future, as economic folly.

Like Imperial Rome, nations and alliances must understand the limits of their respective military power and influence, particularly when confronting the geopolitical interests of other regional actors.