Putin’s threat to roll back NATO

Vladimir Putin is pointing a loaded gun at the heart of Ukraine, and potentially beyond. Not since the 1930s has Europe been witness to such a chilling ultimatum, backed by the naked threat of aggression. Putin is baldly seeking not only to subordinate Ukraine to Russia but to deconstruct Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and re-divide the continent into Cold War style spheres of influence. 

His move has been in the making for over two decades, likely from the moment Putin as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany experienced the humiliating collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Today, he is providing a painful reminder that raw military power is the ultimate difference-maker in geopolitics, something that NATO countries have managed to overlook in recent years. Putin’s thesis is that Europe’s current security map is a product of Russia’s temporary weakness in the 1990s, drawn up unilaterally against its wishes and interests. A classically negotiated settlement by the two blocs to end the Cold War would clearly have produced a different and more equitable outcome from Russia’s perspective. 

When NATO contemplated expansion to its east to incorporate countries that were formerly part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, there were powerful arguments made both for and against the move. Critics, including the great strategist George F. Kennan, warned that NATO enlargement would sow the seeds of new division in Europe and dangerously isolate, and alienate, Russia. But the case for anchoring these fledgling democracies within NATO’s protective embrace was at least as compelling. It prevented the recurrence of a power vacuum between Germany and Russia that had proved so destabilizing in the past. It provided insurance against the eventual resurgence of Russia, whose definition of security has perennially been incompatible with the serenity of its neighbors. Without adapting to radically changed circumstances, moreover, NATO would likely have withered away as a relic of the Cold War.

The mistake NATO made in expanding eastwards was that it did so essentially as a political gesture, without fully taking into account the security requirements of moving the alliance closer to Russia’s doorstep and fortifying its new domains. And then, over the course of two decades, the balance of power in Europe began to shift appreciably in Russia’s favor. Russia rebuilt and modernized its armed forces, even as the U.S. became bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduced its troop presence in Europe and as the military capabilities of many NATO members declined. The dangerous disconnect between NATO’s political reach and its military grasp peaked in 2008 when the alliance, at U.S. insistence, issued a baffling “promise” of membership to Georgia and Ukraine which may have indirectly provoked Russia’s invasion of Georgia later that year and the serial crises in Ukraine since 2014. Key NATO allies, including France and Germany, actually opposed putting Ukraine on a formal path to membership due to Russia’s implacable opposition.

The fact is that no NATO ally — including the U.S. — is willing to go to war with Russia to defend a country that Moscow regards as vital to its national security. However meritorious, Ukraine thus does not meet the fundamental criterion for NATO membership.

Now the chickens from those earlier decades are home to roost. Putin has indeed chosen his moment well. NATO countries are riven with internal social and political divisions to which Russia, not incidentally, has contributed. Meanwhile a new superpower has emerged to challenge the United States for global preeminence: The threat from China will require Washington’s priority attention in the years and decades to come. More to the point, Taiwan is ultimately of greater significance to the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific theater than Ukraine is in Europe. 

We can divine how Putin assesses the raw power equation confronting the U.S. and its NATO allies from the astonishing breadth of his demands, which go well beyond Ukraine. Most troubling is his insistence that NATO withdraw all military forces and weaponry deployed in Eastern Europe after 1997. This would mean that current, fully-fledged members of NATO would become neutralized in key respects. Putin is implicitly asserting that the alliance lacks the firepower to enforce the European dividing lines it redrew beginning in 1997. 

President Biden is right to explore the possibilities for a negotiated settlement, in close consultation with NATO allies.

Although a Russian veto over Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO membership cannot be conceded, a mutual understanding on its de facto neutrality could potentially be finessed given the practical impossibility of membership at this time.

But if Putin is serious in pursuing a patently unacceptable roll-back of NATO itself, the United States and its allies need to gird themselves for a major crisis.

It is reported that Washington is contemplating not only crippling economic sanctions against Russia but also provision of clandestine assistance to Ukraine to enable it to inflict punishing costs over time on a Russian occupying force. While making Russia pay as high a price as possible for aggression is desirable, it will not be sufficient. The invasion and possible conquest of a major state in the heart of Europe would send a tremendous shock through the international system with destabilizing effect across the continent. Reactions and counter-reactions — such as a Russian shutoff of natural gas to Western Europe in the dead of winter — could lead to further unraveling. Especially in view of Putin’s now openly stated ambitions in Eastern Europe, the U.S. needs to upgrade deterrence by surging military reinforcements to the territory of the most vulnerable NATO allies.

On the home front, national unity would be a critical factor in a dangerous confrontation with Russia. Republicans would normally be tempted to score political points by ascribing Putin’s aggression to Biden’s perceived weakness in withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan — but the Ukraine crisis only underscores the strategic wisdom of Biden’s tough-minded decision to move on from Afghanistan and redirect U.S. attention and resources to a more exclusive focus on the threats from China and Russia. Republican leaders would hopefully accord the president their backing in a moment of national peril.  

The irony for Republicans is that Vladimir Putin’s calculations likely lie closer to their own doorstep. Taking the extraordinarily risky step of invading Ukraine and threatening NATO would have to have been “Plan B” for the Russian leader. “Plan A” was Donald Trump’s reelection, which would have given him all that he covets without his having to lift a finger. Thanks to the stunning revelation, as reported in the in the defense secretary section of the election night account in the book “I Alone Can Fix It,” we now know that Trump had said he intended to withdraw the United States from NATO if reelected — something Putin undoubtedly understood. While the exact nature of the relationship between the two men will likely remain a mystery, the fact that Trump’s agenda is Putin’s agenda is all we really need to know.

Joe Biden thwarted Putin’s Plan A by getting himself elected president. To successfully counter Plan B, he would certainly benefit from bipartisan support.

James B. Foley is a retired career foreign service officer and was U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, 2003-2005, and to Croatia, 2009-2012. He coordinated Iraqi refugee issues for the State Department, was deputy commandant of the National War College, a deputy permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations in Geneva and served in the private office of the NATO Secretary General.

Tags Armed Attack Diplomatic Relations Donald Trump International relations Joe Biden NATO Russia Russian aggression Russian irridentism Russia–NATO relations Russia–United States relations Ukraine US foreign policy Vladimir Putin

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