A Transatlantic Opportunity in the Ukraine Crisis?

March 5, 2014

The ongoing debate about how to respond to Russia’s invasion and occupation of the Crimea, and Putin’s threat of possibly more to come, has featured a wide variety of competing arguments.  Most observers see no true military option for the United States or NATO, but suggestions for military movements and activities have been paraded out as possible signals of support for Ukraine and threats to the Russians.  On the other hand, some observers have cautioned that any action by NATO that leans forward with military measures will only be used by Putin to justify current and perhaps future Russian aggression, while in no way deterring that aggression.

This debate has tended to leave the United States and its NATO allies with a kit filled with economic and diplomatic sanctions which also may not deter Russia, but which might increase the costs of Moscow’s actions.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, the next steps are very much up to Putin and the new government in Kiev, with the West providing encouragement and support to the Ukrainians while not ensuring their protection.

Not yet discussed is the need for a forward-looking perspective that the United States could inject into the current situation – a Western discussion which has been understandably dominated by largely short-term considerations.  The NATO allies are scheduled to meet in the UK in September.  Preparations for the summit offer an opportunity to try to reinvigorate the sense of transatlantic cohesion that has been called into question by the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, the Snowden revelations, and the shock of the Ukraine crisis.

The United States could put together a package of political, economic and military measures intended to enhance transatlantic cooperation.  The package could include a variety of measures, including intensified consultations among all NATO and European Union members on the non-military instruments of security that currently are brought to bear in an ad hoc fashion.  The package could be designed to try to by-pass current institutional roadblocks to effective NATO/EU collaboration.  Such coordination, if in place before the current crisis, might have enabled a much more coherent Western response.

The bottom line is that the Ukraine shock to the European security system presents an opportunity to revitalize and expand transatlantic security cooperation.  Such enhanced cooperation seems clearly in the interests of North American and European allies alike.  But only strong, committed, and creative US leadership can turn this crisis into such an opportunity.


Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in international security policy for the Congressional Research Service. Since then, he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College

Image: NATO