In the wake of its continued aggression against Ukraine and bellicose rhetoric toward the West, NATO and its allies must begin to consider Russia as an adversary, the alliance’s top diplomat said on Thursday.
“The Russians have declared NATO as an adversary so we have to begin to view Russia no longer as a partner but more an adversary than a partner,” the alliance’s deputy secretary general, Alexander Vershbow, told reporters during a Defense Writers Group breakfast.
Vershbow said Moscow’s recent moves in eastern and central Europe have “fundamental implications” for the 65-year-old transatlantic alliance because it has “effectively overturned a lot of the pillars of the international security system we’ve come to know and be comfortable with” since the end of World War II.
If Russia decides to invade Ukraine, the “consensus thus far has been that there isn’t a military option for NATO,” according to Vershbow, who has served as a U.S. ambassador to the alliance and Russia. He noted that Ukraine is not a member of the international organization and therefore not a beneficiary of its security guarantees.
Instead, NATO would work with the United States and the European Union to impose “heavy costs,” such as additional sanctions, if Russian troops crossed the border, he explained.
In addition, NATO could “alter our military posture footprint," Vershbow warned. "Make clear to Russians that the relatively benign security environment that they’ve enjoyed in terms of ... NATO not deploying substantial combat forces on the territory of the new members — all bets are off in that regard.”
He added that the alliance has been upfront about what kind of long-term assistance it can offer leaders in Kiev.
“There are limits to what NATO can do,” Vershbow told reporters.
Sine the crisis began in February, the international organization has suspended all cooperation with the NATO-Russia council, though Moscow’s ambassador and his delegation remain in Brussels, according to Vershbow.
He said the alliance’s upcoming summit in September would focus on “future NATO” and examine topics like beefing up the military capabilities of member states and exploring the potential for additional joint defense exercises.
Vershbow stated that treating Russia like an adversary would mean that NATO would have to reexamine its assumptions about the potential to cooperate with Moscow on security projects and joint peacekeeping efforts, as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s.
While there could still be room to work together in Afghanistan, the areas for cooperation are “very small because the Russians have taken a zero-sum approach to the alliance,” he said.
He predicted that major strategic issues, such as missile defense and nuclear arms reductions, are “likely to go nowhere in the next few years.”
The diplomat was careful to say that the U.S. and Russia are not reopening the Cold War.
“In central Europe we have two different versions of what Europe and European security should be like,” Vershbow said. Russia is trying to “impose hegemony” under the “old-fashion, 19th Century sphere of influence doctrine,” he added.