No own goals at the September NATO summit

NATO is facing a host of difficult choices about how to respond to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in the uprisings in eastern Ukraine. The alliance has already taken steps to bolster its eastern defenses, and additional decisions will be made as events unfold over the coming three months. But most crucial decisions are going to be made at the September 4-5 NATO summit in Wales. The alliance is being urged by its eastern members to take additional measures to deter Russia from further acts of aggression and intimidation. It is also facing an extremely difficult decision over how to handle Georgia’s push to join the alliance.

The problem is that moving additional NATO forces to the east or incorporating new members that share a border with Russia is going to be viewed as highly provocative by Moscow, which will react with countermeasures. Anticipating those countermeasures, and responding to them without provoking a war, is critically important. Over the longer term, and if reason prevails, the United States and key allies are also likely to conclude that formal negotiations with Moscow over an overarching security architecture for Europe is preferable to a lose-lose game of military and economic confrontation.

NATO and Russian relations with West after the Cold War

There have been three acute crises in U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War: the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 (and particularly an incident at Pristina airport on June 12, 1999, during which Russian and NATO forces came close to opening fire on each other); the August 2008 Russo-Georgia War; and now the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In each case, NATO and its mission was the critical factor driving Russian policy.

In the Kosovo case, Moscow and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing NATO to use military force against Serbia, taking the position that any intervention not endorsed by the Security Council would be illegal. Moscow then condemned NATO’s bombing campaign once it began, arguing that NATO was not only violating international law but that its use of force beyond the territory of its member-states was a threat to European stability.

The standoff at the airport took place after the Serbs had agreed to stop NATO’s bombing campaign, and after Moscow had agreed to contribute to a joint NATO-Russia peacekeeping force in Kosovo. What precipitated the crisis was Moscow’s insistence that its forces control an exclusive zone in Kosovo and not be placed under NATO command.

NATO and the Russo-Georgian War of 2008

NATO was likewise the critical factor behind Russia’s August 2008 war with Georgia. Earlier that year, the Bush administration had pressed the alliance to offer Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Georgia and Ukraine at the alliance’s Bucharest Summit. While a MAP does not entail a commitment to membership, and even less membership by a certain date (Macedonia, whose membership has been blocked by Greece, has had a MAP since 1999), it was clear that the intent was to begin the legal process of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO in the relatively near future.

Washington’s initiative was opposed by some of its key allies, notably France and Germany, and as a result it was decided to postpone the offer to some future date. The summit’s concluding declaration, however, made clear that the intent was to offer MAPs to both countries in the near future, perhaps even before the next summit. The text of the declaration is worth quoting at length:

NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO [emphasis added]. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP. Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications. We have asked Foreign Ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting. Foreign Ministers have the authority to decide on the MAP applications of Ukraine and Georgia [emphasis added].

Moscow had been warning Washington and its NATO allies that it would consider any steps to incorporate additional states bordering Russia a direct threat to its national security. Given the Bucharest Summit Declaration, it is hardly surprising, that Moscow concluded that NATO would ignore those warnings and press ahead with accession for both countries, and that the process was likely to begin sooner rather than later.

The Bucharest summit came on the heels of another move by the Bush Administration that the Kremlin felt was a gratuitous and provocative affront to its political and security interests. With encouragement from the United States and most European governments, Kosovo declared unilateral independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 (“unilateral” in the sense that the Serbian government refused to recognize the legality of the move). Washington, London, and Paris offered diplomatic recognition to Kosovo the next day, and, over the course of the next month, most other European countries, including Germany and other Western allies, did the same.

This was the first (and to date only) time that Washington and many of its allies recognized the independence of a new state that unilaterally seceded from a legally-recognized state with a seat in the U.N. General Assembly. (The argument with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia had been that in each case the existing state had dissolved into its constituent units, which was not the case with Serbia.) Russia not only refused to recognize Kosovo’s independent status, but also made clear that it would exercise its veto power in the Security Council to block U.N. membership for Kosovo. At the same time, it argued that the precedent of recognizing unilateral secession would be highly destabilizing, and it made more-or-less explicit threats that if the West ignored its admonitions, it would follow suit and recognize the independence of some or all of the breakaway regions in the Soviet successor states – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

I had been following the so-called “frozen conflicts” in post-Soviet states since the late 1980s (albeit not always very closely), and I recall thinking at the time that officials in Kyiv and (especially) Tbilisi should be extremely worried about Moscow’s reaction to the Kosovo recognition and Bucharest Summit Declaration. This was before the financial crisis had taken some of the wind out of Moscow’s sails, and after more than eight years of robust economic growth and the consolidation of Putin’s “power vertical,” the Kremlin was intent on signaling to the West that its security concerns and political interests, particularly but not only in post-Soviet space, could no longer be ignored.

Sure enough, Moscow began ratcheting up the pressure on Tbilisi in the following months, and despite multiple warnings from Western officials, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili eventually responded to Moscow’s provocations and ordered his forces into South Ossetia, which precipitated the Russian invasion and ended any hope that Tbilisi has of reasserting its sovereignty in either area for the foreseeable future. It also meant that incorporating Georgia into NATO was off the table, at least temporarily.

NATO and the Ukrainian crisis

With Georgia’s bid to join NATO thwarted, the Kremlin’s propaganda organs began boring in on Ukraine in late 2008, focusing on the possibility that Kyiv would refuse to extend the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing agreement in Sevastopol and the alleged the mistreatment of Russophones in the country. I believed at the time, and continue to believe, that Moscow was gearing up to provoke a crisis over Ukraine and would have done so at some point in 2009 had John McCain been elected U.S. president.

A number of developments put NATO accession and Ukraine’s external orientation on the backburner, however, including (1) Obama’s victory; (2) the punishing impact of the financial crisis on the Russian economy; (3) the Washington-Moscow reset; (4) the electoral defeat of Viktor Yushchenko (who was hated by Moscow); and (5) the willingness of Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yanukovich, to quickly come to an agreement with Moscow over an extension of the Black Sea Fleet’s basing agreement and natural gas pricing. However, while the issue of NATO expansion and the external orientation of Georgia and Ukraine had been tabled, it had not been resolved, and I was convinced that Ukraine in particular was going to provoke a crisis at some point if Washington and Moscow did not make a major effort to work out a compromise (e.g., some kind of formal neutrality for both countries).

No such effort was made, and sure enough the crisis came in late 2013 when the European Union decided to offer association agreements – coupled with so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (AA/DCFTA) – to Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Again, AA/DCFTA’s are not commitments by the EU to membership in general or by any particular date – Turkey has had the equivalent of an association agreement with the EU (then the EEC) since 1963. And for most EU bureaucrats, AA/DCFTAs are essentially technical agreements about trade and commerce. But in Moscow they were, and are, viewed as major steps toward incorporation into the Western institutional order, as well as a backdoor path to eventual NATO accession.

The EU’s plan to offer an AA/DCFTAs to Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine was also clearly at odds with the principal foreign policy objective that Putin had set out for his most recent term – building the institutional architecture for a “union” of former Soviet republics that would institutionalize Russian hegemony in post-Soviet space. This would be accomplished by establishing, deepening, and widening a Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU), which would eventually lead to an economic-political union (to be called the Eurasian Union) that would be the post-Soviet equivalent of the EU. (The difference, of course, is that Eurasian Union would be dominated politically, economically, and militarily by a single country, Russia, which in the eyes of Russian analysts would make it less dysfunctional than the excessively democratic European Union.)

Central to this project for strategic, economic, and cultural reasons was, and still is, Ukraine. What made the EU’s offer of an association agreement to Ukraine all the more galling for the Kremlin was the EU’s insistence that signing an association agreement would preclude Kyiv from joining the Eurasian Economic Union. (A treaty forming the EaEU was signed on May 29 by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, which, after ratification by the respective parliaments, will come into effect on January 1, 2015.)

Moscow’s response to the EU’s initiative was to use whatever measures it had at its disposal short of war to keep Armenia, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine from signing those agreements, the terms of which were to be approved at an EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 28-29, 2013. Russia’s leverage was varied but powerful, including economic pressure of all sorts, but also political pressure, some of it open (“We are going to make it much more difficult for you to get visas for travel to Russia”) and some of it covert (bribes, agents in positions of influence, so-called komprat).

The first to cave in was Armenia, which has since indicated that it will join the EaEU (although there has recently been growing public opposition to the move in Armenia). Yanukovich, for whatever reason, held out until almost the last minute, but the Ukrainian government finally made clear that it would not sign the agreement on November 21, 2013, a week before the summit opened. The result was the EuroMaidan uprising in Kyiv, followed by the fall of the Ukrainian government and then Yanukovich himself at the end of February.

At that point, it was clear that a pro-Western government was going to take power in Kyiv, and with no institutionalized guarantee (e.g., a constitutional amendment or international treaty) that the new government would not press for NATO accession, Moscow reacted almost immediately by putting into place what was doubtless a long-standing contingency plan for the occupation and annexation of Crimea, along with measures to provoke a rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern and southern mainland.

Reading Russia on NATO expansion and NATO’s mission

In reviewing this history, I do not mean to suggest that the West is “at fault” for the Ukrainian crisis or that Western policy has been the sufficient cause of Russia’s policy towards its neighbors. Nor do I necessarily take issue with NATO’s decisions to intervene in Kosovo, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, the promise to Georgia and Ukraine that they would eventually be offered MAPs, or the European Union’s decision to offer association agreements to Armenia, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. (Although I will admit that I think the latter three decisions were ill advised, particularly the Bush administration’s efforts to get MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest Summit).

Rather, the point is that Western officials have consistently underestimated the intensity of Russian objections to NATO expansion, NATO’s mission, and the incorporation of former Soviet republics into the European Union and the Euro-Atlantic world. Even more importantly, Western decision-makers have failed to anticipate the measures Russia will take to counter those initiatives.

Defending the Baltic states

If nothing else, the Ukrainian crisis should have made the intensity of Russian objections to what it perceives as Western encroachment on its rightful sphere of influence crystal clear to Western decision-makers. What is less clear is whether Western political leaders are thinking downfield, so to speak – that is, carefully considering how Russia will react to acts that it considers threatening. Indeed, we are approaching another decision point that, if mishandled, could easily precipitate another acute crisis with Russia – the NATO summit in Wales this September.

The essential problem is that many (arguably all) of Russia’s neighbors have been unnerved by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As a result, those that can are seeking more, not less, protection from NATO at a time when the alliance is already over-extended, having taken in at least two and arguably three countries where its deterrent capability rest primarily on perception (Article 5) rather than hard power. As I have argued in earlier posts, it is not at all clear that NATO could impose significant costs on a Russian force that launched a rapid conventional attack on the Baltic republics, particularly Estonia and Latvia. This was more-or-less confirmed by an internal NATO analysis of the Baltic state defenses that was leaked recently to the German magazine Der Spiegel. The report reads:

Russia’s ability to undertake significant military action with little warning presents a wider threat to the maintenance of security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. Russia can pose a local or regional military threat at short notice at a place of its choosing. This is both destabilizing and threatening for those allies bordering or in close proximity to Russia.

The Der Spiegel article also quotes a German foreign policy expert as saying, “At present, the alliance could not protect the Baltic countries with conventional military means.” A German government official uses more colorful language: “We wouldn’t even show up in time for the Russians’ victory celebration.”

In short, we have a destabilizing security situation in the Baltics whereby Russia has an incentive to preempt by attacking one or more Baltic states in a crisis. It might also decide to risk war with NATO on the assumption that the Article 5 commitment is rather more wobbly than Western leaders claim – the actual wording commits members to come to each other’s defense “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary [emphasis added], including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Were Russia to attack and many member states – for example, Germany – decide that the action “it deems necessary” falls short of military action, or if NATO failed to drive Russian forces out of the Baltic states, that might well mean the end of NATO.

Finally, Russia might decide to invade if it concluded that its security interests were sufficiently threatened by NATO force deployments. It is conceivable that we could reach that point if, for example, NATO were to announce plans to base a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) in, say, Lithuania (a U.S. infantry BCT consists of roughly 4,500 soldiers), to substantially increase the number of NATO aircraft flying out of Baltic airfields, to deploy a Patriot air defense system in the region, or to otherwise significantly increase its hard power assets in the Baltic states.

A NATO buildup in the east?

So far there is no indication that NATO is seriously considering any of these moves, at least openly, although that might change, and particularly so if the violence in Ukraine continues to worsen. Moreover, NATO is considering other moves that Moscow is going to view as highly provocative. There is growing political pressure for the establishment of a permanent, not rotational, ground troop presence in Poland in particular, with calls for at least one and possibly two BCTs to be permanently stationed there, at least one of which would be made up of American troops.

There are also calls for an increase in the NATO naval presence in the Black Sea (albeit within the limits established by the Montreux Convention) and the Baltic Sea near Latvia and Estonia, and a beefing up of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s naval assets. And pressure is mounting on France to cancel the sale of its two Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia, particularly given that one of those vessels is slated to join the Black Sea Fleet and could be used to support an invasion of southern Ukraine, contribute to a “humanitarian intervention” in Transnistria, or otherwise intimidate Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria.

A new round of NATO expansion?

Perhaps most worrying for Moscow, however, is the possibility that additional countries in its neighborhood are going to press to join NATO. There is now serious discussion in Sweden and especially Finland about joining NATO, although neither country is likely to do so given public opposition unless Russian troops move into Ukraine or East-West tensions otherwise worsen dramatically.

The issue that is most likely to precipitate another crisis, however, is once again NATO membership for Georgia. Despite having a rather less anti-Russian president and government than in 2008, Georgia has offered firm diplomatic support to Kyiv during the current crisis and continues to press for a MAP. This was made clear by the Georgian foreign minister, Irakli Alasania, during a trip to Washington in late April. Alasania argued that NATO should immediately deploy “defensive assets,” including anti-armor and air defense systems, to Georgia and other aspirant countries, including Ukraine. He also argued that NATO should move quickly to bring Georgia into NATO, forgoing the normal MAP process. And he complained that only a MAP and not accelerated membership for Georgia would be up for discussion in Wales.

More recently, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who has become a particular bêtes noire for the Kremlin) bluntly warned that Moscow was going to have to accept greater integration of Georgia into both the EU and NATO, and he reiterated NATO’s long-standing formal policy: “The people of Georgia have chosen the path that leads toward [the] European Union and NATO membership. That is their sovereign choice. We respect it. So should Russia.

All of this is anathema to Moscow. Even if a MAP for Georgia is tabled before or during the September summit, the fact that it is even being considered is a red flag for the Kremlin. More broadly, the fact that Russia has exaggerated the actual reality of the military threat presented by NATO expansion to date (the ability of NATO to project power to the east has been very limited, as the current crisis has highlighted) is going to make a significant increase in NATO capabilities on its eastern borders an even bigger political problem for the Kremlin. If the threat was bad before, it is about to get a whole lot worse. Nor is Putin going to want Russia’s actions in Ukraine to backfire by making the security challenge from NATO much worse.

The Russian response

Not surprisingly, Moscow has made clear that it intends to take unspecified measures to counter a NATO force buildup in the east. The Russian deputy foreign minister, Vladimir Titov, told Interfax this past week: “We cannot see such a build-up of the alliance’s military power near the border with Russia as anything else but a demonstration of hostile intentions. It would be hard to see additional deployment of substantial NATO military forces in central-eastern Europe, even if on a rotational basis, as anything else but a direct violation of provisions of the 1997 Founding Act on relations between Russia and NATO. We will be forced to undertake all necessary political and military measures to reliably safeguard our security.”

What might these “necessary political and military measures” be? That is of course difficult to know, but let me offer the following unsavory possibilities:

1. Countermeasures in other parts of the world that undermine vital Western interests and policy initiatives, such as an end to Russian cooperation on sanctions on Iran; an increase in military and political assistance to Syria; additional assistance to Iran’s nuclear power program; increased political economic cooperation with North Korea, including an increase in cross border trade; and political support for China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Sea.

2. An acceleration of its own “pivot to the east,” including increased willingness to sell advanced weapons systems to China; to conduct joint training exercises with the Chinese military, particularly its navy, and otherwise increase military cooperation with Beijing; intensity its efforts to establish what amounts to a Chinese-Russian condominium in Central Asia and strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement.

3. Intensified efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine, with the possibility that Moscow eventually announces that it is going to establish a no-fly zone over Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and then ratchets up efforts to support a breakaway statelet in the east, including eventually overt military support through a “peacekeeping force” and/or sale of weapons. This would doubtless be coupled with a continuation of Russia’s overt campaign of subversion in Ukraine broadly by worsening its economic crisis and mobilizing Russophones in opposition to intolerant “Bandertites” in Kyiv and the West’s cruel and ineffective austerity measures.

4. A renewed effort to stir the pot in Georgia, in particular by moving to extend the administrative boundary line separating Georgian and Russia/South Ossetia deeper into Georgia territory; encouraging the Abkhaz government to increase pressure on ethnic Georgians in its southern Gali district; provoking border incidents in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia;increasing the size and offensive capabilities of its “peacekeeping forces” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and reducing or once again shutting down trade across the Georgian-Russian border.

5. The intensification of efforts to mobilize the Russian-speaking population in Estonia and Latvia against their governments, and economic pressure, particularly the interruption of gas supplies, on the Baltic republics generally. In a worst-case scenario, the invasion of Estonia and Latvia to preempt a significant increase in NATO assets in the immediate vicinity of its border.

6. The intensification of efforts to reinforce the “independence” of Transnistria. For example, Russia could announce a unilateral decision to increase the size of the Russian “peacekeeping force” in the breakaway region. In the worst-case, one could imagine a reverse Berlin airlift crisis, with Moscow insisting that it has the right to support its troops in the region or significantly increase military assistance to the region but being denied permission to fly through Ukrainian or Bulgarian airspace to get there. Russia might then in effect dare Ukraine to shoot down a Russian military transport plane on its way to Transnistria, after making clear that doing so would lead to a declaration of war.

7. The permanent redeployment of additional Russian military assets to its western border, including increased offensive and defensive capabilities in Kalingrad in particular, its exclave on the Baltic Sea.

8. A Russian decision to once again deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles or nuclear-armed cruise missiles that target Europe. It can accomplish this either by announcing its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate–Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, which prohibits U.S. and Russian land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 to 3400 miles, or by targeting missiles that are currently counted under the New START treaty as ICBMs at Europe. American officials are already concerned that Russia may be pushing the boundaries of compliance with INF with its RS-26 ballistic missile, which has a range of over 3400 miles but has been tested at less than that, and its R-500 cruise missile, which is currently under design.

Of these, the only truly catastrophic step would be a Russian invasion of the Baltic republics. Fortunately, it is also unlikely because it would be so dangerous, but it cannot be ruled out if NATO moves too far and too fast. That said, a decision by Moscow to cease cooperating on sanctioning Iran, to increase its military assistance to Syria, to continue destabilizing Ukraine and increase pressure on Georgia and the Baltic states, and to continue probing NATO’s defenses and intimidate its eastern members, would all present significant problems for Washington and its allies. And while this post has focused on the military dimension of the current crisis in Russia’s relations with the West, the economic dimension is equally fraught, as Clifford G. Gaddy and Barry W. Ickes make clear in a recent post on the Brookings Institute website (“Ukraine, NATO Enlargement, and the Geithner Doctrine”).

My guess is that the key component of the Russian military response to a NATO buildup in the east is going to be even more intensive efforts to undermine Western unity. Those efforts will include additional support for the far-left and especially far-right parties in Europe, a continuation of Moscow’s multipronged propaganda campaign against Western liberalism and liberal institutions, and economic pressure.

Indeed, the best news for Moscow in recent months was the performance of anti-EU parties in the EU parliamentary elections on May 25 (although it may get some even better news if the ISIS offensive in Iraq leads to a spike in oil prices). The Euro crisis and the economic difficulties of the advanced capitalist countries in general are seen by many in Moscow as signs of Western decline and as indicators of an eventual collapse of the European project and possibly even of NATO.

Western decision-makers should therefore expect Russia to try to deepen those divisions either by deploying intermediate-range nuclear-armed delivery vehicles that target Europe, or by devoting some of its quota of delivery vehicles that count against the New START treaty limits to Europe. It could also simply withdraw formally from the INF Treaty, or deploy weapons systems in more-or-less open violation of the INF treaty limits.


To sum up, measured steps to bolster NATO’s eastern defenses in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis are both inevitable and appropriate. Nevertheless, NATO should move very carefully in the coming months, both in terms of the concrete measures it takes and in terms of rhetoric. In particular, it needs to be very careful, and restrained, in increasing its assets in the Baltic republics. It should understand that any and all of the moves that it makes are going to be objected to vigorously by Moscow, and that the Kremlin is going to make every effort to present those steps as examples of unreasonable warmongering and indicators of aggressive designs on Russia itself. It should also anticipate that Moscow is going to take vigorous measures to counter those moves.

But most importantly, given the lose-lose economic and military game that we are entering into with Russia, Western leaders should stop hoping or pressing for regime change in Moscow, and they should realize that trying to force the Kremlin to back down through pressure alone is costly, dangerous, and possibly ineffective. Instead, they should be preparing the ground for eventual negotiations with Moscow over economic cooperation, force deployments, and rules of the game that make an unstable and extremely dangerous relationship with Russia less unstable and dangerous. The talks currently underway in St. Petersburg between Moscow and Kyiv, and Kyiv’s discussions with separatists in eastern Ukraine over a possible ceasefire, will at best reduce the level of violence in eastern Ukraine, but they will not get at the root of the problem, which is Europe’s overall security architecture. That can be addressed only through direct negotiations between Moscow and Washington as the leader of the Atlantic Alliance. If we managed to have a détente with Moscow in the early 1970s, there is reason to hope that we do so again with sufficient leadership in the 2010s.