Capstones: Putin Gambles with Europe's Future
Give Vladimir Putin his due. He plays a weak hand very well. Regrettably, America and its NATO allies play a strong hand very poorly. With Putin making outrageous demands on NATO, occupying parts of Ukraine, attempting to reverse the settled outcomes of the Cold War, and steadily erasing the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, it’s time to remind Moscow who holds the ace card.
First things first: Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Thus, Ukraine’s security and sovereignty are not guaranteed by NATO and are not part of NATO’s mandate. However, the principles at stake in this crisis Putin has contrived—the rights and independence of sovereign nations, the security and stability of Europe, the maintenance of some semblance of international order, the enduring lessons of Munich—surely are. While NATO troops should not be sent to die for Ukraine, they must defend NATO’s interests and territory—both of which will be far more secure if Ukraine remains a sovereign democratic nation, and both of which will be further jeopardized if Putin is permitted to continue his piecemeal conquest of former Soviet lands.
That’s why the U.S. and its NATO allies must respond to Putin’s gun-to-the head demands in a more comprehensive and more forceful manner than in the past. Recent reports that Russian troops are pulling back from their forward positions, while welcome, do not address or solve the crux of the problem here. For more than a decade Russia has repeatedly forward-deployed large troop concentrations to: invade sovereign nations, conduct destabilizing snap military exercises, extort the West, and intimidate its neighbors. Only a comprehensive, long-term response will address the crux of the problem: Putin’s almost-animal instinct for sensing weakness and NATO’s penchant for signaling weakness.
By hammering out a comprehensive response, NATO can address not only Putin’s latest contrived crisis, but also the root cause of the crisis. What Churchill said of Stalin and his commissars remains true of Putin and his henchmen: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”
To extend the poker metaphor, it would be wrong to say that Putin is bluffing by massing 100,000 troops and 1,200 tanks along the Russia-Ukraine frontier—while demanding that NATO not expand eastward, cease all military activities in Eastern Europe, pull back its forces and weapons to where they were deployed in 1997 (before the alliance invited Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic), and pledge not to reintroduce intermediate-range missiles into Europe. After all, Putin has already proven his willingness to go to war against Ukraine by invading and annexing parts of Ukraine—which he calls “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. Putin took a gamble in 2014, betting that President Obama—after withdrawing U.S. armor from Europe, erasing his red lines in Syria, pulling out of Iraq and announcing it was time for America to focus on nation-building at home—would do little in response to a military invasion of Ukraine. That gamble paid off. And now, Putin is betting yet again that with America distracted by pandemic recovery and NATO reeling from the debacle in Afghanistan, he can bully NATO out of Eastern Europe, salami-slice his way across Ukraine, and extract from the West a wholesale revision of the post-Cold War security landscape.
Putin’s demands are unacceptable. But if Washington and NATO fail to respond to his liking, Putin is ready and willing to kill more Ukrainians and take more Ukrainian territory. But is he ready and willing to kill NATO personnel and move against NATO territory? And is NATO ready and willing to draw a line?
The answer to that first question is “no”—at least for now. Despite all his bluster, buildups and bullying, Putin respects NATO’s all-for-one security guarantee. That explains why he has invaded non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine but kept his hands off NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
How NATO answers that second question will go a long way toward determining Putin’s actions and NATO’s future.
Doubtless, there are cold and calculating officials in Brussels and at the Pentagon who are urging NATO’s political leaders to make Putin a counteroffer he can’t accept: “OK, Mr. Putin, NATO will promise not to expand further east and will renege on its open-ended invitation to Ukraine on the condition that all Russian troops and equipment be verifiably withdrawn from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, within 60 days. If you can’t hold up that end of the bargain, NATO can’t make any promises about eastward expansion.”
However, there are too many drawbacks and pitfalls to playing such a hand: The implication of that counteroffer is that Putin has a role in determining who can join NATO, that Putin has a vote in defining NATO’s borders and membership, that countries like Ukraine are not sovereign nations. Plus, Putin could live up to the conditions of such a deal on a technicality by withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine while leaving behind ethnic Russian militiamen armed with Russian equipment, or by withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine while permanently stationing massive numbers of troops on the Ukraine border, thus holding a sword over Ukraine’s neck—and NATO’s.
So, instead of clever counteroffers, Washington should lead the alliance in unveiling a series of countermeasures aimed at defending NATO territory, stabilizing the security situation across the Euro-Atlantic region, enhancing Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself in the event of a second Russian invasion, and thus deterring Putin from another gamble.
First, the U.S. and NATO members closest in proximity to Putin’s massing armies should initiate consultations under Article IV of the North Atlantic Treaty. Invoked just six times in NATO’s seven-plus decades, Article IV allows alliance members “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened” to address a threat that has not yet mushroomed into a direct attack. With 100,000 troops positioned for attack further into Ukraine, a track record of aggression, and a crescendo of threats and aggressive actions against NATO members and the peace of Europe, Putin has clearly threatened the security of NATO’s easternmost members.
Article IV consultations would force NATO to address a threshold question: Will the alliance be more or less secure if Putin seizes more of Ukraine, limits NATO’s independence, and uses force to parlay yet another gamble into an expanded reach and role? The answer to that seems obvious, and from that answer will flow a gameplan to defend NATO’s members and interests.
Defend NATO Territory
Such a gameplan should initially focus on shoring up the security of NATO members.
Toward that end, the just-signed National Defense Authorization Act includes $4 billion for the European Defense Initiative (EDI). Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO’s top military commander, has reportedly urged alliance political leaders to approve expansion of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission by increasing deployments in Bulgaria and Romania. NATO’s political leadership should approve the plan without delay.
In addition, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have called on NATO and the U.S. to upgrade existing rotational deployments into permanent bases, and Poland wants additional U.S. firepower on its territory. Some of those new EDI resources should be earmarked for strengthening America’s tangible commitment to Poland and the Baltics. The reason the Poles and Balts want U.S. forces stationed on their soil is the same reason U.S. forces were based in West Berlin during the Cold War and have been on the 38th Parallel since 1953: American troops send an unmistakable message that crossing this line means you are going to war against the United States—no ambiguity, no question marks, no doubts about the consequences. The goal is not to start a war but quite the opposite: to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.” Permanently basing American forces on NATO’s most-at-risk territory helped remove such temptations during the Cold War. It will do the same today.
Strengthen Ukraine’s Hand
Even as the alliance bolsters its eastern flank, NATO should strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself from further Russian aggression—cyber-defenses, cyber-redundancies and technical advisors; anti-aircraft systems, anti-personnel systems and additional anti-tank systems; shoreline and sea-based defenses; radar-jamming and counter-jamming systems. Again, the NDAA includes $300 million in fresh resources for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative—resources that should be invested in these sorts of weapons systems. As Rep. Seth Moulton bluntly puts it, the U.S. should give Ukraine “weapons that will have a high cost in terms of Russian casualties.” Moulton recommends that the White House “clearly articulate to the world how the weapons we provide will force Mr. Putin to incur substantial losses of Russian troops.”
For the first time ever, the U.S. recently conducted reconnaissance flights over eastern Ukraine to get a clearer picture of Russian military activity. The Biden administration is reportedly mulling enhanced signals and satellite intelligence sharing. This sort of intel would strengthen Kiev’s ability to anticipate another invasion.
Expand the Playing field
The U.S. and NATO should not limit their response to the terrain Putin has chosen.
In response to Putin’s militarization of the Arctic, NATO should stand up an Allied Command-Arctic. The groundwork is in place: Denmark has an Arctic command, Canada an Arctic training center, Norway an Arctic headquarters. The Pentagon has unveiled an Arctic strategy. It’s time for these NATO allies to coordinate their efforts, defend NATO’s Arctic interests, and force Putin to either expend resources countering a NATO move or back down.
In response to Putin’s violation of the INF Treaty by developing and perhaps deploying the land-based 9M729 missile system—which the Obama administration, Trump administration and NATO condemned—the U.S. should initiate deployments on NATO’s Central European territory (with host-nation consent) of land-based missile systems that mirror Russia’s new missile systems, with an offer to withdraw such deployments as soon as Russia verifiably does the same and returns to the status quo ante.
Given that NATO represents two things Putin opposes—namely, the expansion of liberal democracy and an obstacle to the reconstitution of Moscow’s Cold War sphere of influence—NATO should keep its doors open. The alliance has added North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Croatia the past 12 years—all despite Russian objections and political interference. There’s momentum in Sweden for NATO membership. Finland routinely contributes to NATO exercises. Bosnia is participating in NATO’s Membership Action Plan, a pathway to full membership. Georgia and Ukraine are eager to be invited into the MAP program. Washington should encourage these developments and make clear that NATO remains open to new members.
Although now is not the time for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, the U.S. could announce that it will elevate these two democratic partners to the status of “major non-NATO ally”—a designation that enhances security, trade and defense cooperation. Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Taiwan and Tunisia are among those so designated. This would not tie the U.S. to a mutual-defense treaty with Ukraine, but it would send a strong signal to Moscow.
In the event of another Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has threatened to shut off Russia’s access to smartphone technologies, aircraft components and automobile parts. These sorts of sanctions would stagger the Russian economy. Washington must be prepared to follow through on this threat. In addition, Germany recently “suspended” the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline due to Putin’s feints and taunts. Berlin’s apparent willingness to use the pipeline as a carrot-and-stick tool is a good sign for NATO and a bad sign for Putin, given that a shutdown of the pipeline would sting Putin and his fellow kleptocrats.
Further up the ladder, Russia’s one-dimensional economy—reliant on oil and natural gas—would be crippled if Washington played the energy card and flexed its energy muscle by announcing plans to increase oil output and stand up an LNG partnership enfolding the U.S., Canada, Greece, Ukraine, Poland and other Central European states.
If Putin wants a grand reappraisal and reassessment of Europe’s post-Cold War order, Washington should oblige and make clear that the United States is eager to settle issues left unaddressed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For starters, the White House could invite the leaders of all nations where Russian troops are deployed but unwelcome—Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine—to participate in a strategy summit with the president and his national security team. The White House could then organize a follow-up gathering of NATO foreign ministers and their Georgian, Ukrainian and Moldovan counterparts to identify ways the alliance can strengthen the security of these neighbor nations—and make their Russian occupiers uncomfortable. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a former military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, notes that Russia’s outposts in Georgia and Moldova—bitterly opposed by both nations—are “exposed and vulnerable to military action” by indigenous forces “if supported by the West.” Arming Moldovan and Georgian troops with Western military equipment “to create a credible threat to retake these breakaway regions would require Russia to divert military forces from any plan against Ukraine.”
In addition, to underscore the sovereignty and nationhood of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, Washington should support convening major international events—NATO ministerial gatherings, OSCE meetings, industry and trade conferences, international sporting and cultural events—in Tbilisi, Kiev and Chisinau.
These sorts of initiatives and signals are important beyond Ukraine. Like other authoritarians bent on expanding their reach, Putin masters in the double-standard, contrives historical grievances and drifts into paranoia.
Putin warned in 2014, for example, that he “will continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means.” And just last month, he lamented how the collapse of the USSR meant that “historically Russian territories with a historically Russian population, primarily in Ukraine, had found themselves living outside Russia.” He then claimed that Ukraine’s democratic government and its Western allies are building “an anti-Russia” by “stockpiling the latest weapons…Just imagine how Russia must live and carry on.”
This would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high and the consequences weren’t so grave. Here are the facts: Russia, which invaded Ukraine, has a $1.7-trillion GDP, a population of 145 million, 1.4 million men under arms, a $61.7-billion military budget, an estimated 22,000 tanks and armored vehicles, and 4,500 nuclear warheads. Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia, has a $153-billion GDP, a population of 44 million, 297,000 men under arms, a $5.9-billion defense budget, an estimated 3,700 tanks and armored vehicles, and zero nuclear weapons. In fact, Ukraine surrendered its entire nuclear arsenal in exchange for a treaty commitment from Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine and respect Ukraine’s “independence…sovereignty and the existing borders.”
Given that there are millions of ethnic Russians spread across Ukraine, the Baltics and Eastern Europe—and that Putin has reserved for himself the right to determine when, where and whether they need to be defended by military force—Putin’s grievances are a recipe for something more complicated and perhaps more dangerous than the Cold War. This is precisely why the costs of invading and occupying Ukraine have to be raised—lest Putin be tempted to keep gambling with Europe’s security and stability.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A short version of this essay appeared at ASCF.