NATO vs. Putin: the Lessons of the Ukraine Crisis

NATO vs. Putin: the Lessons of the Ukraine Crisis

These are extraordinary times in NATO-Russia relations. Among NATO members, fears of a Russian military offensive against Ukraine have  notbeen as heightened since the end of the Cold War.  In recent days, the world has witnessed marathon talks in Geneva between the US and Russia, the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in more than two years, and a session of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe in Vienna (which includes Canada). Yet we do not seem to be any closer to a resolution to the crisis. The risk of violent conflict is real, even though for Moscow, the costs of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be massive. 

Recent developments echo steps taken by President Putin last year.  In the spring of 2021, Russia mounted a major military buildup near its border with Ukraine. That did not result in an invasion, but Moscow got the world’s attention. In June, U.S. President Joe Biden held a summit with Putin in Geneva that was reminiscent of the Cold War days, when the Soviet Union was a superpower. This time, again, Moscow arguably saw an opportunity to take advantage of what seemed like a diminished trans-Atlantic Alliance, a divided Europe and a polarized America with a weakened president.

Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union. “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” appears determined to restore the logic of competition between spheres of influence–a logic repudiated in the transatlantic area at the end of the Cold War.  That logic is—and should continue to be—unacceptable to the NATO allies. 

The Russian government has explicitly stated that its objectives are far-reaching. In essence, it aims at reconstructing the European security architecture in a way that suits Moscow. This involves not only stopping NATO in its tracks (e.g. by preventing it from expanding any further east), but also rolling back its  presence and activities on the territory of the former Eastern bloc. The NATO allies have flatly rejected those demands.  They were right—and should continue to uphold this position. If implemented, Moscow’s demands would create a large number of ‘second-hand’ NATO members—leaving those who joined the Alliance after the end of the Cold War in a particularly vulnerable position. In turn, this would fatally undermine the credibility of the Alliance, and would trigger unprecedented instability—probably accompanied by dangerous arms races—in  Europe.  

President Putin’s strategy of intimidating the NATO allies has had the opposite effect—at least for now.

Moscow’s proposals involve a violation of a key principle of the post-1945 international order: the right of a sovereign state to make decisions concerning its security arrangements.  Interestingly, that principle  was reaffirmed in a number of documents on European security to which Russia subscribed in the early s of the post-Cold War period.  Those include the Charter of Paris,  the Budapest Memorandum,  the creation of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  By signing those documents, Russia pledged to refrain from the threat or use of force against NATO allies and any other state. Moscow has broken its commitments, engaging in a series of aggressive actions in Eastern Europe, most notably with the illegal annexation of Crimea.

President Putin’s strategy of intimidating the NATO allies has had the opposite effect—at least for now. Following years of inter-allied tensions, distrust generated by Trump’s repudiation of multilateralism and last year’s fiasco of Afghanistan, the Alliance seemed to be facing an existential crisis.  But Moscow’s aggressive stance has generated a degree of unity not been seen in a long time. In talks this week with the Russians, NATO leaders spoke with one voice and reaffirmed their commitment to the Alliance. 

Ironically, Moscow’s aggressive actions have been a potent reminder of the value of NATO membership. Central/East European states are demanding in no uncertain terms extended reassurance measures by NATO, and there are signs that traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden are rushing to underline their independent choice of alliance. If the larger goal is to weaken transatlantic cohesion, Putin’s stance on Ukraine could translate into a long-term strategic loss to Moscow. 

Still, recent events have also reminded NATO allies, including Canada, of the acute need of a clearer, more effective strategy on Russia. This matters because what is at stake is not just the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  Key here is the broader credibility of NATO and the future of the rules-based international order, which are crucial to Canada and its allies.

How, then, should the Alliance respond, and what can Ottawa do? Clearly, Canada cannot achieve much by itself. But, by drawing on its diplomatic skills and political capital, Ottawa could play an important role within the Alliance, helping to shape how NATO engages with Russia. A key focus should be on ensuring that NATO remains open to dialogue with Moscow, and continues to offer the kinds of reciprocal “risk-reduction” measures that would benefit everyone. For instance, Canada should work with other NATO members to promote new arms control measures, such as agreements concerning the placement of missiles in Europe, and to take more steps aimed at enhancing the transparency of military exercises by both sides—thus  reducing the danger of accidental war.

Further, NATO members should accelerate efforts to help Ukraine strengthen its defensive capabilities—including by extending and possibly expanding Operation UNIFIER. In the longer term, it will be important for Canada to work closely with its allies to not only maintain NATO unity but also to formulate a more effective strategy vis-a-vis Russia. A key focus should be on enhancing NATO members’ multi-faceted resilience to non-conventional as well as conventional threats. For instance,adopting stricter anti-money laundering regulations (which would undermine the power of Russian oligarchs), strengthening democratic institutions, reducing Europe’s energy dependency on Russia as well as more specific security measures against hybrid and cyberthreats could reduce NATO’s domestic vulnerabilities, making it harder for Moscow to exploit weak spots in the Euro-Atlantic political/economic/security landscape. This might not solve the problem of  deterring Russia immediately, but would enhance long-term Euro-Atlantic stability and would help protect the rules-based international order.

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