NATO must decide European security beyond the Ukraine war

Largely unnoticed in the New York Times report of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s separate phone calls on March 17 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a notably pregnant statement by Ibrahim Kalin, a chief adviser and spokesman for Erdogan. “Even though we fully reject the Russian war on Ukraine, the Russian case must be heard,” Kalin said, “because after this war, there will have to be a new security architecture established between Russia and the Western bloc.”

What would the “new security architecture” be? The implication is that some credit must be accorded to a larger Russian sphere of influence. This is not the view of the United States, and it is not the view of NATO. The Alliance has no intention of rewarding Putin, in language or action, for his brutal attempt to drag Ukraine into the Russian embrace. 

However, NATO now must do more than focus on how it is helping the Ukrainians and defending every inch of NATO territory. Now it must say what it requires for European security beyond the end of the current war. Not to do so invites further Russian efforts to intimidate and threaten all the NATO frontline states plus Moldova. Thomas Bagger, a senior German diplomat, summed this up on March 27 in the New York Times: “We did not realize that Putin had spun himself into a historical mythology and was thinking in categories of a 1,000-year empire. You cannot deter someone like that with sanctions.”

The NATO frontline states form a concave arc across the heart of Europe from the Baltic approaches to St. Petersburg to the mouth of the Danube. This is the territory Putin intends to claw back for his imperial Russia: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, with Moldova leaning West, non-NATO and yet on Putin’s list. 

We know that Putin, should he survive being stripped naked of his aura over Ukraine, will do his utmost to bolster Russia’s military presence as far west as he can. He will bully Minsk into greater subservience to Moscow and make the Russian troop presence semi-permanent, as it is in Syria and Kazakhstan. He will increase activities in Kaliningrad and along Russia’s Baltic borders as a weapon of intimidation against Baltic NATO, Poland and Germany. 

While NATO and the U.S. ignored his threat, in December 2021 Putin insisted on not only a guarantee that neither Ukraine nor other former Soviet states would join NATO, but also that the Alliance remove its military presence in Eastern European member countries such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, and forgo any deployment outside Western Europe that Russia deemed a threat to its security. 

One of the clearest lessons of modern European history is that leaders of democracies should believe what dictators and autocrats say they plan to do. 

NATO’s task is to address what the security architecture of Europe must be once the war ends.   Until then, Putin has more cards to play. By remaining on the defensive and continuing to bomb and shell Ukrainian cities, he is creating another frozen conflict. He has prepared the circumstances to declare a victory by “protecting” the two newly recognized “independent republics.” His diplomatic victory could come from Ukrainian willingness ultimately to accept Russian terms to avoid an endless war. 

Sanctions have captured headlines, but if they do not achieve a Russian retreat from Ukraine, they are not a victory for the U.S. or NATO. Moreover, Putin might add to his agenda for a settlement the very confidence-building items the U.S. offered on Jan. 26 to address Russian security concerns on the continent. Putin’s argument would be that he agreed to discuss these measures. In conjunction with ending the war in Ukraine, he might say, now would be the right time to take up the trust-building measures again. He would try to freeze the diplomatic lines as clearly as he freezes the military lines and blame the West for the never-ending war. 

So, it is not enough for the West to play defense. The task of NATO and the European Union is to re-energize the promise that motivated our diplomacy to end the Cold War — to build a Europe whole and free. Now is the inflection point to reverse the arrow of history to point against the new wave of imperial colonization. NATO’s next summit should plainly state that a democratic and economically prosperous future for Europe is indispensable for the security of its member states.  

All measures intended to undermine, intimidate or threaten that commitment politically, militarily or otherwise will be a threat to the Alliance. Let us recognize that we have a new objective — and also recognize the impact globally of succeeding with the better vision of a brighter future.

W. Robert Pearson is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003) and the president of American Diplomacy Publishers Inc. He is a scholar with the Middle East Institute and a fellow with the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies/Rethinking Diplomacy. He served twice at NATO during the end of the Cold War, during Germany’s reunification, and accepting new members of the Alliance.

Tags Baltic states European Union Moldova NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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