NATO should decisively increase its presence in border states most endangered by Russia’s behavior.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was a rude awakening for the world, as it brought aboutthe realization that Fukuyama’s promise of the end of history has certainly died this time. One may presume that this security crisis is not even nearly over, but we can and must learn from what has already happened, as well as reassess several previous modes of action. If we do not draw conclusions, and let this painful lesson go to waste, the long-term consequences for European security will be dire.
While Moscow was surprised and shocked by the Ukrainian people’s protests against President Yanukovych’s change of course last autumn, the West was equally surprised by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the fall of the Yanukovych. Although the occupation of Crimea, the appointment of a local puppet government, and the Russian parliament’s ratification of the annexation of the peninsula happened in a flash, this cannot mean that the map of Europe has been conclusively redesigned and that Moscow will go unpunished for this venture.
For us, Russia’s close neighbors, this point in history is a “we told you so” moment. Allies and partners who only a couple of months ago tried to convince us that the military danger to our security was a figment of our ailing imagination caused by ghosts of the past have now stated that the danger is real. However, it would be foolish to allow ourselves to gloat over our great foresight and others’ naïveté of others. This window of opportunity—during which it is possible to conclude and implement agreements about the changes needed to guarantee uniform security—may not be open for long.
How Has the Security Situation Changed?
The statement that European security has changed fundamentally after the Ukrainian crisis has become a cliché. In order to understand what the European Union and NATO should review and change in their perceptions and modes of operation, it is first necessary to analyze the real essence of this radical change in the security order.
Things that seem new may have been simply forgotten. Moscow’s imperial ambitions and desire to control its near neighbors are not a novelty in themselves. Neither is using the excuse of protecting Russian citizens, or simply “compatriots”, to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbors. We can recall that Putin and Medvedev used the exact same argument in 2008 to justify the military campaign against Georgia. However, while some people may still have believed that the Georgian War was a single and exceptional venture, following the occupation of Crimea we can already identify a clear pattern of actions—one that might continue if it is not countered strongly enough.
A worrying new trend can be seen in the increasing public suggestions by pro-Kremlin politicians and analysts that Moscow need not find (or create with the help of provocateurs) any pretexts before planning aggression against neighboring countries in the future. More often than not, they consider that military force can be used in Russia’s vicinity simply to distract NATO and the US’s attention away from some other corner of the planet in which Moscow feels that its interests are harmed or endangered. As the conventional dominance of Western allies over Russia is not nearly as evident in the Baltic region as it is globally, such a development in Russian doctrinal thinking clearly makes us cautious.
In order to understand the other possible impacts of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine on the global security situation, we must consider the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Ukraine agreed to abandon the nuclear arsenal (at the time, the third-lragest in the world) that it inherited after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The same document required Russia, the US, and the United Kingdom to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as to refrain from using military, political and economic pressure against Ukraine.
Now, Russia has gravely infringed its responsibilities under the Budapest Memorandum, which raises the justified question of how the Ukrainian authorities (or Russia’s other neighbors) can be even slightly sure that Putin’s regime intends to keep its promises in the future.
In addition, we should closely observe which conclusions are drawn from the Ukraine crisis by Iran and North Korea. Since in hindsight the security assurances Ukraine received for abandoning its nuclear weapons turned out to be empty promises, Iran’s leaders may thus believe that it would be better to finish building the bomb no matter what.
Why Was the Aggression a Surprise?
Notwithstanding the efforts that Putin’s regime has made in recent years to modernize its armed forces, today’s Russia is both economically and militarily far behind the Euro–Atlantic security community.
However, Putin understands perfectly that the undemocratic nature of his regime provides a relevant competitive advantage for him: the factor of time. Able to make decisions alone, the Russian president is free of the inertia and the need for coordination, negotiation and compromise that inevitably go with collective decision-making. This means that the international community has only a minimal warning period—if that—in which to intercept Moscow’s aggressive steps.
It was precisely on this shock factor proceeding from a non-existent warning that Putin based his tactics both in 2008 in Georgia, and this year in Ukraine. As long as assembling forces for attack is at least partly explainable by “regular” military exercises or, for example, security operations connected to the Olympic Games, then the decision to attack can be made almost instantaneously. Moscow is thus able to create a “new reality” on the ground before the international community is able to muster itself.
Putin knows that reversing the “new reality” created through armed force—be it in the case of the “pretend states” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the one hand, or that of newly-annexed Crimea on the other—is considerably more difficult for the international community in political and economic terms than preventing the aggression in the first place. This is why he hopes that, sooner or later, attempts to resolve the crisis will be handled through diplomatic channels, and instead of trying to restore the pre-crisis situation, these efforts will be aimed only at “de-escalating tensions”.
In the best scenario for Putin, sooner or later the “altered reality” will become accepted, and Crimea will be thought of as just another frozen conflict among many others in the vicinity of Russia. After a period of time, some of the international community will grow tired of “nagging” Russia—and the remaining critics can be labelled Russophobes who are having a hard time getting over their own bitter past.
What Should the West Do?
In order to avoid such an outcome this time, and to ensure that Putin does not feel the temptation to repeat the venture somewhere else soon, NATO and the EU must quickly take a number of basic actions; some of these will produce immediate results, while others will have long-term strategic impact.
First, Russia needs to be told in no uncertain terms that infringing international law and behavioral norms in its actions, as well as attempting to change state borders by military means, will have serious and unpleasant consequences. In other words: it is important to make sure that the sanctions directed at top Russian politicians will not be only a symbolic one-time punishment but a clear and understandable source of pressure on Russia’s political leadership until the regime changes its behavior and compensates for the losses it has caused.
Second, Russia needs to understand that the changed attitude of the Western countries does not come from any temporary feeling of being offended; the Kremlin cannot expect pre-crisis levels of communication to resume before the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been restored and Moscow has entirely abandoned its expansionist ambitions with regard to its neighbors. Both Moscow and Kyiv must be assured that democratic states will conclusively support a policy of non-recognition of the occupation and annexation of Crimea—just as the absolute majority of Western countries refused to recognize the occupation and annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union.
There are also several important lessons with regard to the future of NATO’s collective defense to be learned from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,—lessons that force us to quickly change our current practices.
First, the alliance as a whole—and each and every member state independently—must improve its capability to assess and analyze the rapidly changing security situation quickly in order to cope with the shortened period of warning. Similarly, intelligence must be shared continuously, quickly, efficiently, and securely among the allies.
A separate lesson must be learned with regard to improving NATO’s capacity for deterrence. NATO membership provides Estonia and other “border states” of the alliance with the assurance that our allies collectively will protect us if any scenarios of military danger emerge. This fundamental principle of the Washington Treaty has been reaffirmed by the political leaders of all allied states and by senior NATO officials during the Ukraine crisis. This notwithstanding , we must not forget that, in order for deterrence to work, the potential aggressor must also believe in NATO’s unwavering commitment to an immediate and overwhelming counter-strike, proceeding from Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
The political solidarity of allied states has a strong deterrent potential. This is stronger still if backed by considerable military power and detailed military planning. NATO must decisively increase its presence in those “border states” that are most endangered by Russia’s aggressive behavior, while regularly updating detailed plans for the collective protection of each member state. In addition to placing additional units and equipment in these regions and periodically updating defense plans, increasing deterrence potential includes raising the importance of allied military exercises, which should be organized more frequently than they have been to date and which should also be more extensive and more tightly focused on simulating realistic collective defense scenarios. None of these measures shouldbe symbolic or forgotten if the Ukraine crisis develops into a frozen conflict after its “hot” phase.
In conclusion, all of the above means a return to NATO’s founding core function: the collective protection of allied territories against military threats. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which is repeated in the final communiqués of the alliance’s summits—a ritual considered endearing but empty in some world capitals following the collapse of the Soviet empire—must regain its initial meaning and significance while acting as a strong deterrent against the present external threat.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.