What next for NATO, challenge or opportunity?
The situation playing out between Russia and Ukraine presents serious challenges to NATO and all countries on its eastern flank. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a dangerous tactical player who will take advantage of opportunities to expand Russian power and attempt to sow the seeds of discord and mistrust among NATO allies. His threat to invade the sovereign territory of Ukraine by positioning troops along its border and stirring up nationalist emotions must be handled with a combination of international resolve and a return of American diplomatic leadership.
Following Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, this new posturing against Ukraine presents a historic opportunity to strengthen the defense of freedom for the long term.
The best defense against an opportunistic aggressor is a strong NATO alliance of politically aligned and militarily interconnected sovereign states with strong American leadership. There is a reason that Putin’s outrageous demands focus on weakening NATO and keeping Ukraine from ever joining the alliance. At different times since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, pundits have wondered about the continued relevance of the alliance.
NATO has helped to keep the peace in Europe for more than 70 years. Linking tiny Luxembourg to German, French, British and American military power, NATO has provided a functional structure for mutual assistance and collective self-defense. Putin’s massed troops within striking distance of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv is likely to strengthen political commitment to and investment in the alliance — a good thing for European stability.
But the explicit threat of a resurgent and opportunistic Russia is resulting in more than political recommitment. The increase in forward-deployed NATO forces in Eastern Europe is a positive move. It’s time to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank. For 40 years after the end of World War II, NATO and Warsaw Pact forces patrolled forward on the line that separated the free from the un-free. More than a tripwire, well-trained and prepared forward-deployed forces make it more difficult for a menacing neighbor to grab territory and present the West with a fait accompli. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland will be safer — and so will the rest of Europe — if they are well defended.
Putin’s Russia is a nuclear-armed petro power. He has shown his willingness to use European dependence on Russian energy to coerce the West; much of Europe relies on natural gas piped from Russia, some of it through Ukraine. Although it will take time, reducing reliance on Russian energy supplies would hurt the Russian regime where it is weakest: their economy. Likewise, painful economic sanctions would force Putin to pay a strategic price for his actions.
Russia continues to develop and deploy cyber and information operations in ways that the West has been slow to comprehend. Just this week, Ukraine accused Russia of masterminding a massive cyber breach involving its banking system. To his credit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has moved quickly during the crisis to publicly release intelligence information to counter Russian tactics, such as disclosing its reported intent to conduct a false flag operation to create a pretext for invasion and releasing for publication overhead imagery showing Russian troop deployments. Executing cyber operations together much like we execute air, ground and maritime operations, and building international cooperation among free countries to pursue cyber operators who disrupt computing networks, should be a priority.
This most recent crisis should spur European countries to increase their contributions to collective defense. U.S. pressure on NATO partners to increase defense spending as a percentage of GDP isn’t new. “Burden sharing” has been part of U.S. policy since the 1980s. The cold reality of Russia’s willingness to threaten its neighbors could result in a welcome increase in seriousness about self-defense among some of our NATO allies.
History is on our side. Our greatest strategic advantage against both Russia and China is that we have allies. For all its faults, America’s system of free enterprise, free and fair trade, and respect for sovereignty and human rights allows us to build relationships of trust with countries large and small. Our vital national interests are global. Turning inward does not serve those interests. Deepening our alliances and establishing new partnerships builds on our strengths where China and Russia are weakest.
Putin is a dangerous tactical player. He may have roused the West to serious and strategic response.
Retired Air Force four-star Gen. Dave Goldfein is a senior adviser with the Blackstone Group. Heather Wilson is president of the University of Texas at El Paso and a former congresswoman (R-N.M.). Together, they served as the chief of staff and secretary, respectively, of the Air Force from 2017 to 2019.