Where's NATO's Strong Response to Russia's Invasion of Crimea?

Why action -- not activity -- is the only way to put the brakes on Moscow.

As Russia completes its invasion and eventual annexation of Crimea -- and possibly threatens more Ukrainian territory -- one can be forgiven for asking, "Where's NATO?" With NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Washington this week, perhaps we'll find out.

NATO's job No. 1, set out in the Washington Treaty, is to defend the territory of its members. Beyond that, it has often served to project security and stability in Europe. It is the organization that faced down the Soviet Union without firing a shot, deterred nuclear Armageddon, and gave inspiration to dissidents and other democratic activists in Europe's East. NATO also stopped the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and helped over 100 million Central and East Europeans establish security as new, democratic, market-driven societies.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has engaged successfully in crisis management, building far-reaching partnerships, bringing in 12 new members, shifting toward deployable, sustainable military capabilities, and attempting to build a relationship with Russia (despite Moscow's demonstrated antipathy).

No NATO territory has been invaded by Russia, so NATO's collective defense commitment has not been formally tested. But NATO allies in the East -- the Baltic States and Poland, for example -- are rightly worried about Moscow's intentions. And, perhaps even more importantly, non-allies -- such as Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan -- are watching to see whether NATO pushes back, or accedes to a revived Russian sphere of influence over pieces of the former Soviet Union.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine has been invaded and NATO is almost invisible.

To be fair, NATO has been awash in activity. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) met in special session to discuss the crisis, and has issued three statements -- one where it treated Russia and Ukraine equally, calling upon "both parties to immediately seek a peaceful resolution through bilateral dialogue"; and another where it promised to "pursue and intensify [its] rigorous and on-going assessment" of the situation. In its third statement the NAC urged "the Russian Federation to de-escalate the situation." 

NATO held meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (March 5) and the NATO-Ukraine Commission (March 2), and hosted a visit by Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (March 6) at the alliance headquarters. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, comprising NATO and all Euro-Atlantic partners (including Russia and Ukraine) discussed the situation on March 14. Secretary General Rasmussen has made several press statements. NATO has cut back on cooperative exchanges with Russia, offered to increase partnership activities with Ukraine, and sent AWACs surveillance aircraft to southeast Europe to better observe the Russian offensive. On a national basis, the United States has increased its participation in Baltic air-policing, added to its air defense contingent in Poland, and sent a ship to conduct naval maneuvers with Romania and Bulgaria in the Black Sea.

Yet all that activity is just that -- activity. Missing is strategic purpose, coordinated action (not words) and real effect. Nowhere has there been a credible threat of action, which might deter Russia. As Russia gobbles up territory and conducts major exercises on the borders of the Baltic States and Ukraine, the United States talks about off-ramps, Washington and Brussels lumber toward phased, underwhelming sanctions, and NATO cuts back on cooperative activities. NATO seems to be stuck operating in the logic of partnership, rather than the logic of defense and deterrence.

Especially as Russia threatens to move into Eastern Ukraine -- and perhaps now also to annex Transnistria, from Moldova -- NATO needs to re-learn the logic of deterrence: the willingness to use force if necessary, and to decisive effect, in order to deter conflict. While Crimea may be lost already, deterrence is all the more relevant to prevent further Russian incursions into Ukraine and other areas of Eastern Europe.

Yet today, while NATO talks about de-escalation, Putin thinks in terms of escalation dominance -- something at which NATO used to excel, but refuses to consider today. If Putin persists, there is no one to stop him.

Clearly, the U.S. and EU strategy is to put in place travel, economic, and financial sanctions targeted against key people in the Russian leadership, oligarchs, and state-run businesses, rather than consider military steps. But Putin clearly believes he can weather these sanctions, up the ante, and outlast Europe and America's willingness to pursue them. Indeed, the list announced on March 17 -- intended to be a shot across the bow -- instead came across in Moscow as weakness. 

By Putin's logic, the acquisition of territory is permanent and strategic; sanctions are temporary. Add to that his belief that Russia's potential countersanctions against Europe -- especially in energy -- will force the West to back down. Indeed, it's almost a game to him, with Putin now reportedly deciding which U.S. leaders he wants to sanction. Putin is not only undeterred, but eager to ride out whatever U.S. and EU sanctions are put in place.

Not so many years ago, members of NATO saw it as a critical goal to produce a joint policy, with coordinated action and statements, in order to concentrate effort and achieve strategic effect. Today, it appears that several allies aim instead to prevent NATO from making a strong statement or -- worse yet -- taking action, so as to avoid "escalating" the crisis.

NATO cannot function without U.S. leadership -- and with the United States studiously avoiding any suggestions of military response to Putin's military aggression, NATO is almost by definition on the sidelines.

Yet even if the United States were to suggest a far more robust NATO posture now, it would be an uphill climb. Berlin also wants to avoid a serious NATO policy backed up by action, and the de facto situation in Crimea and along Ukraine's eastern border is daunting for all Europeans. Ever since the former German chancellor -- now Gazprom employee -- Gerhard Schroeder was in power, Berlin has sought to minimize NATO's military engagement, political role, and any push-back on Russia. Angela Merkel has moved Germany toward a slightly tougher position, but only slightly.

Even with Allied hesitation, it would be far better for the United States to put the most significant security issue in Europe in 25 years squarely on the NATO agenda, rather than to acquiesce and keep NATO out of the picture. NATO is, after all, the essential venue for consultation among allies under the Washington Treaty.

In the wake of Russia's imminent annexation of Crimea, here are a few specific suggestions of what NATO -- with strong U.S. leadership and participation -- should and can do:

  • Shift the logic of NATO action, from partnership to defense and deterrence.
  • Issue an iron-clad statement articulating the absolute commitment of the alliance to defend the territory of all NATO member states, no exceptions.
  • To back up this commitment to collective defense, update and put in place defense and exercise plans for each and every allied member, and strengthen air defense assets deployed to the Baltic states.
  • Send NATO military forces (ground forces, not just AWACS planes) to NATO allied territory bordering Ukraine to conduct military exercises.
  • Determine that any further assaults on Ukraine's territorial integrity beyond Crimea represent a direct threat to NATO security and, accordingly, issue a statement saying that any such efforts to break off more territory will be met with a NATO response.
  • Task the NATO military authorities to draw up contingency plans in the event of a Russian military invasion or subversion of eastern Ukraine.
  • In concert with the European Union, NATO should sell new military equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces, based on U.S. and EU loan guarantees.
  • Also in concert with the European Union, agree to an embargo on arms sales to Russia, including French "Mistral" ships and German live-fire training gear.
  • At Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's request, provide NATO-country advisors and trainers to assist the Ukrainian forces in defending their country.
  • Expand intelligence sharing with the Ukrainian government, and allow Ukraine to post a military liaison at NATO's Supreme Allied Headquarters in Belgium, to facilitate real-time intelligence sharing with the Ukrainian armed forces.
  • Counter increasingly rabid Russian propaganda pitched at ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe with increased funding for broadcasting outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and local efforts -- such as Latvia's center of excellence in strategic communications.

None of these actions place U.S. or NATO ground troops in Ukraine. But together these actions, they may be sufficient to get Putin's attention. And if NATO shows unity of purpose and stands its ground, it can deter Putin from further land grabs and only then see a possible "de-escalation" of the crisis. None of this will happen with out determined, courageous U.S. leadership -- which is what makes NATO Secretary General Rasmussen's meetings in Washington this week so important.


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Yes, There Are Bad Guys in the Ukrainian Government

It's time for a frank conversation about some of the unsavory characters in Kiev.

Vladimir Putin insists Russia invaded Crimea to protect the ethnic Russians who live in that southern Ukrainian territory. Ukraine, the Russian president contends, has come under the control of "neo-Nazis and Nazis and anti-Semites," and the country's Russian population is under threat. It is easy to dismiss Putin's rhetoric -- he is, after all, a serial fibber and fabricator who conflates gays and pedophiles and heads a state where Cossacks gas and whip punk rockers in broad daylight. But while Western governments and pundits are correct to dismiss Putin's pretenses for invading Ukraine, they are wrong to presume his Ukrainian opponents are necessarily in the right. The uncomfortable truth is that a sizeable portion of Kiev's current government -- and the protesters who brought it to power -- are, indeed, fascists. If Western governments hope to steer Ukraine clear from the most unsavory characters in Moscow and Kiev, they will need to wage a two-pronged diplomatic offensive: against Putin's propaganda and, at the same time, against Ukraine's resurgent far-right.

Ukraine is home to Svoboda, arguably Europe's most influential far-right movement today. (In the photo above, Svoboda activists seize a Ministry of Agriculture building during Kiev's Euromaidan protests in January.) Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok is on record complaining that his country is controlled by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," while his deputy derided the Ukrainian-born film star Mila Kunis as a "dirty Jewess." In Svoboda's eyes, gays are perverts and black people unfit to represent the nation at Eurovision, lest viewers come away thinking Ukraine is somewhere besides Uganda.

Svoboda began life in the mid-90s as the Social-National Party (a name deliberately redolent of the National Socialist Party, better known as Nazis), with its logo the fascist Wolfsangel. In 2004, the party gave itself an unobjectionable new name (Svoboda means "Freedom") and canned the Nazi imagery, and in the subsequent decade has seen its star swiftly rise.

Today, Svoboda holds a larger chunk of its nation's ministries (nearly a quarter, including the prized defense portfolio) than any other far-right party on the continent. Ukraine's deputy prime minister represents Svoboda (the smaller, even more extreme "Right Sector" coalition fills the deputy National Security Council chair), as does the prosecutor general and the deputy chair of parliament -- where the party is the fourth-largest. And Svoboda's fresh faces are scarcely different from the old: one of its freshmen members of parliament is the founder of the "Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre" and has hailed the Holocaust as a "bright period" in human history.

When the Ukraine crisis first broke in November, however, Western officialdom found itself in the dark. The end of the Cold War has occasioned a sharp drop in governmental interest in the Soviet successor states, and as Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar and the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, recently observed, Team America is batting with a considerably "shorter bench."

Nowhere has this dearth of nuance been more apparent than in the Ukraine crisis. In December, shortly after protests began against Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Svoboda chief Tyahnybok at a mass rally in Kiev, assuring demonstrators, "The free world is with you; America is with you." In February of this year, France and Germany oversaw a peace deal between Tyahnybok, two other opposition leaders, and Yanukovych (though soon after, protests forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia). And in early March, the U.S. State Department published a debunking of Putin's "False Claims About Ukraine," assuring Americans that Ukraine's far-right "are not represented" in parliament.

Western commentators have done little better. When Liz Wahl, an anchor for the Kremlin-funded TV network RT America, quit on-air on March 5, she was feted for her bravery. Granted an extended interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, she explained her decision by recounting her disgust at the network "painting the opposition over there in the Ukraine as having neo-Nazi elements. I think that's very dangerous."

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the March 16 referendum on Crimea's annexation to Russia, Svoboda was busier than ever. One of its chief demands -- that all government business be done in Ukrainian -- was passed into law, instantaneously marginalizing the one-third of Ukraine's citizens (and 60 percent of Crimeans) who speak Russian. Then for good measure, the party launched a push to repeal a law against "excusing the crimes of fascism."

So is Ukraine poised for a Nazi putsch? The good news is that opinion polls show Tyahnybok at just 5 percent approval, far behind Vitali Klitschko (the hulking, pro-Western former boxing champion) and the center-right ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In fact, it was the same French- and German-backed peace deal that gave Svoboda its disproportionate share of the resulting government's ministries.

Western governments, then, are at least partially complicit in facilitating Svoboda's rise. In the short-term, they will have to be more discerning about which members of the Ukrainian leadership they engage, backing only those who genuinely hoist the flag of human rights rather than ethnic supremacy. In the medium- and long-term, those same governments, universities, and think tanks will have to get serious about re-investing in the study of Russia and its former domains.

Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Its justification rings just as hollow as it did four years ago when Russia de facto annexed the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sound policy, however, can only be based on sound analysis of the players involved. That requires conceding the point -- even when made by the Kremlin -- that more than a few of the protesters who toppled Yanukovych, and of the new leaders in Kiev, are fascists.

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