Is The Ukraine War All About NATO?

by Jonah Shepp

The war between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate as heads of NATO member states arrive in Wales for a summit on the crisis. Russia has announced (NYT) that it is revising its military strategy in response to what it sees as belligerent behavior on the part of NATO, including the prospect of expanding the alliance to include Ukraine. Of course, Putin doesn’t help matters by telling European officials that he could “take Kiev in two weeks”, as he apparently did in a recent phone conversation with José Manuel Barroso. Marc Champion takes him seriously:

Earlier this year it was only those on the lunatic nationalist fringe in Moscow who talked about taking Kiev. Now it’s Putin. This is part of a disturbing pattern. For a long time, only ultranationalists talked about a place called Novorossiya, or New Russia. In April, Putin took that up, and by June the separatists in Ukraine had merged their self-proclaimed republics to found Novorossiya. So what are the Russian lunatics talking about now? Ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in Novorossiya, and attacking Poland and the Baltic states.

I have no idea where Putin is going with this, and I think it’s wiser not to speculate too much, but he seems to be in the thrall of an ideology that lends itself to the logic of imperial aggression, as do his soaring poll numbers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to escalate. On the other hand, as John Mearsheimer puts it in an essay (paywalled) on the origins of the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s belligerence didn’t come from nowhere:

Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it. Logic aside, Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on many occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with any effort to turn those countries against Russia — a message that the 2008 Russian-Georgian war also made crystal clear.

This is a very important point that even Ukrainian chauvinists ought to grapple with: we would not be where we are if Western leaders had not chosen to ruffle Russian feathers by inching the NATO umbrella steadily eastward since the end of the Cold War. That is not the same as saying that this is all America’s fault, but it does acknowledge the basic facts that actions have consequences, that countries tend to respond rationally to real or perceived threats, and that Putin had every reason to believe that Ukraine would eventually join NATO absent some kind of Russian intervention. Putin’s ethno-religious and political ideologies should be judged independently on their merits (or lack thereof), but his belief that the Cold War never ended is readily borne out by NATO’s expansion, as well as other signs, such as the IMF’s misguided handling of post-Soviet Russia in the 90s. Putin can be a bad dude in general and not solely to blame for this crisis in particular, just as surely as he can ride a horse shirtless and chew gum at the same time.

On the ground, meanwhile, pro-Russian separatist forces are advancing closer to the port city of Mariupol. The situation seems terribly precarious, and it’s not clear how NATO will respond. In the same piece cited above, Marc Champion previews what plans will be on the agenda at the NATO summit and offers his take on whether they will work:

It appears that the NATO summit this week will do two things. First, the alliance is expected to agree to equip bases in Poland and the Baltic states and begin a “persistent rotation” of a few thousand troops through them. That wording amounts to Putin-like double-speak, to get around commitments the alliance made in 1997 not to position permanent bases in eastern Europe. Second, it seems NATO will devote a 10,000-strong rapid reaction force to deploy eastward at short notice. This would all be good, but it needs to be done in such a way that Putin clearly gets that when it comes to the Baltic states in particular, NATO’s commitment is ironclad. If not, he will test it.

Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell advocate a more muscular response:

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is certainly not an invasion of a NATO country, but it cannot but be seen also as a test run of sorts. It is a violent way of asking: What would NATO, and the U.S., do when a small group of unmarked armed men takes over a border village in Latvia or Poland? What is the response to a few Russian tanks getting “lost” in Lithuania? And more broadly, what is NATO’s response to Russian power suddenly coming much closer to its eastern frontier? A simple restatement of NATO’s Article 5 is not sufficient: extended deterrence was not designed to counter such threats. A readjustment of NATO bases and U.S. presence in Europe is needed.

Matthew Gault argues that the alliance’s strategies, developed during the Cold War to repel a traditional invasion, are useless against the covert tactics of Russian maskirovka:

It’s no wonder that Latvia and other Baltic area NATO countries asked the alliance to deploy more troops within their borders—and NATO agreed. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Guardian that NATO would build more bases in Eastern Europe. But new bases and extra troops will do little to deter maskirovka. If Russia can badly undermine a country without actually invading—withholding direct military force until the conditions are just right—then NATO troops could end up just standing around while the society around them disintegrates. The collapse could slowly render a traditional allied military presence politically unsustainable—it might look like an occupation—while simultaneously giving Russia an excuse to eventually send in “peacekeepers” whose true intentions are anything but peaceful. That’s how 21st-century maskirovka beats dated Cold War thinking.

Reid Standish wonders if Putin’s popularity will take a hit as more Russian soldiers turn up dead in Ukraine. He also notes that the Kremlin is trying to keep such casualties under wraps:

Putin has seen his approval ratings sky-rocket amid the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but mounting casualties are likely to undercut the political benefits Putin has accrued from his stand-off with the West. “Short, bloodless, victorious wars are popular everywhere,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. “It’s only afterwards, when the casualties begin to mount, that people start to ask, ‘Was that really worth it?’” Russia’s unwillingness to honestly report on the deaths of its soldiers harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, where the fate of servicemen returning from Afghanistan was covered up.