As the United States and NATO prepare their exit from Afghanistan this year, many analysts have been wondering whether the NATO summit scheduled to take place in the United Kingdom in September would serve as yet another handwringing exercise about the future of the Alliance. After all, with most of Europe at peace and the United States turning its attention to Asia, what purpose would NATO serve going forward?
Now, however, Vladimir Putin’s decision to seize Crimea and claim the right to defend all Russian speakers in Ukraine has jolted Europe back to reality. The dream of a peaceful and secure Europe stops at NATO’s border; for those living beyond this border, it is a nightmare. We recognized after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war that European nations caught between NATO and Russia were vulnerable, but we failed to resolve their insecurity. Unless we do so, the region is condemned to continued instability.
The crisis in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. When George H.W. Bush stated in May 1989 that U.S. policy would be to foster a Europe whole, free and at peace, the Berlin Wall still divided the continent. Few could have imagined Central and Eastern Europeans joining the European Union and NATO. Yet in subsequent years, first NATO and later the EU offered membership in their zone of peace and prosperity to those able to fulfill the criteria each organization laid out. That process is now essentially over.
If there was ever doubt of the need to bring the Central and Eastern Europeans into NATO, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and, now, Putin’s military deployment in Crimea remind us otherwise. Russia respects the security guarantee that NATO provides its members, but recognizes that this guarantee extends no further. Although Ukraine is not a member of the Alliance, and no one wants a war between NATO and Russia, NATO has an important role to play in this evolving situation.
The meetings held Sunday by the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s political arm) and by the NATO-Ukraine commission were important first steps. In addition, NATO must reaffirm that Article V – under which an armed attack on one member state is considered an attack on all – underpins the security of all members, including the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to reassure them in the face of Russian troop movements and nearby military exercises.
While Russia has regarded NATO’s enlargement as a threat to its security, the Alliance’s provision of stability and security across much of Europe in fact lessens Russian insecurity. While Russian officials would never publicly admit it, the threat to Russia posed by NATO to the West is inconsequential compared to the threats of Islamic extremism from the south and China to the east. European insecurity does not originate within NATO; rather, the most insecure regions are those where Russia fosters instability: Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and now Crimea.
The territory between NATO and Russia will remain insecure as long as Russia fears that countries like Ukraine and Georgia might yet join the European Union and/or NATO, and remains prepared to use military force to prevent these countries from an overt Western tilt. Clearly the European Union and NATO must consider new ideas for how to address this zone of instability and insecurity. To date the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has not been up to the task. Despite Russian declarations in the mid-1990s that it sought to create a stronger OSCE, Moscow has limited the organization’s effectiveness due to the organization’s emphasis on free and fair elections and support for human rights.
Two decades ago, the United States and its European partners hoped to draw Russia closer to the West. Then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin was eager to oblige, but Putin has shown nothing but disdain for the West, its values, and its dreams. He has sought to return Russia to the world stage as a great power and retain his former Soviet neighbors within Moscow’s orbit. Blessed with high oil prices during his time in power, Putin has been able to avoid facing up to the severe demographic, economic and governance challenges that plague Russia’s long-term future and that occupying Crimea will do nothing to address.
NATO must reaffirm its commitment to the security of its member states and seek to identify an institutional solution for those countries caught between the West and Russia. The 2008 Russia-Georgia war no longer appears an aberration. Indeed, it may now be regarded as part of a pattern. Likewise, the upcoming NATO summit in September will no longer require its members to make a case for the continuing value of the Alliance; rather, it will require the Alliance to continue its efforts to identify a solution to the insecurity that remains in Europe.
James Goldgeier is Dean of the School of International Service at American University. Follow him on twitter: @JimGoldgeier.
Photo credit: Utenriksdepartementet UD