NATO on the spot

NATO presidents and prime ministers meet next Thursday and Friday in Cardiff, Wales for their biannual summit. It was supposed to focus on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is already well-advanced. But that will be overshadowed now by the Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine.

Some are still calling it a “stealth” invasion. Hardly. Russian personnel, tanks, artillery and other equipment are crossing the border and have taken the southeastern town of Novoazovsk. The fact that the troops don’t wear insignia makes them no less Russian.  They could drive north from there to reinforce the rebel-held towns of Donestk and Luhansk or west to the important Ukrainian port of Mariulpol, which appears to be what they are doing.

NATO is under no obligation to defend Ukraine. It did little military to react during the Cold War to Soviet interventions in its then satellites Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But that is nothing to be proud of, even if it all worked out in the end. Both countries took advantage of the fall of the Berlin Wall to move as rapidly as they could into NATO and the European Union (EU).  Those who take the long view may want to suggest that Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is nothing but folly. It will surely drive Ukraine into the arms of NATO and the EU.

It may also do harm to Putin’s standing at home. The Crimea annexation is proving difficult and expensive. Russians are beginning to notice the funerals of Russians killed in the Ukraine fighting. There are likely to be more. Moscow will discourage the media from reporting on these and encourage a drumbeat of alleged abuses against the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, but sooner or later the truth is likely to come out.

How NATO reacts will be important. Both its European and North American members have strengthened sanctions in reaction to Russian behavior in Ukraine. The rebel downing of Malaysia Air 17 with a Russian-supplied missile over Ukraine caused the latest turning of the screws. Moscow appears to be responding with cyber attacks on US and maybe other banks.

NATO has to decide whether to up the ante. Ideas on what to do are few and far between:  start supplying lethal equipment to Kiev and deploy more NATO forces to allies who have borders with Russia. That’s thin gruel. The equipment won’t have any immediate effect on Ukrainian military capabilities and Putin will laugh off NATO deployments in the Baltics and Poland. He doesn’t plan to attack them.

Another turn of the sanctions screw, this time against Russian banks and other financial institutions, is another serious possibility. President Obama has to worry about whether that or othe moves will cause the Russians to fall off the P5+1 wagon (permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) that is trying to negotiate an end to Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. But the Russians have good reasons of their own not to want Iran to get nuclear weapons. It would be a big strategic mistake for them to undermine the current negotiating effort.

The NATO summit would do well in any event to denounce the invasion of Ukraine in explicit and stentorian tones, making it clear that Russian annexation of territory taken by force, including Crimea, will never be recognized by the Alliance.  It would be a serious mistake to let Crimea go unmentioned, as that would only suggest to Putin that he can get away with more territorial conquest. The United States took a principled position of this sort on the Baltic states during the Cold War, when there seemed little to no likelihood they would ever be anything but Soviet prisoners. That worked out well when the Soviet Union fell apart.

There are other things to consider that aren’t discussed in polite company in public. The US will want to help Ukraine with intelligence. It may also want to consider stirring trouble inside Russia, though that particular type of covert action has a very mixed record, at best. If Moscow has in fact conducted cyber attacks against Western banks, response in kind will need to be considered. Another possibility is to reply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with vigorous military action not only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria but also against Bashar al Asad’s regime, which Russia supports.

NATO is on the spot. It hasn’t got a lot of good options. But it needs to react if it wants to stop Putin from going further.

PS: Vox.com provides video evidence:

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