Will Putin Save NATO?

by Robert E. Hunter

Almost from the day the Cold War ended, pundits, professors, and professionals alike have been wondering Quo Vadis? for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This has happened despite the facts that NATO (at times also with what is now the European Union) has stopped two wars in Europe (Bosnia and Kosovo), written finis to the 120-year German Problem, taken almost all of Central Europe off the geopolitical chess board, fought as far afield as Afghanistan, played at least a supporting role in toppling Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, and reached out to Ukraine, Russia, and countries in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. And, oh, NATO has also ensured that the United States would remain a European power, itself no mean feat.

Not a bad bit of work for the last quarter century, for an alliance that is still seen as “lacking direction,” “lacking a purpose,” and “lacking a future.” In fact, all three points were answered many years ago: NATO’s key purpose is to provide strategic and political confidence in a region that, when that confidence died 100 years ago this August, produced an era of history’s worst carnage.

Well, those who have still wondered about NATO’s future need wonder no longer. Once again, it seems, the Russians have ridden to the rescue, this time not as Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union but as Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. By seizing Crimea, albeit through the form of a referendum, Putin has told the West that Russia, to steal a phrase from US president Ronald Reagan, “is back, standing tall.”

Perhaps Putin has a greater appetite, at one end of the scale seeking to seize more territory in Ukraine or elsewhere (doubtful though possible) or at the other to intimidate other former members of the Russian and then Soviet Empires (almost certain). Or even if Crimea “…is the last territorial claim that [Putin has] to make in Europe,” and even if Western policies did contribute to what Putin has now done, it is clear that Russia is violating both the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine agreed to ship to Russia those nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil when the USSR was disbanded.

The West has had to react. So far, this has consisted mainly of strong statements by Western Alliance leaders; visits to Ukraine and elsewhere by officials that include US Vice President Joseph Biden; limited but growing economic sanctions imposed on the Russian economy and Mr. Putin’s cronies; financial promises to Ukraine; and some NATO military demonstrations. Given that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and thus not entitled to the commitments against external aggression contained in the NATO’s Treaty’s Article 5, direct military intervention by any NATO country or the Alliance as a whole has been ruled out. Further, given the geography — as was true with isolated West Berlin in the Cold War — if there were need for the West to react much more strongly against unambiguous Russian aggression, escalation would likely have to be “horizontal” (that is, done some other way in some other place) rather than “vertical” (e.g., sending troops up against the Russians). Thus NATO military demonstrations have been limited to air policing over the three Baltic States (most vulnerable among NATO allies to further Russian intimidation), aerial surveillance, and previously-scheduled military and naval exercises.

Despite these limitations, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea NATO did overnight gain a new sense of purpose, or so it seems. But not so fast. In the first place, not all members of the Western Alliance are convinced that Putin will continue to make other “territorial claims” and many are reluctant to impose truly swinging economic sanctions — Russia clearly needs the outside world and can’t retreat as Lenin and Stalin did, but Western economies and companies also have a stake in dealing with the Russian Federation. Also, while new NATO allies in Central Europe are naturally more concerned about their own security and, in particular, Western security guarantees (especially by the US), allies to their West are not likely to be spooked to the same degree — this is the distinction once drawn by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld between “Old” and “New” Europe.

Further, some thoughtful statesmen in the West and perhaps even some “silent” leaders in Russia are wondering whether what has happened in Crimea means that the pursuit of President George H. W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace has to be abandoned for all time. Obviously, even if that process could be renewed, with its aspiration of someday including Russia in broader European political, economic, and security structures supplementing NATO, it would now have to be a long time in the future. Also obviously, Russia will suffer grievously from what Putin has already done, not from the West’s short-term pin-prick sanctions, but from longer-range existential sanctions; no serious person or institutions in the West will easily again trust Russia.

For NATO, the EU, and individual Western states, there needs to be a balance struck. First is to make sure that Putin is under no illusions that he has taken a momentous decision — call it drawing an unspoken, existential red line; that he has broken rules that Russia must abide by if it wants to be involved in the outside world; and that in time he and Russia will pay a price that is likely to be greater than his immediate gains. All this is being done and will be reinforced by President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe next week, where he meets with G-7 leaders in The Hague — real money for Ukraine, please — and at the EU and NATO in Brussels.

Second, however, is to do what is possible in the West not to accept that there is a new Cold War, with all of the apparatus implied in terms of institutions, actions, statements, psychology, and rigidities.  Most Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, seem to get this point, especially since Russian support is still needed in other places, most immediately in regard to nuclear talks with Iran — though many people in the US commentariat are pushing hard in the other direction, without their having to count the costs.

Third is to structure today’s opposition to what Russia has done in Crimea in a way that it is not irreversible — i.e. a new Cold War by inertia. This is easy to say but hard to do, in a culture (ours) where diplomacy is too often represented as cowardice and compromise as something for chumps. (For example, it is hard for the West, and especially Americans, to understand that what Putin has done in Crimea is not “100% different” from what the West did in wrenching Kosovo from Serbia; or that we have indeed on many occasions taken advantage of the Soviet Union’s having “lost” the Cold War and the Russians inability, at least until now, to push back. That doesn’t excuse what Putin has done, but to avoid becoming prisoners of our own perspective and rhetoric we must at least make an honest assessment of how everyone got to this point.)

Fourth, we need to recognize that, while the Crimea and Ukraine crises are an immediate shot in the arm for NATO, in terms of showing its continued relevance in Europe (or, more particularly, underscoring that the United States is still needed strategically in Europe), these crises do not answer the long-term Quo Vadis? question. Added Western conventional military power would have almost no effect on the situation, since war has been ruled out short of an unambiguous Russian military (or cyber?) attack on a formal NATO ally. Military demonstrations of solidary with frightened Central European states can be done with what NATO has now. Parliaments throughout the Alliance will still be reluctant to increase defense budgets — for what long-term purposes, they will ask?

Further, European allies will still need to show the United States that they will support US strategic objectives elsewhere in the world, as they have done in Afghanistan, in order to keep the US pinned to Europe strategically. If the Ukraine situation does stabilize and Putin does no more sabre rattling, the US will again shift a considerable part of its central preoccupations to the Middle East and East Asia, especially China. Thus NATO’s European allies must still ponder what they can and will do elsewhere in the world to support the US strategically, almost regardless of what happens in Ukraine and its vicinity in the period ahead. Indeed, by underscoring that only the United States can deal with Russia, the requirement for the allies to support the US elsewhere has been redoubled.

As of now, therefore, the NATO summit in Wales this September has been saved from being a dud, inevitably underscoring that the mission in Afghanistan is running down without much of lasting value to show for it, and without much political will to craft a serious future for NATO. Just going on about Crimea is no lasting answer and, unless Putin gets fully into the aggression business, can be no substitute for getting on with the serious business of figuring out the Alliance’s future. There still needs to be a new Transatlantic Compact that brings together all elements of economic, political, military, and strategic relations to bind the Atlantic nations together in the post-Cold War, 21st century. But there is no indication, now, that either the ideas, the US leadership, or European receptivity will be found, either at the Wales summit or afterward. Crimea can be no substitute for addressing these more fundamental matters: it is a tonic for NATO as an institution, a pick-me-up, but not a cure.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. It would be better for all concerned if agreement were to be reached that Ukraine should become a truly independent, autonomous and neutral country – like Switzerland. The Russian Federation and the EU Foreign Ministers should meet – in Switzerland – and agree this. NATO and the USA could be observers.
    The West is in no position to criticise Russian Federation behaviour when they have stood aside, saying nothing of substance all the time Israel has been stealing Palestinian land since Israel’s inception in 1948.
    It is US behaviour, led by $5 billion “Fuck the EU” Nuland and her ilk who have created the unnecessary crisis in Ukraine; before their intervention, Ukraine was largely a non-issue for all concerned.

  2. What would NATO be without the U.S. to back it up? The E.U. is grown up, should stand on its own two feet. The U.S. needs to get its collective nose out of everyone elses business and mind its own.

  3. Europe’s ‘Russia problem’ is fixed because Russia does not change. Custine’s brilliant description of Imperial Russia in the 1840’s applied just as well to the country under Lenin and the Stalinists as it does today under its present czar/vozhd. The Russians are deeply suspicious and resentful of the brilliant West, and are further burdened with an exceptionalist sense of frustrated mission which informs their imperial yearnings. One can not expect the need for NATO or its equivalent to disappear anytime soon. Regardless of what the North Atlantic Alliance has done recently, it is about Russia and it is a necessity.until…..Russia has changed.

  4. I have never considered Nato to have outlived its purpose. I did question the merits of the Afghan adventure.

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