Crimea Is Gone—What Does NATO Do Next?

On the centenary of World War I, Europe's suddenly facing a crisis of Russian aggression. Why NATO must make a show of strength and reassure its Eastern members.

Ever since Russia’s not-so-stealthy invasion of the Crimea in Ukraine at the end of the week, rhetoric has rung out in Washington and in Europe like a call to arms. Except that it’s not—or not yet.

“There will be costs,” said President Barack Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry upped the ante, condemning “the invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.” NATO called an emergency meeting on Sunday to address “Russia’s military action in Ukraine. And because of [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin’s threats against this sovereign nation.”

The Russian parliament meanwhile approved use of Russian troops throughout Ukraine, if Putin decides to do that. And the panicky interim prime minister in Kiev responded, “This is the red alert. This is not a threat. This is actually a declaration of war [against] my country.”

Them’s fightin’ words, for sure. But as yet not a single shot has been fired. And while there’s a lot of talk about diplomatic and economic measures that might be taken, when the Western powers consider the enormity of a war against nuclear armed Russia the consequences are almost too horrible to contemplate.

So, while Kerry made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows he tried like hell to steer away from talk about military confrontation which he said “does not serve the world well” even though “the president has “all the options on the table.” The statement after the emergency NATO meeting was a toothless collection of platitudes.

But the fact is, like it or not, the West is facing the prospect of a new Cold War with Russia because that seems to be right in Putin’s KGB-bred comfort zone. And the thing about a Cold War is that there’s no guarantee it won’t become a hot one.

It’s in that context that NATO and its most powerful member, the United States, will have to address the Russian operations in the Ukraine. Conversations with several regional experts over the last 24 hours suggest this bottom line:

1. NATO members will be protected from Russian aggression even if that means open war, and those who have large Russian-speaking populations, like Latvia, will get special assurances on this score.

2. Crimea is pretty much gone—invaded and occupied—and it is going to be the subject of long negotiations with Moscow to assure Russian interests and people are protected there, and to persuade Russia to stop short of outright annexation.

3. The rest of Ukraine literally falls somewhere in between. It may be described as a NATO “partner,” but it’s not a member. So the question is how far NATO will go to keep Putin from moving into the largely Russian-speaking south and east of the country beyond Crimea. And, indeed, the question arises whether NATO would move to stop Russia if it decided to roll all the way to the Polish border.

If the United States and other powerful Western members of NATO cannot provide sufficient assurances on point one, the whole alliance will be gravely and possibly fatally weakened. The negotiations over the future of Crimea, meanwhile, probably will take place against the ongoing threat of a wider Russian incursion, even if that doesn’t happen.

The West does have some significant political and economic tools if it unites around a boycott of Russia in international clubs like the G8 and the G20 and if Europe can wean itself from Russian natural gas. Putin’s economy is fragile and large parts of his population are suffering. But that is not necessarily an incentive for him to come to an agreement on Crimea or back off from his efforts to intimidate Kiev, or worse. Indeed, domestic weakness in Russia may be an incentive for him to get more aggressive, and try to ease the pain of a weak ruble with the ringing rhetoric of war.

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In any case, short term diplomatic slaps on the wrist, like being blackballed at the G8, are minor annoyances for a Putin who thinks he has a chance to intimidate the whole hated North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union.

“The Russians will probe and they will see how far they can get and see how much they can get away with,” says Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO until last summer. “The role of the international community is to tell them they cannot.”

In many ways the most dangerous aspect of the rationale Moscow has laid out for its intervention is what might be called “the Putin doctrine,” which is that it has the right to intervene to “protect” Russian populations wherever they may be. It used that rationale in its war against Georgia in 2008. And since there are large Russian populations in the Baltics, which are NATO members, that’s a red flag right there that has to be a red line.

“If you have an alliance of 28 countries, 12 of which joined because they didn’t trust Big Brother on their borders, how are they supposed to react?” says Daalder. “This is why they joined NATO and this is why it is important that NATO now get together and reassure them that when they joined we took seriously our solemn commitment to defend.”

“Putin has two guiding principles,” Daalder told The Daily Beast. “First, he has a zero sum view of the world, which is that anything that is not mine is yours.” The whole Western European notion of mutual security is, from his point of view, almost incomprehensible or, perhaps worse, contemptible.

And secondly, says Daalder, “we should take Putin at his word that he believes the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” Step by step, as relentlessly as the Czars of the 18th and 19th centuries or the Soviet rulers of the 20th, he is trying to reconstruct the Russian Empire.

Admiral James Stavridis (retired), who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe until last year, has proposed several concrete moves to signal the West’s commitment to Kiev and to its other allies. These would include a dramatic increase in intelligence gathering, including the use of drones and especially cyber penetration; sharing tactical intel and advice on deployments with the Ukrainian military; and developing NATO contingency plans for reaction to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the partial invasion of Crimea.

Stavridis writes that the 25,000 troops of the NATO Response Force should be placed on a higher state of alert and allies with powerful cyber capabilities should be organized and ready to respond in case of an escalation. Finally, he suggests “sailing NATO maritime forces into the Black Sea and setting up contingency plans for their use.”

The risks that some of these measures might provoke Putin, in the admiral’s opinion, do not outweigh the imperative to show resolve.

“It is damn serious stuff,” says Daalder. And anyone in Europe with a sense of history has a very uneasy feeling of déjà vu. As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted this morning, “On the centenary of 1914, we are suddenly in a Europe of invasion, aggression and threats of massive use of military force.” Frightening as that may be, it’s not something that can be wished away.