By pledging not to use force outside NATO territory, Obama might as well have given Putin a free pass to annex more territory.
Speaking in Belgium on March 26, 2014, President Barack Obama made it clear that military force would not be used to deter further Russian aggression outside NATO territory. Whatever the rationale behind this baffling clarification, it only increases the risk that the alliance will be drawn into a military conflict with Moscow. NATO has had to fight outside its borders before, and it may be forced to do so again if Russia keeps seizing its neighbors' territory -- regardless whether or not those neighbors fall under the alliance's collective security blanket.
Deciding how NATO should respond to the crisis in Ukraine, which deepened over the weekend of April 5-6, as pro-Russian activists seized government buildings in the eastern part of the country, has been hampered by two crucial questions that have remained unanswered since the end of the Cold War: Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of the threat NATO was designed to counter, the alliance is still debating what role it should play in guaranteeing global security and how far its membership should expand. Paradoxically, the Ukrainian crisis helps answer both questions.
NATO membership should only extend to other strong democracies with which existing alliance members share vital interests within a defensible geographic area. While this augurs for keeping NATO smaller rather than larger, it does not mean that its interests -- and need to project force -- are confined to the territory of member states. On the contrary, the alliance has an interest in the stability and viability of the states beyond its immediate frontier. NATO may have little reason to admit Ukraine as a member, but it has every reason to defend it now.
After the Cold War, NATO members no longer feared a Soviet attack. But as successful, trading democracies, they had many vital interests in common, often extending far beyond their borders. The Kosovo action proved that NATO could conduct operations against a much weaker foe in the near abroad. In Afghanistan, the alliance has shown that it can play a global expeditionary role, but only with great difficulty. Clearly, the country with the greatest interest in maintaining this expeditionary role for NATO is the United States (without NATO, it must bear the burden of maintaining global stability largely alone). But now, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the American president has suddenly distinguished sharply between the defense of NATO countries and that of non-NATO countries, going so far as to declaim against "military adventures" outside NATO territory. As a result, it's difficult to tell just what the alliance's mission -- or relevance -- will be moving forward.
Confusion about NATO's mission has inevitably translated into confusion about how big the alliance should be. In 1999 and 2004, NATO expanded its membership to include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Including those countries made sense both in terms of shared values and interests -- within a defensible geographic area. But with the accession of Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Croatia in 2004 and 2009, NATO expanded to include countries that were unstable, militarily weak, and economically moribund in a geographic area that was not vital for the survival of NATO.
Even more worrying was NATO's 2008 announcement that it "welcomed" membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a move that had no obvious strategic justification and that caused considerable alarm and anger in the Kremlin. Just a few months later, Russia occupied parts of Georgia, partly in order to create a border conflict that would prevent the former Soviet republic from joining NATO anytime soon (the alliance treaty prohibits the accession of any country involved in a border dispute). U.S. officials reacted to the Georgia crisis -- for which they arguably bore part of the blame -- with a familiar combination of pointless anti-Russian bluster and inaction.
NATO's vital interests outside its borders raise other serious questions that the United States has chosen to ignore since the end of the Cold War: How can large ethnic minorities -- including major Russian populations left outside Russia's borders -- be both protected and protected against? And how will the post-Soviet states be peacefully integrated into the modern world of free and prosperous societies?
Both of these problems turn on the viability of post-Soviet states as free-market democracies. President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, announced a specific set of criteria for U.S. recognition of post-Soviet states: They would have to: 1) adhere to a democratic and peaceful transition; 2) respect existing borders or shift them only through peaceful negotiation; 3) demonstrate support for democracy and the rule of law, with an open, free, and fair electoral system; 4) safeguard human rights, including individual freedoms and the equal treatment of minorities; and 5) respect international law. These criteria were valuable, chiefly because they were objective principles that could be applied generally -- achieving the kind of clarity that is too often lacking in American foreign policy (witness: the Arab Spring.)
But the Bush-Baker criteria focused too much on behavior and not enough on the structural requirements of proper governance. They therefore provided few clues as to whether the newly recognized states would prove successful. More meaningful criteria -- such as respect for property rights and freedom of exchange, broad political participation, impartial execution of the laws, and an independent judiciary -- have often fallen by the wayside. Since then, in the post-Soviet states, the Arab world, and elsewhere, the United States has mistakenly treated such constitutional matters as essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states. In a nod to the principle of non-interference, the United States has often acted as if the factors on which the success of its development assistance -- and broader foreign policy objectives -- often rested were officially none of our business. In Ukraine, for example, Washington has put little effort into advancing institutional reforms as a condition for more full bilateral relations.
Inattention to Ukraine's viability as a state made a major blow-up almost inevitable. The collapse of the Soviet Union left behind an independent Ukraine -- something that had never existed before -- that contained large areas that had always been Russian, including large Russian populations and Moscow's most important naval base, at Sevastopol in the Crimea. More problematic, however, was the effect of these factors -- along with the role played by the West -- on the Ukrainian political system. Over the years, power has swung back and forth between ethnically Russian and ethnically Ukrainian factions -- and the orientation of the state has oscillated with them. The United States and its European partners, meanwhile, have encouraged and celebrated the dominance of the anti-Russian faction, seemingly unaware that democracy requires a unified polity in which power is shared and all major factions feel enfranchised.
The steady decay of Ukraine's military capability has proved equally problematic: Even during the periods when anti-Russian factions were in power, Ukrainian leaders, wary of provoking Russia, gave little thought to building up the country's military forces. As a result, Ukraine has been dangerously frail virtually since its independence -- and the United States has done next to nothing to shore it up. Political instability has combined with military weakness to produce a weak and vulnerable state just beyond NATO's frontier.
A smaller (and less ethnically Russian) Ukraine might have been more stable and easier to defend. But Moscow purposely enlarged Ukraine during the Soviet period in order to enhance the façade of a diverse coalition of Soviet states. If the Russians had sought to revise this arrangement peacefully, it might have been possible to accommodate them through arms-length negotiations with a broad-based government in Ukraine. As President George H.W. Bush's criteria implied, changes in borders were not necessarily off the table. They just had to be agreed upon through peaceful negotiation. By resorting to force, however, the Russians have turned their grievances over Ukraine into a dangerous challenge to the international system -- and to NATO.
Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea falls into a category of military actions that has been mercifully rare since World War II: the war of territorial conquest. Among the handful of examples are North Korea's invasion of the south in 1950 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- and both times the United States went to war to reverse the result.
Russia's actions are a throwback to an earlier era, when most wars were fought for the specific purpose of gaining territory. Prior to World War II, such conflicts were depressingly common, and resulted in a level of devastation and loss of life that only seemed to increase with every generation. But since the end of World War II, the loss of life due to war has plummeted in absolute terms, particularly since 1990. There are various explanations for this, among them the general deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, the proliferation of essentially non-violent democracies, and commercial globalization that makes war more costly.
Regardless of the precise reasons why, the war of conquest has become a thing of the past, and the world is a much safer place for it. In the nuclear age, conflicts like the two world wars are hard to imagine. But there is no doubt that Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea opens the door to a much more violent world. The justification that Russia used in Crimea -- the need to protect ethnic Russians and "reunify" Russia -- is one that Russia could use in other areas, from eastern and southeastern Ukraine to the Baltic states. Same goes for every other territorial dispute around the world in which revisionist powers face militarily weaker opponents, particularly if the latter are not protected by an alliance with America.
And that is why the forcible annexation of Crimea affects vital U.S. interests in a way that goes far beyond the particular status of Crimea, to which the United States is largely indifferent. The peace and security of the United States depend upon the security and political stability of its trading partners, which now include most of the world's sovereign states. That is why the United States forged NATO and its alliances on the Pacific Rim and among the Gulf kingdoms. In short, the United States depends on the stability of the international system and the norms that uphold it in the modern era. Few things could be as poisonous to that system as reviving the war of conquest as a tool for resolving territorial disputes.
The United States and its allies have moved quickly to impose significant sanctions on Russia. As a result of a decade of experience dealing with North Korea and Iran, U.S. sanctions are now much more specific and effective than there were before. In 2005, for example, North Korea was virtually cut off from the entire global financial system -- including most of the world's banks -- as a result of a single Treasury Department action against a small bank in Macau. Likewise, sophisticated U.S. and EU sanctions have crippled Iranian oil export earnings without significantly reducing the overall volume of its oil exports. Similar sanctions will increase the pain felt by the Russian government, while softening the blow on Russia's trading partners in Europe. Diversifying Europe's energy sources could go a long way toward shielding it from the effects of sanctions against Russian exports.
Beyond sanctions, however, the United States and its allies should also move fast to confront Russia in Ukraine. The Obama administration has refused a Ukrainian request for defensive military equipment. That could prove to be a big mistake. Not only would strengthening Ukraine's military increase the penalty for Moscow's actions in Crimea, it would raise the costs of further Russian aggression. Right now, the Russian forces massing at the border face few deterrents to marching on eastern Ukraine. Having been overrun in Crimea, Ukrainian forces are likely in a deplorable state of morale and readiness throughout the country. Russia, meanwhile, has become extremely adept at infiltrating and organizing irregular forces -- and it has reasons to invade. The annexation of Crimea doesn't actually solve the problem of access to Crimea -- the Black Sea peninsula is not connected to Russia by land -- and according to Moscow, at least, the heavily Russian areas of eastern and southeastern Ukraine are still pining to join Mother Russia, too.
Given the short timeframe, there is little the United States can do to bolster Ukraine's military capability. Token American air defense systems or Patriot Missile batteries on the ground in Ukraine would only be useful if manned by U.S. troops (just a few hundred of whom could go a long way toward deterring a Russian attack.) Even with U.S. troops on the ground, however, the Russians could conclude that the United States is not really willing to fight for Ukraine and call its bluff. The United States may well choose to back down rather than get sucked into what, for Obama, would be nothing more than a "military excursion," as he recently put it. And that would be the worst of all worlds. If the administration draws yet another red line, this time with actual U.S. forces, and then backs down when challenged, the damage to America's prestige -- and its ability to deter anyone at all -- would be catastrophic. In any case, NATO's refusal to help Ukraine defend itself now only highlights how little basis there was for dangling the prospect of NATO membership back in 2008.
Given the potential for escalation, the United States should secure a commitment from NATO to fight and win in the event of a Russian attack on alliance forces before any troops are deployed to Ukraine. This point may seem moot given the administration's pronouncements. But reality has a way of imposing policy. The partial collapse of Ukraine in the context of a Russian incursion would create an extremely dangerous situation, and one that NATO may not be able to avoid getting embroiled in.
NATO should rethink its position, and fast. A risk-averse approach now could prove reckless in the long run. The viability of Ukraine as an independent state is a vital interest for NATO. If the Russians invade Ukraine the resulting instability will not be contained there, but could spread quickly across the region. Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia -- each of these countries was traditionally part of Russia and still contains a large Russian population. All could be infiltrated by irregulars or see separatist regions hold referenda and break away -- only to be quickly recognized by Moscow.
The defense of NATO cannot start at NATO's borders. Collective defense means the defense of collective vital interests, wherever they may be. And that's why, like it or not, the Ukraine crisis has landed on NATO's front burner. The Russians have no intention of going to war with NATO. But they may well continue annexing territory until NATO stops them.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images