Simon Leitch, PhD*
Brisbane, March 20, 2014 (Alochonaa): Last week, as threats of sanction were hurled at Russia from NATO member capitals, there seemed to be a genuine belief that the economic power of NATO could somehow be mobilized to deter Russia from its creeping annexation of Crimea. Policymakers from Washington to Berlin spoke with the self-important rhetoric of great powers capable of pulling the rug out from under the Russian economy. When this failed to impress Russia, NATO spokesmen injected themselves into the Crimea crisis, claiming that with Russia on the advance in the Ukraine it is anything but “business as usual” for NATO. If only the strategic reality matched the ambition and pretenses of North Atlantic states. How has this Ukraine crisis gone so horribly awry for Western policymakers?
First, let’s look at the sanctions issue (“debacle” might be a better term). One Russian spokesperson summed up the dilemma for Western states’ use of sanctions against Russia when he noted that the world was so interdependent now that NATO members could not sanction his country without hurting themselves. Far from deterring Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, the ever increasing level of economic integration between the Russian Federation and its traditional NATO rivals has deterred Western action on Ukraine. Of course, Russia is by far the weaker player if it comes to a full scale economic-military contest for supremacy with NATO in Eastern Europe, but because it will not come to this NATO’s underlying strength is irrelevant. NATO will not fight a major nuclear power like the Russian Federation over Ukraine, nor will it risk serious economic warfare over Crimea – this isn’t the 1850s, and Western Europe isn’t willing to pay the price of resistance. Indeed, that is why Russia acted so confidently and decisively in Crimea in the first place; neither powerful sanctions nor military force are likely to come from Europe.Second, let’s look at NATO’s flawed involvement in Ukraine. As NATO membership has gradually extended towards the Russian end of the Baltic Sea the alliance has become stretched and confused. NATO members like Britain and Germany have very different security problems than a state like Estonia, and it shows. Whilst Britain’s main concern appears to be keeping Russian money in the City of London, and in Central Europe they worry about their gas supplies, NATO’s far eastern Baltic minnows must be wondering whether Russia will ever try to “protect” its citizens elsewhere outside the present boarders of the Russian Federation. It is a fair question to ask and yet, counter-intuitively, NATO’s continuing interest in Crimea is actually undermining the credibility of the alliance and making that question more pertinent. To be clear, Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Western states, in their diplomatic rhetoric and attempts to coerce Russia, should not even be speaking its (NATO’s) name. NATO has absolutely, positively, without a doubt, no responsibility to intervene in Ukraine. It has no duty to Crimea or Ukrainians. It has no duty to defend international law or human rights (though its members may, if they wish). NATO is a collective defense organization which has, ever since its interventions in the former Yugoslavia, become more of a liberal internationalist bully in the eyes of an enormous number of people from the Middle East and North Africa to the Eurasian steppe and Afghanistan, and one characteristic of bullies is that they lack resolve. Bullies, ultimately, are cowards and NATO must avoid that label if it is to be effective in its primary mission – the defense of its members from foreign aggression. NATO’s ineffective meddling in Ukraine appears indignant and weak, and that isn’t good for anybody.
When the Cold War ended NATO could effectively dismiss its primary defensive mission as an anachronistic vestige of history. After all, no state (Russia included) could coerce NATO members and get away with it. Today, the slow but perceptible recovery of Russia, the economic crisis, war-weariness by some members, the eastward expansion of the alliance, strategic distraction due to China’s rise and anti-terrorism missions, and the admission of vulnerable minnows has changed the strategic reality. NATO is still strong but its members can’t accept responsibility for Ukraine’s territorial integrity any more than they can stop the carnage in Syria or protect Georgia – Western publics simply will not pay the costs required. Even the successful NATO intervention in Libya showed how little investment its members were willing to make for a foreign cause, and how adverse they were to spending real money or expending actual lives (as opposed to drones and guided munitions).
If NATO is to remain relevant, far from wasting time and political capital in failed efforts to regain Crimea for Ukraine, the alliance should adjust to the new equilibrium. NATO’s tough talk and threats have gained it nothing but embarrassment and made it clear to all that, at least for modern NATO, collective action on NATO’s periphery will be difficult to organize. Should Russia ever erroneously question where “the periphery” really ends and the “real NATO” begins there might be a worse crisis in the future, so strategic ambiguity and over-extension is not a good idea.
It is bizarre and unfortunate that Russia’s actions towards a non-NATO member have revealed such cracks in the alliance but now it would be best to simply minimize the damage. NATO should assess how much the Crimea and Ukraine matter and respond accordingly. Specifically, if NATO is not going to offer a serious military commitment to Ukraine (and it won’t) then it should stop engaging with the crisis whilst reaffirming its commitment to its eastern members. This does not mean that “the West” more broadly should not be protesting Russia’s actions – it should – but that is a matter for individual states, not for NATO. NATO is not “the West” or even “Europe” – it is a specific institution, a specific idea that shouldn’t be stretched lest it lose its strength.
It is highly likely that the next few weeks will see some minor confrontations between Ukrainian troops in Crimea and their new Russian occupiers, as they (the Ukrainians) are now in hostile territory. This will be sad but NATO should keep a cool head, leave issues regarding international law to the UN (as frustrating and seemingly meaningless as that will be), and disassociate itself from the pro-Ukrainian actions of its individual members. The Secretary General of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, has said that with Russia’s recent actions it can’t be “business as usual” for the alliance. In fact, if NATO is to remain strong and serve its members it can only be business as usual and NATO’s impotence in the crisis and the imagery it evokes for Russians is only making its “business” more difficult.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.