Differing Perspectives on Ukraine, Russia, NATO and US Policy


My retirement from government service in 1999 brought to a close more than three decades as an “objective and non-partisan” analyst, first at the CIA and then at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Since that time, unfettered by formal constraints, I nonetheless find myself in the habit of trying to keep an open mind and producing objective analyses, both in my publications and in my teaching at Middlebury College. It doesn’t always work, as my analytical judgments don’t always align with those of my colleagues.

The objective analyst in me has been struck by the stark division that we see among respected American and European experts on what to do about Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its further attempts to intimidate the government in Kiev. It is quite clear that the very different policy recommendations are based at least in part on divergent interpretations of history, particularly the post-Cold War history of Russian interactions with the United States and its NATO allies (the “West”).

At the risk of presenting the divergent perspectives as caricatures, one influential group of analysts sees the West’s treatment of post-Cold War Russia as insufficiently understanding of Russia’s historical and legitimate security concerns.  Today they believe that the United States and its allies should accept Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, and in some formal way, commit to never inviting Ukraine to join NATO. They tend to advocate creating a “buffer zone” between NATO and Russia.

On the other hand, those analysts who think that enlarging NATO to include former Warsaw Pact members and even Soviet republics that wished to join the alliance was reasonable as protection against future reassertion of Russian dominance now judge that taking strong measures to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and block further Russian aggression is absolutely necessary.

In his recent commentary for WOTR, Ryan Evans observed that the Obama administration has followed an “anti-realist” approach to the Ukraine crisis. He writes that “it is not too late for America to take a realist approach to turn crisis into boon.” The problem with this observation is that both schools of thought that I have characterized above can claim that their approach is born of the realist school, and meets the Evans criteria of viewing the world “through the lenses of power and strategy.” One school argues that it was realistic to take Russian sensibilities into account by not enlarging NATO, while the other argues that it was realistic to plan for the possible reversion of Russia to old Soviet ways.

Evans reasonably suggests that there should be three priorities for the United States in the wake of developments in Ukraine. First, U.S. policy should “show strength.”  Second, it should seek to stabilize the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Finally, U.S. policy should seek to “revitalize NATO.” These three goals seem right on. And, they more-or-less describe an outline of the approach that the president has taken on his trip to Europe. He has given strong assurances to NATO allies as well as warnings to Russia, advocated a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and called for revitalizing the alliance. However, as always, the devil is in the details.

First, let it be acknowledged that Evans approaches all of these questions largely from the first school of thought: the United States and its allies made mistakes that helped create the circumstances forcing President Putin to move against Ukraine. His approach to stabilizing the crisis in fact grows directly out of this analysis. In return for Russia backing down (not leaving Crimea, but abstaining from trying to bite off more of Ukraine), he recommends that NATO members pledge not to invite Ukraine to join the alliance. In addition, he recommends, NATO should acknowledge that impeachment of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych “might not have been” constitutional.

The concessions suggested above, in theory, might sufficiently reassure President Putin that NATO no longer is threatening Russia’s “historic lands;” that is, if in fact Putin was motivated to respond to a threat from the West. But Evans goes on to suggest that President Obama write a letter to President Putin affirming that “the United States made some regrettable and counter-productive decisions in its relations with Russia in the 1990s…” Realistically, not only is President Obama very unlikely to engage in such a mea culpa exercise, but not everyone will see it as based on an objective analysis of what actually happened in the 1990s. Another point of view suggests that, in the 1990s, the United States and its NATO allies responded to the pleas of those who had been under Soviet control for protection from any future reassertion of hegemonic control from Moscow. At the same time, the allies held out the hand of cooperation to Russia. Now it is certainly possible that the offers of cooperation were insufficient to offset Russia’s loss of hegemonic control in the region, but one might question, was this a “mistake” for which President Obama should, in effect,  apologize on behalf of Bill Clinton?

One can make a case that it was a mistake in 2008 for the Bush administration to insist the NATO allies promise that Georgia and Ukraine would ultimately become NATO allies, but it is much less compelling to suggest that the United States should have left Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to their own devices, and now should apologize for supporting their desire to share in the NATO treaty’s affirmation of “individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, the suggestion by Evans that Moscow might be willing in the long run to agree to demilitarize Crimea in a deal to neutralize Ukraine infers that Putin sees no value in its naval port at Sevastopol. While the value of this asset may be overrated, it is hard to imagine Putin giving it up, particularly when he thinks he has other levers (such as energy dependence) to use in relations with any government in Kiev.

When it comes to the article’s discussion of revitalizing NATO, there are some other issues. First, the article talks about NATO, as most Americans do, as if it were everyone except the United States (as I have observed over the years, Europeans tend to look at NATO as “those damn Americans” and Americans look at NATO as “those damn Europeans”). The article also adopts the common practice of talking about “Europe” as if it exists. There are some realms in which Europe exists, mainly in the economic and trade areas. But when it comes to foreign and defense policy, the European Union member states reserve the most important decisions for themselves. This is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, even in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

In part because “Europe” does not exist in the foreign and defense realm, U.S. leadership of the alliance remains the key to its credibility and effectiveness. And unfortunately, there is no practical way of completely avoiding the free-rider problem that Evans and others bemoan.

The burden-sharing/free-riding issue is a normal one for alliances among sovereign, democratic states. Leaders of democracies are inclined to try to obtain the highest level of security for their country at the lowest possible price. So, as long as the United States remains as powerful as it is, it will be faced with the requirement to lobby with its allies to “do more.” Hopefully Russia’s recent behavior will turn around European defense spending decisions. But, in my judgment, this will happen only if the United States leads by example, and uses the NATO framework to promote transatlantic cooperation to enhance capabilities, not by telling Europe to get its act together.

The persistence of the burden-sharing issue may suggest that the alliance has changed little since the end of the Cold War, but in fact, the twenty-first century NATO is not “your father’s NATO.” The United States, Canada and the European allies have kept the alliance relevant by adapting to new international conditions, including political changes inside the alliance itself. They will have to continue the process of change in order to ensure the alliance’s future relevance.

The Ukraine crisis will surely force another adaptation of the alliance. The United States will push its European allies for increased defense efforts, whether by increased spending, better allocation of resources, more pooling of capabilities, or a combination of all three. Perhaps, given the circumstances, such a push will have a greater chance of success than it has had since the end of the Cold War. However, it is important to understand the nature of the alliance and the long history of the burden-sharing issue in order to shape reasonable expectations about the future.

As for insisting that all NATO members increase spending so that they meet the goal of dedicating at least 2% of GDP to defense, it seems unlikely that many European allies will be able to aspire to that level in the near future, given the precarious financial conditions in many European nations that are still recovering from the Euro-zone crisis. That is why NATO has tried to encourage “smart defense” at a time when countries were making cuts that weren’t always “smart.”  Smart defense will also make sense if/when countries reverse the post-Cold War declines in defense spending.

It seems ironic that the combination of the U.S. rebalance to Asia—which Evans endorses—and the burden-sharing argument will enhance the tendency of our Asian allies to do some free-riding of their own, without any multilateral framework to provide a mechanism for enhancing burden-sharing there. Even simple bilateral cooperation among our allies in Asia is problematic given the historical remnants that since the end of World War II have made it impossible for the United States to shape and lead an Asian NATO.

With regard to the persistent charge that NATO costs the United States too much, we need only look at the past decade when NATO allies provided critical assistance to the United States in Afghanistan. The role of NATO allies in Afghanistan posed some challenges, particularly when allies placed limits on how their forces could be used. But if NATO had not existed, the coordination of allied forces on a bilateral basis would have been a nightmare, politically and militarily. In general, it demonstrated the importance of the day-to-day cooperation that NATO facilitates to maintain the ability of its national forces to be interoperable under fire. Many advocates of U.S. withdrawal from a leading role in NATO forget or ignore this inconvenient fact.

On the political level, the transatlantic alliance helps develop cohesion among a group of democratic states that share with the United States and Canada the values and goals articulated in the preamble to the Treaty of Washington.

From a practical perspective just as the European allies benefit from the alliance with the United States, the United States is better off with committed democratic allies than with an ad hoc system of bilateral defense arrangements with individual countries—for example, like the United States has in Asia because of the severe lack of cohesion among our allies there. And the United States has been actively reducing the cost of the European commitment in recent years. Moreover, the costs of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan make the cost of our participation in NATO look insignificant. NATO did not get us into those wars, and if we had taken the advice of some key NATO allies, we would not have invaded Iraq at all. The Article V collective defense commitment—even though it has only been invoked once, in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States—still binds these states together and in general encourages European support for broader U.S. international objectives.

Under these circumstances, does NATO membership cost too much for the United States? I don’t think so, even though I do believe in encouraging the Europeans to “do more.”

Returning to the Ukraine crisis, two American presidents have now misread President Putin, one thinking he could do business with him because he had seen his soul, and the other trying to “reset” the relationship and “pivot” toward Asia.  Both could be excused for hoping for something that Putin ultimately was not prepared to deliver, or perhaps even for allowing the pursuit of American values to get in the way of foreign policies that meet the demands of “realism.”  Whatever the case, the desire to develop a true partnership with Russia may now have to wait for the post-Putin era. To reflect the desire of the United States and its allies to develop a comprehensive cooperative relationship with Russia in the long-term, they should on every occasion convey directly to the Russian people and those elites outside Putin’s inner circle the message that Putin is leading them down a dead end street, and that the Russian people deserve more than a pale reflection of the Soviet past.

In the meantime, even while the United States puts some greater emphasis on its role in Asia, seeking both to cooperate with and balance China, it needs to remember that the foundation for American global power still rests on a cohesive transatlantic community, made up of powers that share U.S. values and have demonstrated  their willingness to act on behalf of U.S. interests. Our Asian allies, and China as well, understand that a United States that has its strategic feet firmly planted in a strong transatlantic alliance will be a much more influential player in Asia.


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.

Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko; compatible; bingbot/2.0; +http://www.bing.com/bingbot.htm) Chrome/116.0.1938.76 Safari/537.36