Why NATO is the lynchpin of U.S. response to Russia

Russia’s swift and unprovoked intervention in Crimea sent the world into frenzy faster than you can say “Tennyson." Cold War analogies now abound in political commentary, most out of convenience rather than accuracy, but one comparison is particularly apt:  the futility of acting through the United Nations. On Crimea the Security Council is once again neutered by veto power, just as it was during the Cold War when Russia and the U.S. opposed each other on nearly every major geostrategic issue. While few good options are available, if the U.S. wants post-Cold War solutions to Cold War problems it would be best served to look to its roots and work through non-UN channels, which means NATO should be back playing the role it was born to do:  stopping the Russians.

But whereas Cold War-era NATO (NATO 1.0) was comprised of a core group of strong allies, today’s NATO (NATO 3.0) has added a new group of weaker nations that once sat on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain; nations like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia as well as the historically Russian-dominated Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. While these new NATO allies are today valuable contributing members, they once served as a buffer between the NATO-zone and Russia proper. Now that NATO has absorbed that buffer, the alliance is in a position of tenuousness unique to any it faced during the Cold War, particularly in when it comes to collective defense.

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If Putin had a secondary goal of making his neighbors feel insecure he’s done a masterful job – Russia’s behavior has made former Soviet NATO states incredibly nervous, and the situation is being watched very closely in the Baltic nations, who long suffered under the Russian yoke. But will the United States’ obligations as the leader of NATO draw it into a military conflict it desperately wants to avoid? It’s hard to say. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (NATO’s founding document) is the alliance’s collective defense clause, and invocation of Article 5 by any NATO member triggers obligations by all other allies to come to its defense. While NATO members managed to go the entire Cold War without triggering Article 5, NATO 3.0 may not be so lucky.

Although NATO has had accession talks with Ukraine in the past, as it is not a NATO ally, Russia’s aggression does not trigger military action by the U.S. or its allies. But Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, which provides for consultation among allies (and has traditionally been viewed as a precursor to invoking Article 5) is likely to be invoked the Baltic nations, who sit along Europe’s Russian frontier, and who are understandably wary of the Russian wolf on their doorstep. It’s clear the West doesn’t want war, but it also can’t sit idly by as Putin gobbles up territory under the pretense of dangerous rhetoric like “duty to protect all Russian-speaking peoples”.

The U.S. and its NATO allies would do well to consult among one another regardless of Article 4, in order to marshal collective strength to decide non-military solutions before it’s too late. That nations like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can now trigger military responsibility means that the U.S. and its NATO allies have a real interest in ensuring that Russian aggression is contained, lest iron-clad treaty obligations drag the alliance into war. Should the Russians continue to push farther it will inevitably encroach on NATO territory, likely the Baltic nations, bringing Article 5 into force. At that point the U.S. and its allies would have two equally undesirable choices:  take collective military action and fight a war they don’t want, or disregard the treaty entirely and risk collapse of NATO’s legitimacy. No matter how the U.S. chooses to respond, NATO may be the lynchpin:  a great asset or a great liability, depend on whether or not it is sufficiently utilized.

When it comes to solutions, public condemnations from world leaders won’t go far. “Shame” is not a particularly compelling component of Putin’s foreign policy calculations. Containment then may be the U.S.’s best option to save what face is left and avoid catastrophe. Whether it’s containment through threat of force or strength of economic sanctions, the U.S. alone lacks sufficiently leveraging power. Containment will require a collective effort – the sort of collective effort NATO was born to do. But it’s up to President Obama and his European counterparts to ensure that Article 4 cooperation does not become Article 5 obligation.

Kotz received his M.A. in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, and is a former intern for the U.S. Department of State at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Belgium, as well as the William J. Clinton Foundation.

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