How to Show Strength, Stabilize the Ukraine Crisis, and Revitalize NATO


Secretary of State John Kerry’s first reaction to Russia’s occupation of Crimea was to preach: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

Due to its reluctance to launch military interventions, President Obama’s administration is often described as realist, but recent events have laid bare the pronounced anti-realist character of the Administration’s worldview. The litmus test for realism is not military intervention, but rather whether one views the world through the lenses of power and strategy. Decrying President Putin’s normative views of international relations as being mired in the 19th Century is the farthest one could get from realism during an international crisis.

Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering described the work of diplomacy as “turning challenges into opportunities.”  It is not too late for America to take a realist approach to turn crisis into boon. With a realistic view of power and a sound strategy, President Obama can stabilize the situation in and surrounding Ukraine, strengthen the NATO Alliance, and bolster America’s rebalance to Asia.  The strategy would be composed of two phases: the first one aimed at stabilizing the situation in the short-term; the second at revitalizing NATO.

Underlying this strategy is an understanding of how Russia views its situation in the context of its history and perceived interests.  As I have written elsewhere, Russia views NATO as a hostile alliance — one that was founded with the purpose of containing and fighting the Soviet Union — that has extended into Russia’s immediate neighborhood. The Kremlin cannot understand why the White House would have been so bullish about incorporating Ukraine and Georgia into NATO in the last decade unless its motives were anti-Russian in nature. In his recent speech, Putin said,

[W]e have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position.

He continued, “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.”

The European Union’s recent efforts to incorporate Ukraine into its sphere of influence only increased Russia’s distrust, for why would Europe’s struggling economy want deeper ties with a country as weak and corrupt as Ukraine? Even though the EU and NATO are very different organizations, to Putin, it only served as further evidence of Western intent to encircle Russia. To understand Russia’s perspective requires neither apologia nor sympathy. It is simply the most sensible way to steer the ship of state.

An American and European response to Russia’s aggression that is not informed by this perspective will most likely be counter-productive, ineffective (e.g. sanctions), and perhaps even escalatory.  There is a strong desire to “stick it to Putin,” but what is the point of doing so if American interests are not served by such a course?

So how should the United States proceed?


Much like the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, the current crisis has demonstrated that neither Europe nor any single country in it are well-suited to lead in times of major crisis, even within its own region.  Without America stepping into the breach, decisiveness, coordination, and unity of effort will remain out of reach. President Obama should coordinate with other NATO Members and announce a Heads of State and Government Summit to take place in Warsaw this spring. Between now and then, American diplomats should work with their NATO and other European counter-parts – as well as the Kiev government – to build consensus for key offers, statements, and guarantees to be offered on the condition that Russia:

The North Atlantic Council will sign a statement that:

  • Calls upon the Kiev government to abide by the terms of the 21 February deal (restoration of the 2004 constitution, constitutional reform, presidential elections, investigation into recent acts of violence, refrain from further violence, handover illegal weapons);
  • Acknowledges that the impeachment of Yanukovych may not have been in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution;
  • Promises there will be no NATO enlargement plans for Ukraine;
  • Commits the Alliance to the principle of Ukrainian neutrality; and
  • Urges Russia to join a contact group composed of a representative of the government of Ukraine, the U.S. Secretary of State, the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Poland, and a representative of the Russian Federation.

After signing this statement, all NATO Heads of State and Government should stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder at a press conference as President Obama reaffirms that any military attack on any NATO member state on any pretense – including the “protection of Russian minorities” – will be considered an attack on all members of the alliance and will be met with an appropriate military response.

President Obama should also pen an open letter to President Putin that affirms that the United States made some regrettable and counter-productive decisions in its relations with Russia in the 1990s, but that it is still the case that Russian integration into the WTO and the G8 as well as the signing of the Charter of Paris are among the most important accomplishments in the post-Cold War period for international security. It would be tragic should these gains be reversed due to the current crisis. Cooperation is mutually beneficial for Russia and the United States as the two nations share a host of mutual interests, such as regional stability, countering nuclear proliferation, trade and commerce, counter-terrorism, and countering illicit finance.

Some might say this course represents American weakness and gives too much away. However, Ukraine’s political future and control of Crimea is on the periphery of American interests.  These should not be allowed to dictate U.S.-Russian relations, much less European stability. Crimea is lost to Kiev, but as a face-saving measure for both parties, Western diplomats should pressure Moscow and Kiev to commit in principle to the eventual, long-term de-militarization of Crimea.

Furthermore, Putin’s aggression against Crimea undoubtedly will hurt Russia in the long run.  Putin’s proclivity towards paranoia and pride-driven coercion is alienating him from neighbors and allies. Already, Belarus – a Russian client state – has broken with Moscow over Ukraine, having refused to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Europe is looking for non-Russian sources of natural gas more vigorously than ever. To paraphrase Napoleon, it is unwise to interrupt your rival when he is making a mistake.  It is more important to stabilize the crisis and maintain a cooperative relationship with Russia over shared interests. Putin is damaging Russia’s long-term interests on his own just fine.



The silver lining of this crisis for the United States is not inconsiderable. It serves to remind Europe that capable military forces remain an indispensable element of national power and that the continent is far from immune to inter-state violence. The aim of this phase of the strategy is to revitalize NATO collective defense, which will facilitate the progress of America’s rebalance to Asia.  At the conclusion of the NATO Summit, the Alliance should announce another summit at the ministerial level (DEFMIN) to discuss the state of the Alliance’s military power, burden sharing, and defense budgets.

NATO has a serious free-rider problem. First theorized by Mancur Olson, this is when individual actors sharing collective benefits have stronger incentives to “free ride” on the contributions of the group rather than to contribute themselves. In the context of NATO, most member states are “free-riding” on America’s military and defense budget, rather than contributing toward collective security. NATO’s most recent report on defense expenditures reveals that of the 27 NATO member states with military forces (Iceland has no military) only four are spending at or more than the recommended (and admittedly not binding) 2% of GDP on defense – Estonia (2%), Greece (2.3%), United Kingdom (2.4%), and – of course – the United States (4.4%).  Belgium, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic, and Spain all spend 1% of GDP or less on defense.

NATO’s free-rider problem has long troubled the United States. In one of his final speeches, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lambasted NATO allies over their under-investment in their militaries.  He pointed to Operation Unified Protector, which was mandated by the UN Security Council to protect the Libyan populace, as a typical free-rider problem:

Consider that Operation Unified Protector is:

A mission with widespread political support; A mission that does not involve ground troops under fire; And indeed, is a mission in Europe’s neighborhood deemed to be in Europe’s vital interest. To be sure, at the outset, the NATO Libya mission did meet its initial military objectives – grounding Qaddafi’s air force and degrading his ability to wage offensive war against his own citizens. And while the operation has exposed some shortcomings caused by underfunding, it has also shown the potential of NATO, with an operation where Europeans are taking the lead with American support. However, while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.

As Raphael Cohen and Gabriel Scheinmann recently reminded us in The National Interest, Libya was not a European operation. European forces ran out of munitions within days. 8,507 of the 12,909 personnel engaged, 153 of the 309 of aircraft committed, and most of the cruise missiles fired were American.

Last week’s Brussels Forum gave reason for both hope and despair. While there was a renewed enthusiasm for NATO, key leaders revealed how out of touch they are with the reality of the state of the alliance.  Former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson argued that NATO must expand its mandate beyond defense of alliance territory. But NATO cannot even credibly knock off a tin-pot dictator in North Africa without overwhelming U.S. leadership, support, coordination, intelligence, personnel, munitions, fuel, and supplies. How can it hope to defend its own territory if the United States is distracted by a major war elsewhere? European rhetorical bullishness cannot hide the fact that most NATO members have not seriously invested in their military capabilities.

Some commentators have argued that the current crisis shows that the United States should not have drawn-down its military presence in Europe.  Moreover, the Ukraine crisis has once again raised specter of American credibility and determination against aggressive powers.  China, we are told, is watching to see if the United States has the courage to stand up to Russia. If the United States “backs down,” China will be emboldened to bully its neighbors.

These are the wrong lessons. Europeans shoud begin investing in their own security if a peaceful Europe is to endure in the coming decades. Rather than more American troops in Eastern Europe, as the Polish Defense Minister called for last week, there should be more Eastern European troops in Eastern Europe.  In the short term, perhaps the United States can bolster NATO’s eastern flank, but in the long term, that burden should be shouldered by European NATO members. The United States is rightly focused on rebalancing more political, diplomatic, economic, and military resources to Asia and should not be kept from that path by European free-rider-ism. America’s military presence and engagement in Asian regional politics will determine China’s judgment of American credibility.

Between the first NATO Summit and the DEFMIN summit at the end of this year, the Obama Administration should firmly communicate to America’s NATO Allies that the rebalance to Asia is still in the cards and they would be well served by increasing their defense spending.  Given Russia’s penchant for paranoid aggression, this should not be a hard case to make, but in practice it will be difficult to reverse decades of European defense budgeting policy, especially in the context of the Eurozone Crisis.

However, Europe must understand that the United States may not be able to react immediately in the event of a Russian attack on Europe, especially if the United States happens to be embroiled in a conflict in Asia.  It is particularly important that the Baltic states and Poland – those states under the greatest threat of Russian aggression – increase their defense spending substantially. At the NATO Summit in late 2014, defense ministers should be prepared to announce a new NATO consensus on burden-sharing, defense spending, and resource-pooling. Every NATO member should be expected to meet the 2% minimum. NATO cannot continue to serve as a permission slip for European countries to get a free ride on the back of the U.S. defense budget.  European militaries should be funded and structured to provide credible security to member states.


It is not too late for President Obama and his team to turn this crisis around into a long-term advantage for the United States, European security, and the re-balancing of American strategy toward ensuring stability, trade, and access to the commons in Asia. If handled prudently, the current crisis will leave Ukraine stable, Russia chastened, and NATO Allies reassured in the short- and medium-term.

Europe should right the wrong of negligent under-investment in its defense capabilities – a grand abdication of European responsibilities that was excusable and tolerable during the Cold War but is now neither. History shows that when Europe is unable to handle its own affairs, the United States gets dragged in. Sometimes, this is in America’s interests – for example, the two world wars – but this will not always be the case. American should always value and prioritize its European partners and allies, but other regions, such as Asia, may, at times, demand more of America’s military resources.  There is no reason why European nations cannot devote more resources to their military forces, especially in a world that is perhaps more like the 19th Century than Secretary Kerry would like to admit.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. 


Image: DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett