No matter whether the crisis in Ukraine begins to de-escalate in the coming days, Vladimir Putin, with his 19th century outlook, has demonstrated the hollowness of the West’s 21st century approach to Euro-Atlantic security. The twin pillars of the European security establishment—NATO and the EU—have been unable to respond effectively because their assumptions about the nature of conflict and the burdens that members ought to bear to provide for the common defense, formed out of the experiences of the mid-to-late 20th century, have not been updated.
For all the exalted talk about NATO as the mailed fist of the West, prepared not only to defend the European heartland but also to expand the zone of peace and prosperity into Eurasia and to stand guard on the front lines of the Western world from Afghanistan to the waters off Somalia, NATO remains, at heart, a trip-wire defense alliance, triggered when an outside adversary aggressively crosses the line. However, operations such as the 1999 Kosovo air war, launched even though no NATO member had been attacked by Serbia, made it unclear what would trigger alliance military action.
Putin’s intervention in Ukraine has exposed two problems with this approach. The first has been the alliance’s own complicity in making its boundaries fuzzy. Over the past two decades, the designation of countries as NATO “partners,” a vague status that carries no official treaty guarantees, has been a particular problem. As I wrote in March
, “States like Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan offered military forces in support of U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, believing in a transactional approach to international relations—that their willingness to put forces to fight and die alongside U.S. troops in the Greater Middle East created a reciprocal obligation of the United States to, in turn, guarantee their own security.”
Of course, purists will note that countries like Ukraine never had the ironclad guarantees of membership; even the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 guaranteeing the country’s territorial integrity was not a formal treaty. But the alliance encouraged its partners to believe that NATO would be more prepared to react to Russian assertiveness than it actually was. The Kremlin punctured this belief in 2008 during the conflict with Georgia, and has now revealed it to be an illusion as a result of events in Ukraine. Russia’s intervention has also called into question the depth of NATO’s commitment to new members of the alliance—the deployment of small numbers of U.S. forces falls well short of what the Baltic states need to feel reassured.
The second problem is the confusion around what actually constitutes an “armed attack.” Thinking here remains squarely in the post-World War II mindset—tanks crossing frontiers and large numbers of uniformed soldiers engaged in military activity. But warfare in the 21st century can be much more shadowy and unclear, and responsibility is much harder to assign. The 2007 cyberattack on Estonia was a harbinger of a form of pressure that both fell below the threshold of an “armed attack” and lacked any clear signs of state involvement—and thus did not create grounds for invoking the NATO Treaty’s famous Article 5, which obligates all members of the alliance to respond to an attack on one of its members.
What we have seen to date in Ukraine is what my colleague at the Naval War College John Schindler describes as “special war”
: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.” Despite claims that Russian operatives have been orchestrating the problems in Ukraine, Putin categorically denied the presence of any units, instructors or special service agents, and while photographs have been released that appear to bolster Ukraine’s claims, no Russian officers have, up to this point, been captured. Special war is designed to skirt the line of what constitutes an armed attack
without actually crossing it. A Russian challenge to NATO “that paralyzed us over an Article 5 issue,” notes former CIA official John McLaughlin
, “would be a dagger to the heart of the alliance” and erode its future effectiveness.
If NATO was supposed to focus on providing a military deterrent, the European Union was going to demonstrate the importance of economic and soft power as a way to shape behavior. Indeed, Brussels’ bureaucrats believed that Moscow would have to learn to live with the EU-Ukraine accession agreement because of the deep interconnection of the Russian and EU economies, which supposedly meant Moscow would be unwilling to jeopardize its own economic interests by meddling with Ukraine. However, there were already clear indications the EU method would fail when faced with a determined and resolute opponent. After all, the admission of Cyprus to the European Union in 2004 was supposed to be the trigger for compelling Turkey—which, in theory, is also seeking membership in the union—to finally withdraw from the island, but that has not happened.
The EU, strained after the economic crisis and the subsequent bailouts, is also coming to the limits of its capabilities. The EU could have defused one aspect of the crisis—Ukraine’s inability to pay Russia for natural gas—by stepping in to purchase increased volumes of natural gas from Russia and then reselling it on credit to Ukraine. It would thus have taken on itself the risk of Ukrainian default, while avoiding the specter of a massive interruption in supply to Europe. But this is an effort the EU is unwilling to make. Donor countries are strapped for cash, while recipient countries are not eager to diminish what they already receive from the union to share with Ukraine.
The Ukraine crisis is demonstrating that EU solidarity only extends so far, and that key EU nations are still unwilling to completely jeopardize their own beneficial links with Russia. Britain is happy to impose stronger sanctions on Russia—as long as financial transactions aren’t targeted. France is loath to give up on defense sales, while Germany does not want to jeopardize its position in the Russian energy industry. The EU Parliament may want to suspend important projects with Russia like the South Stream pipeline, but individual EU countries and companies are moving ahead regardless. Moreover, the rise of nationalist parties throughout Europe, promoting not a unified single European entity but “a Europe of the fatherlands
,” puts increasing pressure on governments to work to defend national interests. And if national interests are served by preserving good relations with Russia, then there will be increased reluctance to join in EU efforts to pressure Moscow over Ukraine.
But the underlying reality is that NATO and EU members, for the most part, have been looking for excuses not to get involved in confronting Russia, and parsing obligations and definitions of attack is part of that process. NATO and EU expansion was sold to many of the existing members as a low-cost, no-risk venture—extending security assurances that no one expected would ever be called in. Putin’s gamble is that he can compel the West to draw a definitive line in the east beyond which the Euro-Atlantic community will not go. So far, it is paying off.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.