It is time to regain the upper hand with Russia by setting key regional partners in Eastern Europe on the path to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance.
Top diplomats have agreed that a political solution is needed to de-escalate the crisis spurred by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, but Moscow has yet to agree to meet with the so-called “illegitimate” government in Kiev. Russian troops are massed and rotating along the Ukrainian border – despite reductions, they still number in the “tens of thousands” according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Logistical networks and military supply lines that would be critical to support further incursion remain in place.
While the fait accompli occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russian forces seems irreversible, it is clear from his behavior that Russian President Vladimir Putin harbors ambitions beyond Crimea or Ukraine. He appears determined to undermine the very idea of a peaceful, unified transatlantic security and economic community.
This is not meant to suggest that we are entering a second Cold War. The Soviet Union championed a competing political and economic ideology from those enshrined in the West; today, Russia is inextricably linked to Europe through trade agreements, especially in the energy sector. Some people have suggested that Putin’s ability to flex his military muscles means that he has the stronger hand. This is patently false.
Putin invaded Crimea out of weakness. Russia was losing the argument over whether Ukraine should seek membership in western institutions and multinational organizations, like the European Union and NATO. Though Western complacency and indecision may have encouraged Putin, it was Russia’s lack of influence that prompted this aggressive act.
Putin’s expansionist grasps for influence has had him on a collision course with international norms for some time; in a July 2009 article I published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s journal “Proceedings,” I predicted that “the economic and political futures of the former Soviet Bloc are in jeopardy … Russia may not wait to act against the Ukraine before NATO offers it membership.” The lack of clarity and guidance surrounding the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008 created uncertainty as to U.S. and European commitments to a robust collective security alliance.
This perceived Western indecision likely precipitated Putin’s invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia a few months later. Putin used Georgia as a test balloon to see how the international community would react during a period when the U.S. and NATO were distracted in Afghanistan and Iraq. We imposed financial sanctions on Russia immediately following their occupation of parts of Georgia only to ultimately relax those measures. The result? Russia still has troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia is seeking to establish Ukraine as a federation of loosely connected provinces – largely autonomous regions that would come under the influence of Moscow where a veto could serve Russian interests. Moscow is pushing for Russian to rank alongside Ukrainian as an official language of Ukraine, and is calling for the new Ukrainian constitution to explicitly prohibit “be[ing] part of any bloc” such as NATO.
Putin must not be allowed to make demands with a metaphorical gun at the head of the West. His adventurism in Georgia was justified as “protecting Russian nationals” – the same excuse for interfering in Crimea. Russia’s flagrant disregard for peaceful international mechanisms to address concerns establishes a pattern of regional bullying that cannot be ignored. Clearly, other places in the region that are home to Russian speakers are at risk. Transdniestria, a break-away province of Moldova along the border with Ukraine, may well be the next strategic objective in Putin’s campaign to casually redraw the map of Europe.
A norm broken once is an anomaly, but a norm broken twice risks becoming a replacement. Thankfully, we have the means to reassure Russia’s neighbors. NATO, initiated by leadership from President Barack Obama, must bring Georgia into the fold via the Membership Action Plan. This would send a message to Moscow and demonstrate to other countries that the hard work of reform pays off. Furthermore, Western leaders should accept expansion for Macedonia and Montenegro at the NATO Summit this September in Cardiff, Wales.
Finally, Ukraine must be given the opportunity to determine their own strategic orientation. Any decision to join NATO must be made by a majority of the entire population of Ukraine. Putin needs to withdraw his troops from the border and, unless he surrenders Crimea, should pay restitution to Ukraine for the billions of dollars’ worth of military facilities, government buildings, and infrastructure seized there. The only way to make this a reality is by showing that the West is serious about checking aggressive regional ambitions
Having served in the military for 25 years, I don’t lightly suggest any move that could put our service men and women in harm’s way. However, I know from my experience working with NATO and its Partnership for Peace program that if we want to live in a world governed by international norms, it is up to the most powerful military alliance in the world to give teeth to those norms. NATO expansion is a tangible and swift penalty to impose on Putin and a way to leverage American leadership to support new allies.
Michael J. Quigley is an Iraq War veteran and a member of the Truman Defense Council. He is currently a Senior Fellow for National Security with Human Rights First and a Navy Reserve intelligence officer with several assignments in Europe to include Belgium, Bosnia, Ireland, Malta, and as Lead Staff Action Officer for the Director of Intelligence (J2), US European Command. All opinions are his own.