Three Steps That NATO Needs to Take with Russia
After years of Putin gradually pushing the envelope and expanding his influence, it is past time for NATO to coherently respond to Russia. NATO countries can either stop their public threats and ultimatums towards Russia, or they can match their rhetoric with action outside of simple symbolic sanctions. Continuing the path of rhetoric without action, however, serves only to decrease Western credibility and continue allowing Putin to endanger Russia's neighbors.
After the relatively constructive years of Boris Yeltsin's Russia, Putin began constantly expanding his influence. This began with increased forays into Chechnya. Though NATO mulled sanctions and threatened Putin, it ultimately did nothing while Putin firebombed Chechen civilians. This do-nothing policy resulted in a death toll of over 200,000 Chechen civilians.
Able to get away with murder – literally – within his own borders, Putin looked westward. As one of the first former-Soviet countries to join the EU and NATO, Estonia has always been under Russian pressure. When Estonia attempted to move a Soviet war monument in 2007, it suffered a massive cyber-attack. As one of Europe's most technologically advanced countries, cyber-attacks on Estonia's banks, newspapers, and government servers were crippling. Though Russia denied responsibility, it was widely accepted that Russia was implicitly involved. NATO's response was to issue a statement and simply install the Center for Excellence for Cybersecurity in Tallinn.
With no repercussions for a cyber-attack on a NATO and EU member, Putin opted for military action just a year later. Georgia, a "Partner for Peace," was actively working towards NATO membership when it became Putin's next target. As Russia invaded Georgia, Putin faced withering criticism and demands from the West – and nothing else. Not only was Russia's invasion substantively unchallenged, but its subsequent occupation continues as Russia has built a barbed-wire fence around its forces currently within Georgia.
Seeing that NATO was all fluff in responding to a kinetic attack on a PfP, Putin started threatening major Western powers. The 2000s saw Russia resume Cold War-era naval and long-range bomber patrols around the US and Europe. The UK's RAF declassified dozens of instances in 2009 alone of Western airspace being breached by Russian nuclear-capable jets loaded with ordnance. These provocative threats were unacknowledged and unabated.
After receiving no pushback for buzzing borders, Putin tested NATO's political mettle. For eleven months, Putin offered only mild obstruction while Obama's administration struggled to respond to Syria. After Obama's administration said that Syria's "totally unacceptable" use of chemical weapons would constitute a "red line" and trigger serious "consequences," Syria launched the first of over a dozen such attacks. While NATO struggled for political support and vetoed military action, Putin seized the opportunity to save the day with a negotiated agreement.
With no tangible response to a decade's-worth of Russian aggression, Putin obviously felt confident enough to invade the prize of the former USSR – Ukraine. And just as in Chechnya, Estonia, Georgia, and Syria, the West's response has been typical – heavy on rhetoric, vapid on action. The core of the response – ejection from the G8 and "heavy sanctions" – was inconsequential to Putin. It is time for the consequences to match the response.
One option is simply eliminating hollow threats and ultimatums from the rhetoric. The other, more robust, option is three-fold:
- NATO members must cease military cooperation with Russia. Building powerful battleships for a Russia that has blockaded the Black Sea and captured the entire Ukrainian fleet is unbelievably beyond counterproductive.
- Sanctions need to be more than symbols. The US should sanction banks that actually have US branches and subsidiaries (unlike Bank Rossiya), and Europe needs to target the Russian energy sector. While it would certainly be painful for Europe in the short term, such a strong statement would powerfully demonstrate resolute commitment to the region.
- NATO leaders should not publicly refuse to use force in Ukraine if needed. Though military intervention is certainly undesirable, such declaratory statements by Obama, Hague, and Merkel remove the deterrent of uncertainty, allowing Putin to comfortably push further than he may have otherwise.
We are no longer living in the Yeltsin years when Russia was responsive to rhetoric and threats of sanctions. It will soon be imperative to match rhetoric with demonstrated will and committed strength or dial down the rhetoric to the actual level of disinterested involvement. A failure to make the right decision soon will only signal Putin the thumbs up from NATO to extend his campaign to "rescue" beleaguered Russian speakers deeper into Europe.
Micah Ables is a freelance writer and has lived in and traveled extensively throughout Ukraine.