This Thursday and Friday, NATO’s 28 leaders will meet in Wales. This summit will be the most important since the early days after the end of the Cold War. Whether or not it is a success—a verdict that may not be immediately apparent—will determine whether the alliance will continue to be relevant to its members’ security needs in the 21st century, not just in Europe but elsewhere, or lose at least a good part of its purpose.
President Barack Obama is probably wishing that this summit meeting had not been put on his schedule. There was no particular reason for it, other than to acknowledge that NATO’s formal role in Afghanistan is coming to an end, to do some “down in the weeds” planning for future military capabilities, and to recite again the mantra that all the allies should spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense, to which all will pledge fealty, but which most will then ignore.
Then came Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. As a result, the alliance and especially the US president will have to make decisions this week about opposing the Russian president. The accident of the summit’s timing is forcing their hands. Rather than having some time to consider options and to assess whatever gambit Putin tries next—plus possibilities that diplomacy could have a chance—NATO has to take its stand now. Worse, the European Union has decided to put off for a week its own possible actions, centered on sanctions. It is no accident that this carries past the NATO summit and puts even more political pressure on Obama and his colleagues.
The world will be watching, and not just the Western response to Putin; it will also be judging the ability of the US president, acknowledged as the “leader of the alliance,” to unite the allies in catching Putin’s attention and, Obama must fervently hope, make him shift course. Uncertainty about whether Obama can do it has been reinforced by his two-front “war,” Ukraine and the Islamic State—the first for a US president since Ike had to deal with Hungary and Suez at the same time in 1956. And by saying he does not yet have a strategy for Syria, the US president has further upped the ante for his leadership in Cardiff. At least his Secretaries of State and Defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, will be meeting with NATO counterparts to discuss the mess in the Middle East, where European allies have as much long-term interest as the United States.
What will be decided this week by the NATO allies has no doubt already been worked out; with a summit, where consensus has to be reached among 28 countries, decisions can’t be left to the last moment. They will include reassurances to NATO allies in Central Europe who worry that they could be next on the Putin hit list, although this is most unlikely; the Russian president may be greedy and ambitious, but he is not stupid. This reassurance will include some practical military support, especially to the Baltic NATO members, plus something even more important: Obama’s pre-summit visit to Tallinn, Estonia.
NATO will also likely decide to base more military equipment and capabilities in Central European allied states, and the US will agree to rotate battalion, or even brigade-sized forces through European bases—reminiscent of the Cold War’s REFORGER exercises (Return of Forces to Germany) that were more political than military statements. There will be other military-related steps, some substantive, some symbolic, including direct help for Ukraine’s armed forces and the likely creation of a “Spearhead Force” of a few thousand soldiers who can react rapidly—but to do what? These will be designed to catch Putin’s attention, draw a line in the sand (which he must surely already recognize), and bolster confidence. The last-named is especially important given the radical reduction in US attention to Europe in recent years. Indeed, in his major Brandenburg Gate speech in June 2013, Obama only mentioned NATO once in passing. This lacuna could not have been lost on Putin.
The only thing that can make Putin sit up and take notice is economic sanctions (Obama and everyone else have ruled out military intervention against Russian troops). At the Wales summit and the EU Council follow-on, sanctions will be increased—somewhat. But sanctions always take a while to have an impact; they are less effective against serious economies and serious opponents, and there is still no consensus in Europe on doing real things that will have real consequences.
So far left out in this whistling in the wind is the political context and knowledge of what Mr. Putin is really trying to achieve. Motive number-one is obviously “Russia is back, you can’t ignore us,” and he has carefully chosen the ground on which to make that statement. He is working against the domestic political background of popular Russian resentment about being taken advantage of by the West for the last decade and a half—when the US and its allies stopped being serious about giving Russia a role and respecting its legitimate interests and concerns in George H.W. Bush’s “Europe whole and free.” Putin is also clearly issuing a warning to other states-in-limbo from the former Soviet Union, in addition to Ukraine, from Belarus and Moldova around to Transcaucasia and Central Asia. But how far will he push in Ukraine as part of throwing his arms around Russians outside the homeland? This is not at all clear and has been complicated by his recent good-cop, bad-cop tactics.
Unless Putin is content to see his country isolated for the foreseeable future—however much European states and businesses undercut sanctions—he should, in time, be amenable to a deal. That could include federalism or semi-autonomy for different parts of Ukraine. If Kiev were able to retain at least nominal sovereignty and some important aspects thereof, that might work. It would need to include a return to one of the original principles of “Europe whole and free”—that Ukraine would not be brought into NATO, at least not before Russia’s future role is also decided, to mutual satisfaction.
Unfortunately, at its 2008 summit, NATO threw a sop to US President George W. Bush by declaring that “[Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” Meant as a throwaway line, it was taken most seriously in Moscow. Hence the Russian-Georgia conflict, which showed the NATO statement to be meaningless. This past week, the NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, repeated this decision, thus making matters worse if the Alliance is even thinking about a plausible and mutually acceptable deal over the long-term future of European security, with Ukraine and Russia included.
This is the problem with a summit, untimely scheduled, that has to show Western toughness: it is hard for the US president and his partners to start exploring with the Russians some means of using the current crisis as the basis for a long-term deal over European security that should have been on the agenda for the last two decades. Whether Obama can introduce this possibility without being called a wimp won’t be easy. But that is the direction in which, in addition to “standing firm,” he needs to take the alliance, beginning with his public statements in Wales. If Putin then shows that he isn’t interested, he will have to take responsibility for a new age of East-West confrontation which, like the last time, Russia will eventually lose.