Somewhere in Deepest England. 20 March. Russia has used force in twenty-first century Europe to militarily occupy a significant and strategic portion of a neighbouring sovereign state...and it is about to get away with it. It does not matter that a majority of Crimeans may have wanted to rejoin Russia. In taking Crimea Russia has made a mockery of several treaties, badly undermined Europe’s security architecture and reopened questions about the relationship between might and right in Europe that were thought to be the stuff of history. What must be done?
I have just been attending a high-level meeting to consider NATO's strategic narrative and the agenda for the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales. My colleagues and I talked against the background of a faint but constant drum-beat as Russia consolidated its Crimean land grab. One must be conceptually clear at such moments; there are few if any short-term actions NATO and its members can take to get Crimea back to Ukraine, but there should be both a decisive response and medium-to-long term consequences for Russia.
First, the West must escalate not de-escalate. Therefore, the desire to rationalise away what President Putin has done must be pushed away. This is a strategic power struggle between Russia and the West about influence along the entirety of Moscow’s western and southern borders. As such Russia’s action has potentially the most profound of consequences for Europe and beyond.
Second, the invasion of Crimea should not be seen as an event but rather part of Russian strategy. At the meeting one of my colleagues said that Russia will pay a high financial price to maintain Crimea. Moscow could not give a jot. Russia’s invasion is about history and strategy. As such Putin’s masterstroke has been to destabilise every former Soviet republic with one act. He has also reinvigorated Russia’s sphere of influence and greatly damaged the strategic credibility of the West of which NATO is a central pillar. He has also ended any pretence to further EU and NATO enlargement and with it the idea of a Europe whole and free.
Third, President Putin has also come out of the power closet with a bang and in so doing redefined the meaning of ‘legitimacy’ in Russia. Any hope that Russia would at some point morph into a liberal European style parliamentary democracy is now gone. Russia is now a fully-blown aggressive revisionist power on Europe’s border with a classically Russian strong man at the helm who is wrapping himself in the Russian flag to justify power and position. That might not work for more urbane Muscovites but it goes down a hoot in much of rural Russia.
This precisely the kind of moment NATO is for. So, what can be done?
- NATO leaders must move quickly to place military forces in the Baltic States. This will reassure them and assure their security under Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington.
- A Western military tripwire must be established along NATO’s border with Russia to complicate Moscow’s regional-strategic calculation.
- The US must quickly bring back two additional Brigade Combat Teams to Europe to reinforce the existing force.
- Exercises must begin for the rapid reinforcement of NATO forces in Eastern Europe in the event of a crisis as part of a new Forward Deployment strategy.
- NATO must end its reluctance to base Allied forces in Eastern Europe out of fear it might be seen by Moscow as provocative. Russia is the provocateur.
- The NATO-Russia Council must be suspended;
- The modernisation of Article 5 collective defence must now be urgently reconsidered to include cyber and missile defence.
The invasion also completely resets the challenge NATO will face at the Wales summit in September which must now send a stiff message. High-level political guidance must be given to the NATO Secretary-General to undertake a broad sweep of the new strategic landscape, Russia’s place in it and thereafter begin the necessary planning.
Specifically, the Alliance must be tasked with considering all the necessary means to counter Russian intimidation and possible aggression and include within that wider consideration of Russia’s influence, not least in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Sadly, Russia will end the weak co-operation of late over Syria and Iran but that was probably intended by Moscow in any case. Critically, the summit should re-establish the symbolic commitment of all NATO nations to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence.
What will happen? Sadly, NATO is split right down the middle between Central and Eastern European members rightly alarmed by the invasion and Western Europeans fast rationalising Russia’s action away. It is that which Putin has understood and it is precisely the seams and grey areas of Alliance resolve that he has brilliantly exploited with speed and to effect.
Crimea is gone and the fate of Eastern Ukraine probably lies in the resolve and will of Western capitals. Thus far there has been no will and little resolve, particularly in Western Europe. Indeed, Ukraine could face a dark fate if Europeans in particular continue to show the almost derisory and utterly spineless response they have shown thus far.
If all of the above sounds assertive and uncomfortable…it is. This is not yet a new Cold War but it is certainly the start of a Cold Peace. It is time for the West to stand up and stand together. Failure to act and NATO's strategic narrative may well have been written by Hans Christian Andersen.