The brutal and unprovoked war unleashed by Vladimir Putin on Ukraine has mobilised Europe’s support for the aggression’s victim. But it also challenges Europe and NATO with many difficult choices and even existential dilemmas.
The most fundamental dilemma is whether to directly enter the war and fight Russia militarily, thus hopefully preventing countless deaths among the Ukrainian people and the erasure of Ukraine as a sovereign nation from the map. Legally, of course, NATO has no such an obligation, but the moral pressure to intervene is growing every day, as images of immense destruction in Ukrainian cities and reports of the tremendous suffering of civilians are pouring in.
In a number of cases in the past, the Alliance followed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and intervened to stop bloodshed and genocide. But even when facing relatively low-capability opponents, it took time (several years in the case of Bosnia) for the collective conscience of the West to push it into military action. In other cases – most notably in Syria – it failed to do so, despite strong imperatives such as stopping refugee flows to Europe or punishing the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Direct intervention in the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine would be a challenge of an entirely different magnitude. Russia is a nuclear power, and NATO is a nuclear alliance. There are those who warn of the significant risk of escalation, all the way to the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. We should not take these warnings lightly. There are plausible pathways towards, for instance, Russia employing a low-yield nuclear weapon on Ukraine’s soil – to deter NATO’s direct intervention, shock the Ukrainian defenders into peace, and lock in the gains achieved by the Russian conventional forces. Many critics claim that such an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ approach does not exist in Russian military thought and concepts. Other serious analysts of Russia’s nuclear posture and Putin’s regime argue that it does and that the use of nuclear weapons in this war could well be on the cards. We would struggle to find an appropriate and adequate response—military or otherwise—to such a taboo-shattering step.
There are also pathways towards an all-out nuclear exchange between Russia and the West, especially if Putin is backed into a corner and claims that Russia’s very existence is in peril (one of Russia’s declared justifications for first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict). There is little evidence that his recent order to put Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on a special state of alert led to any actual measures and moves. But his past statements, amplified by present propaganda, that a world without Russia makes no sense should be taken rather seriously, especially if we view Putin as an ageing autocrat, running out of time to complete his self-assigned historical mission. But Putin may also want us to believe in his desperation and determination as a means of deterring a direct Western military intervention.
There are also those who claim that Putin would not dare to use nuclear weapons, and that we must call his bluff and intervene in Ukraine—at least in the air. They argue that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will come after NATO, so we will anyway end up with the worst of both worlds – a destroyed Ukraine and a war between NATO and Russia, initiated on Russia’s terms. But, they claim, faced with this prospect, Putin will find a way to declare victory and retreat rather than take on the overwhelming military power of the Alliance. Imposing a no-fly zone, which is now among the most desperately called-for measures, would certainly test this assumption and reveal whether we are dealing with a rational actor.
In the coming days, weeks and months, the dilemma of whether or not to intervene directly will strain the Alliance’s cohesion—one of its key strengths in dealing with Russia’s aggression. It is possible that, at some point, NATO’s consensus will gradually or suddenly shift from the view that we should do everything short of war to a recognition that we are already at war with Russia and that military options should be on the table. At the moment, however, there is little appetite in allied capitals to countenance a no-fly zone or other forms of direct intervention. But we are in uncharted territory and the threat, or even rumours about, for example the potential use of chemical weapons in Ukraine could swiftly shift opinion.
What is clear, however, is that Europe and the whole of NATO must immediately start moving towards a much higher level of preparedness, without entertaining the usual concerns about provoking Russia. Whether NATO intervenes militarily, ramps up its compellence actions, or simply bolsters its own deterrence posture, it would be highly irresponsible to act without the necessary plans, capabilities and readiness to back up these measures. NATO must also associate any actions with a credible and well-communicated ‘escalation dominance’ posture.
If, for example, NATO agrees to enforce a no-fly zone, it must have forces and resources mobilised from north to south and from west to east to deal with any and all repercussions of this decision. Even if Russia does not retaliate (which is unlikely), ‘mission creep’ is a real thing, and a no-fly zone will eventually – perhaps quite quickly – become a broader mission sustaining which will require high readiness assets that are not instantly available, large stocks of munitions and supplies that are currently not in place, and deployment of ground units such as ground-based air defence systems (GBAD) and many other capabilities. This means committing to a military campaign that requires thorough preparation and robust planning, or else it becomes a folly akin to what produced Russia’s disastrous performance during the first days of its invasion into Ukraine.
But even if the West continues its present course of all support short of direct military engagements, it must seriously prepare for the possibility that Russia might initiate military hostilities against NATO members or other states, as a second act in a longer run or the desperate spasm of a defeated regime. Allies will need to urgently strengthen their forces and common command structures, but also build resilience in their societies and economies. The measures taken by the Alliance and its members – including the activation of the NATO Response Force, the reinforcement of the Enhanced Forward Presence, and massive increases in defence spending – should be just the start, not the end. Much more will have to be done in the coming weeks, months and even years. If we think that we have already done enough today, we will again be one or two steps behind Russia tomorrow, and will have fewer available options to confront the Kremlin.
For NATO and Europe, this will be a marathon, not a sprint. We cannot afford to be cavalier about our short-term responses, but must do everything in a strategic, methodical, conscious, and prepared manner. This should not be mistaken for the lack of resolve and determination to act, but it takes time (Russia spent months building up its forces on the borders of Ukraine). The brave Ukrainian men and women ferociously fighting battles in Ukraine have bought us some extra time. We are now just reacting and racing to supply them with more weapons and to stem the unfolding humanitarian disaster, which is partly the consequence of our own failure to deter Putin. In the longer-term, we must become pro-active and ensure that in attacking Ukraine, the Kremlin will have made its most self-defeating move ever.
We should also recognise that the well-calibrated direct and indirect use of the Alliance’s military power – not just its political, economic, diplomatic, legal or informational instruments – will play a significant role in bringing this war to its termination and securing Europe. The risks will be very high, but so are the stakes.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).