NATO Puts Credible Deterrence Back in Place

8 September 2014, 1424 EDT


The evidence that President Putin has lost Ukraine in the most important senses has been around for months–Ukrainians want to be western even more now, eastern Ukrainians in majority terms continue to want this as well, Ukrainians elected a pro-western President, the EU trade deal is going forward, and Poroshenko is pushing for NATO membership with NATO not ruling this out–but crucially what was not in place until recent days is credible conventional deterrence against additional territorial annexation by Russia.  In an even more substantial indication of Putin disastrously overplaying what not long ago was a pretty good hand, Russia’s invasion/annexation of Ukraine was all NATO needed to renew and reinvigorate itself in addition to successfully reassuring eastern European allies and deterring Russia from serious intervention in them.  NATO is stronger and more vigorous than it was even 6 months ago, and Sweden and Finland are likely to join its ranks in the near future.

I called for this in my pre-summit Foreign Policy piece, and we now have two examples of Russia heeding the redrawn strategic landscape.  First, the incredibly harsh response from Moscow and a slew of empty threats of retaliation (with the expected nonadmission that Russia’s aggression caused the NATO response in the first place) and second an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine that Russia called for, that was verbatim from Poroshenko’s ceasefire proposals from last month, that occurred despite rebel/Russian advances on the ground, that caused Russia to admit and demonstrate it does have influence over the rebels, and that occurred before the NATO summit Wales even ended.  [Note in the Foreign Policy piece, I did not title it “How to Beat Down a Bully”; the editor did that without telling me in advance; the original title was “How to Oppose the Putin Doctrine”]

NATO has numerous flaws, the most important one until this Summit being its failure to have kept credible conventional deterrence in place in Europe and its immediate bordering regions.  But the successful renewal of Article 5, the new rapid reaction force with forward deployment, the 3500 British troops to both be part of it and augment it, the forward placement of aircraft, the forward basing arrangements, a slew of new exercises (recent, current, and in the near future), and the successful reassurance of eastern members of the Alliance, together amount to a major success and an unquestionably history-making achievement.  A remaining flaw is its inability to get all of its members to meet their defense spending targets, but there are three important points here that demonstrate things are better than they seem.  First, eastern Alliance members are all increasing spending with Poland in the lead and on target to get to 2.5% of its GDP next year (the NATO requirement is 2% defense spending).  Second, western allies who aren’t members of the Alliance but coordinate with it and sometimes join it on operations are also doing so, with Sweden in the lead.  Third, defense spending is not the most important indicator–that is the quality of one’s military capabilities.  Even while spending has gone down across Europe in recent years and including the U.S., countries like France, Britain, and Germany have actually improved their capabilities while spending less.

Another important remaining flaw, which is less NATO’s than one plaguing the U.S. and the rest of its western allies combined, is that while NATO has deterred Russia from future incursions on eastern NATO territory, the West has failed to fully deter Putin from taking additional territory from Ukraine.  This ceasefire may not hold, and a political deal on increased regional autonomy for eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region may not come to pass.  As my co-author John Herbst and I argue (he was our Ambassador to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and my boss at the State Department), at this stage only a combination of giving Ukraine direct military assistance and threatening Ukraine membership in NATO if Russia doesn’t cease and desist will actually get it to fully cease and desist.  It is possible but not probable that Putin’s current fears of both of these may just be enough for him to allow a deal to be done and Russia to respect Ukraine’s border and sovereignty.  But this does not seem better than a 50 / 50 chance.  As we argue in the piece, it is in the West’s national security interests to fully come to Ukraine’s aid.  Protections against militarily interfering in one’s territorial sovereignty constitutes the principal pillar of the postwar international order, and Russia’s aggressive pursuit of the Putin Doctrine has eroded this pillar.  It needs to be made whole again by compelling Russia to cease major interference in Ukraine, and economic sanctions as we have already seen are insufficient for the compellence required.