Institutions matter. That trite phrase has come back into its own in the continuing crisis over Crimea. The roles that the European Union played, wittingly or not, in the run-up to the actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin are now being raked over. Did the EU respond too late to the financial crisis in Ukraine? Did it interfere too boldly in Ukrainian internal politics? Was EU leadership too weak? Too strong? The answers to these questions cannot all be “Yes,” and people in the various EU institutions will be debating them for a long time to come.
But what of NATO? It did not play any visible role as the crisis was building, even though it includes among its 28 members several countries with checkered histories of dealing with the Russian Federation, some as once-and-reluctant members in the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and some as unwilling satellites of the Soviet system until it collapsed almost a quarter century ago.
Now, with President Putin’s movement of troops into Crimea -- Russian troops whatever insignia they don’t wear – and the rumblings of Russian military apparatus on the Ukrainian frontier, NATO perforce has had to become engaged.
Its first step, naturally, has been to look to its commitments. There are two core principles to NATO, one written, one not. The written commitment is contained in Article 5 of the 1949 Treaty of Washington, which declares “…that an armed attack against one or more of the [allies] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…” and that “…each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force..“ Action is not obligatory, but this is still a pretty strong commitment, especially when reinforced by the second, unwritten, core principle, that the United States is strategically engaged in Europe and remains NATO’s 800-pound gorilla. Hence, the lead taken by President Obama in the Western side of the crisis.
The North Atlantic Council met promptly as the crisis boiled over. First steps have been to reassure the allied states along the Russian border – and along Ukraine’s borders with NATO states for good measure – that the Article 5 commitment holds true. There is, in fact, not much militarily that NATO could do if Putin decides to escalate, either politically or militarily, but the political signal, especially from the United States, is still important for potentially vulnerable Central European NATO members. NATO fighter and surveillance aircraft are flying air cover in the Baltic States and along the Polish-Ukrainian border. Two previously-scheduled allied military and naval exercises, one in Poland and the other in the Black Sea, are going forward as planned.
Further, NATO members are also part of the overall economic and political response, including the EU, which includes the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia and, individually, against offending leaders. These will have no immediate impact – economic sanctions never do -- but they do presage something far more important to Russia and Putin: what can be called “existential sanctions,” which means that the trust the Russians have to be able to curry in the West in order to have productive economic relations has now collapsed. And this is not the Soviet era, when Russia (then the Soviet Union) could turn its back on the outside world and pursue autarky. It has to be engaged in the outside world, economically, or its economy will stutter and then, despite all of the patriotic support for Putin now, he will be in big trouble politically at home.
NATO rapidly did two other things. It convened a meeting of its NATO-Ukraine Council, set up in 1997 when NATO took in its first new members after the end of the Cold War (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) but knew it could not take in Ukraine, for two reasons: the mixed-up nature of its society and the fact that Ukrainian membership in NATO, at least then, would have been a major poke in the Russian Federation’s eye at the very time when there was a desire to try moving Russia into the modern, post-Cold War age, with participation in Western practices and institutions. Thus, under provisions of the NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership, allied and Ukrainian representatives met at NATO headquarters early in the crisis.
Wisely, NATO also convened, with Russian concurrence, another special arrangement, the NATO-Russia Council, first set up in 1997 (as the Permanent Joint Council) under the NATO-Russia Founding Act and later augmented. This provides for 19 or so areas in which NATO and Russia should try to work together; and it also provides for meetings at which all 29 countries (Russia plus the 28 NATO allies) can consult together as equals. The said meeting didn’t make any progress, but at least the Russian ambassador showed up, which seemed to indicate, at least, that Putin is not closing all doors.
But what more can NATO do? Not much, other than for the allies to hold together, politically, and show that they can’t be picked apart by Russia. But there are some things it should not do. One idea has been to move rapidly to bring Ukraine into NATO. That would just make matters worse and would only be appropriate – and maybe not even then – if everyone later concludes that Cold War II and a return to major East-West confrontation is unavoidable, which as of now it clearly is not and should be avoided if at all possible. And even President Putin has shown no interest in that, and everyone, including Russia (Russia the most) would be losers of historic proportions.
The same with regard to Georgia. Moving to include it as a NATO member would be a crucial mistake, would escalate the crisis to no good purpose, and, if Russia were to react as it did in 2008, would demonstrate once again that Georgia really doesn’t matter strategically to the West (and perhaps also not to Russia).
The allies already made a major mistake at their 2008 summit in Bucharest, by declaring, for want of doing anything immediately (thus showing proper restraint) that Ukraine and Georgia “…will become members of NATO.” This was intended as a throwaway line. In fact, it meant – and could only mean—that the allies were agreeing at that moment that they were prepared to give an Article 5 security guarantee to the two countries, which the allies obviously didn’t want to do. Two leaders read the statement that way: President Saakashvili of Georgia and President Putin of Russia. The result was a short-sharp conflict that Georgia lost on the ground but Russia lost in terms of loss of Western trust. Notably, not a single NATO single ally was prepared to provide real help to Georgia, which showed that the promise that it would one day be invited to join NATO was vacuous. At the time, I expressed the hope that the Russians would not try anything foolish in regard to Ukraine, because unlike Georgia it is a country that “matters,” lying as it does on the main route between Russia and the West. Well, Putin has now done something foolish, whatever his motivations for doing so, and the crisis is upon us.
It is no matter that Crimea is properly Russian, a misbegotten birthday present by Nikita Khrushchev to his native Ukraine in 1954. It is no matter that no one outside of Russia and Ukraine (and it is not even clear about them) really cares where Crimea finally comes to rest, except (from the Western perspective) for the principles involved and the possibility that Putin will escalate further. Whatever his motives – perhaps just to gain “respect” for Russia, to salve bruised Russian feelings over having lost their superpower status, and to try showing former Soviet satellites that they had “better be careful” -- Putin is breaking the rules. The most important ones were agreed upon in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and in the so-called Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of December 1994, under which Ukraine agreed to send to Russia the masses of nuclear weapons that just happened to be on Ukrainian soil when the Soviet Union broke up. The Memorandum included US, British, and Russian reaffirmation of “… commitment to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine... [and] “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
One element of a solution to the current crisis is of course to repair to the various documents that have already been agreed by the US, Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and other Europeans. Another element has to be to keep from doing anything that will risk creating a new Cold War that no one wants and from which no one can benefit. Hence, beyond what it has done so far, NATO has been largely circumspect, with the diplomatic “heavy lifting” left to the United States (where it has to be), with the proviso, of course, that nothing will be decided with Russia over the head of Ukraine and at its expense. The allies also need to underscore that Ukraine will press on with its presidential elections in May, that these will be fairly conducted, that Russian-speakers and former Russian nationals (whether in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine) will be treated fairly, that there will be international observers, and that the Western states want to see both a peaceful outcome to the crisis and a return to some of the diplomat efforts that were begun two decades ago and then abandoned.
They were premised on President George H.W. Bush’s concept of trying to build a post-Cold War “Europe whole and free” and at peace. The concept had many elements, including taking Central European states off the diplomatic chessboard, with membership for some of them in NATO (and the EU). It also included not pushing membership for Ukraine, because that would at least be premature and would just have pushed away and enraged Russia, which was smarting after having lost the Cold War. Bush was well aware of how punishing Germany in the 1919 Versailles Treaty helped fuel German nationalism, leading to World War II; he wanted to avoid at all costs repeating that historic mistake with Russia and rather wanted to reach out to it as an equal partner and not as a defeated enemy.
Unfortunately, the people who had that vision and then helped to implement it – I was US ambassador to NATO at the time and played the lead in putting together the pieces of the architecture – left the US government during the second Clinton administration and have never been replaced with people who understand what had to be done. The Joint Chiefs of Staff even dismantled research into European security at the National Defense University, on the grounds that “Europe is no longer relevant.” Until the current crisis, Washington interest in NATO had plummeted to an historic low.
The principles and purposes created by George H.W. Bush and pursued by President Bill Clinton were thus lost. NATO took in many countries beyond those (the three Baltic States) that truly needed reassurance. And the West took some other steps that predictably pushed Russia away. The West created a separate state in Kosovo after the defeat of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing there – a step very much like what Putin is trying to do in Crimea (!), a point the Russians regularly make. The United States has been seeking to put missile defenses in Central Europe even though they would not be needed for years, if ever, and they are seen in Moscow as the West’s demonstrating that Russia is powerless to prevent it. (The United States government has never been prepared to take Moscow’s concerns seriously). And so on, including the failure in the early 1990s to bring Russia immediately into the GATT (now the WTO), and the US Congress’ not repealing until 2010 the 1973 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, limiting the Soviet Union’s trade access to the United States, even though the original purpose, to get the Kremlin to permit Jewish immigration, became irrelevant with the USSR’s collapse.
So NATO and particular the United States have also not had “clean hands,” though this is still no excuse for what Putin has been doing. It is time, therefore, for all to take a deep breath, step back, depressurize, stop the hyperbolic rhetoric, tell all parties in Ukraine to stop the pull to the West by one group and the pull to the East by another, pump money from both the EU and Russia into Ukraine as a whole, and renew the old NATO and EU efforts to build a Europe whole and free and at peace. Meanwhile, President Obama should use his Brussels meeting with the European Union leadership to help craft a solid package of help for all parts of Ukraine, for showing respect for the EU beyond the usual pro forma quality of these summits, and for pressing (both there and at NATO) for NATO and the EU finally to be able to work together, whatever it takes.
Still, with all the best and wisest efforts of the US and the Europeans, maybe Putin will not “play,” although it is very likely he will stop short of actually incorporating Crimea into Russia, and in fact the referendum on March 16th is not a “deadline on diplomacy” but is only the first step in a long process before Crimea would actually “join” Russia. Anyway, Crimea would be an albatross for Russia, economically, and its becoming a republic in the Russian Federation would guarantee that Russia will be the big loser for a long time.
NATO needs to play its part in this: by following to the letter the agreements already made; by using effectively the post-Cold War institutions created two decades ago; and by keeping its powder dry. If it does; if the US, the EU, and Ukraine are sensible; and if Putin is not totally bereft of any sense of his and Russia’s long-term self-interests, it should still be possible to “make lemonade out of these lemons.”
Robert Hunter is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS and a member of the Board of Directors of The European Institute.