walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
© Wikimedia Commons
Published on: March 24, 2014
Countering Putin
Doubling Down On NATO

The United States needs to respond to Moscow’s partition of Ukraine. Redeploying NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe would be a good first step to a comprehensive deterrence strategy.

Just a few months ago the overwhelming majority of Western politicians and pundits thought a Russian military move into Ukraine inconceivable.  And yet thus far, Vladimir Putin’s determination to restore Russia’s imperial prerogative in Europe’s East has been met with only limited economic and banking sanctions, visa denial to a handful of Russian officials, and plenty of statements condemning Russia for its “nineteenth century behavior” at a time when liberal norms and postmodern standards are supposed to rule supreme.  As Russia moved swiftly to reconfigure Europe’s East, the United States was left gasping for air. Instead of developing a strategy we have been arguing about conditions for negotiations, allowing Moscow to continue to try to make linkages to the Iran nuclear arms issue, cooperation over Syria, Afghanistan withdrawal and nuclear arms control.  This needs to change.

The U.S. administration and European governments should set aside their expressions of righteous anger and respond to the new environment along NATO’s periphery.  Geopolitics is back in Europe in force, and it should be clear that earlier assumptions about Central Europe being somehow “done” after the Cold War have been shown to be not much more than the gaseous byproduct of inside-the-beltway punditry rather than a reflection of power realities on the ground.  Nowhere has the tectonic shift been felt more acutely than in Poland and the Baltic States—NATO’s frontier states in facing the hardening periphery of Russia.

In the aftermath of Russia’s partition of Ukraine, the principal U.S. strategic objective in North-Central Europe should be to increase the costs of any future Russian expansionism.  This requires two types of action: first, reassurance through political means; second, increased direct U.S. assistance to ensure that the region can credibly deter Russia’s military pressure, and, if need be, defend itself and inflict serious pain on the aggressor.  These two are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.  Political reassurance without a credible military component will not suffice.  Without an enhanced viable military strategy along NATO’s northeastern periphery, the credibility of the alliance will be forfeited over time. Russia knows this. Its parallel goal of rebuilding its empire has been to undermine NATO.

Putin is closely watching how Washington behaves in the coming weeks in order to determine the extent of America’s will to maintain NATO as a force to be reckoned with.  On the political side of the ledger, the steps taken thus far have been positive. The prompt dispatch of additional F-15s to the Baltic air policing mission in Lithuania, plus the 12 F-16 jets and 300 personnel deployed to Poland have provided immediate symbolic reassurance. Vice President Biden’s visit further underscored the fact that America was re-engaging with Europe, refocusing on the core transatlantic security relationship after years of “resets” and “pivots.” The message to Putin is clear: while our response to the partition of Ukraine has lagged, the U.S. remains committed to NATO.  So far so good.

But Washington still needs to do some deeper thinking on how it has provided for the security of Central Europe and the Baltics up until now, and how this needs to change going forward.  Simply put, now is the time to put real U.S. military assets into North-Central Europe and to focus on helping those allies improve their defense capabilities against Russia.  The strategy should be to help the countries in the region to leverage their own effort in combination with U.S. assets and assistance.  For starters, the Administration needs to make clear that if there was ever any implied or explicit understanding that NATO military assets would not be deployed on the new allies’ territory, Putin’s partition of Ukraine has nullified that.  The U.S. needs to expand its presence on the ground in Central Europe to send a clear message to Vladimir Putin that NATO’s defensive perimeter has not been compromised by his action in the East.

The starting point of any future engagement with Moscow should be the following: Russia’s partition of Ukraine has transformed the security landscape in East Europe, posing a direct challenge to the transatlantic security system. While efforts to ease tensions with Russia should continue, the West needs to understand that, unless checked, Putin will stay the course of his neo-imperial drive.  His actions in Crimea have already undermined any residual trust in the region’s relations with Russia, nullifying the prospect of a rapid settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.  Putin is in this for the long haul, and at present NATO remains the only viable vehicle for anticipating contingencies and preparing to respond should Russian aggression in the region resume.  We should avoid the temptation to engage in another round of spurious debate about whether Europe should provide its own defenses; the European Union is not set up to address hard security issues, regardless of how many claims to the contrary have been made since the Balkan wars.

The focal point of U.S. assistance in the region should be Poland, a midsize power and lynchpin of regional security.  The initial steps are straightforward: the temporary transfer of U.S. F-16s should become permanent so long as the threat persists, and it should be expanded further with additional aircraft and personnel.  The Obama administration should move ground assets to Poland—preferably a brigade–size force to strengthen near-term deterrence.  Most importantly, however, the focus should be on assisting Poland in accelerating and expanding its own military modernization programs currently underway.

The Polish government has demonstrated its commitment to addressing the country’s vulnerabilities, including an Air and Missile Defense (AMD) program, naval modernization, helicopter tenders and additional armor.  The Obama administration can help Poland by facilitating defense industrial cooperation and accelerating licensing for weapons purchases. It should ask Congress to move forward quickly to release the extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile system (JASSM) to sell to Poland.  There is a precedent for such a sale in the region, as Finland was allowed to purchase the JASSM, even though it is not a NATO country.  Finding a solution that includes long-term defense industrial cooperation with Poland’s partners ought to be measured against the requirement to field a working AMD system to shorten the deployment cycle. To put it differently: the United States should assist Poland in getting modern proven equipment into the field fast.

The United States remains the key player to forming workable strategy in North-Central Europe post-Crimea, and NATO is the ideal vehicle for getting the Europeans on the same page.  The Obama administration needs to make clear that regardless of how quickly and how far Putin pushes, whether in Ukraine or along Russia’s periphery in Europe and Central Asia, the United States will lead Europe toward developing a counter-strategy.  We must be prepared to move proactively to enhance not just defense, but also deterrence in the region.

Andrew A. Michta is the M.W. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Surely you jest? The mess in the Ukraine was engendered by a massive failure of geopolitics, and is being made worse by empty threats that Russian “will pay for this”. There’s a very simple step which does not involve any immediate, “direct U.S. assistance to ensure that the region can credibly deter
    Russia’s military pressure, and, if need be, defend itself and inflict
    serious pain on the aggressor.”, namely invite Ukraine to join NATO. This would, at a stroke, put Putin on notice that any further encroachment into Ukraine would lead to war. Ditto for Moldova and the Balkan states under threat. When will the so-called “leadership” of the West wake up to the fact that it requires stick and stones to break bones.

    • El Gringo

      NATO could extend membership to the threatened countries but that is only half the battle. Defense agreements are good but defense will not protect a country that is a political and economic basket case. Do you really think Ukraine’s NATO membership would have stopped Putin’s ambitions in the Crimea? Putin is following an ancient yet very successful imperial strategy: exploit political weakness, divide, then conquer. A strong defensive deterrent is important but even more important is much stronger political integrity. Russian imperial expansion requires political instability and you can be sure that Russian foreign policy will be aimed at destabilizing it’s neighbors.

      • Corlyss

        “NATO could extend membership to the threatened countries but that is only half the battle.”
        The only value in a mutual defense pact is the other guy showing up. We have no intention of showing up anywhere for the next 3 years. No nation in its right mind would enter such a pact with us or the feckless Eurotrash so obsessed with their navel-gazing. Right now the crowned heads of Europe are trying to find loop holes in Art. 5 so that regardless of whatever happens to the vulnerable, it won’t be a reason to deploy troops.

  • Fat_Man

    NATO’s dead. Has been for years. You can’t have a meaningful alliance with countries that won’t contribute by maintaining their own military establishments.

    Further. Obama is an insurance salesman now. He wouldn’t do anything military. Nor would the American people support beginning a shooting war in Europe.

    What the US should do is terminate Nato. Tell the Euros they are on their own. Money says they will get cracking. If not, they deserve what will happen to them.

    The Poles and the people of the Baltic countries need to absorb their predicament. They can counter Russia by following the Swiss Model. The US should be willing to aid them in creating a citizen army of the entire people.

    • El Gringo

      The Europeans as a whole seem to be remarkably unconcerned with their own defense. But let’s not throw out the baby along with the bathwater. The Poles and Baltic countries are very aware of their situation. A Swiss model works if your country is protected by mountains that are in turn surrounded by nations not intent on dismembering your country. This model would not work for the Balkans and sure as hell won’t work for Poland.

      The U.S. should drop the dead weight that is NATO and focus instead on the countries that actually seem to care about their own defense, i.e. Poland and the Baltics states.

      • Boritz

        Western Europe was content to let the U.S. shoulder their defense while they spent lavishly on their welfare state instead; same with England. And you’re right. NATO is impossible under these circumstances. An additional problem is the U.S. is in the process of following the European model of cut way back on defense and use that money for transfer payments. Only the Chinese have the money and will to build their military and on this course they will one day call the shots as the U.S. did and England before that. What will that world look like? Would prefer not to know.

        • Jim__L

          It’s not too late to redirect the US’s trajectory, but at this point any successful Renaissance of America would have to be profound. Our current elites will fight it tooth and nail, as it would mean the end of all they’ve protested and legislated for.

        • Corlyss

          Well, the uncomfortable truth is that the US wanted it that way so there would be no competitors for US as primus inter pares. So this is what we get for encouraging the Europeans to follow their instincts to find no nails for their hammer and then decide they don’t need a hammer after all.

  • Jim__L

    If Europe holds to its long tradition of being abysmally underfunded and under-prepared for Continental war, America should hold to its long tradition of showing up only after the situation has become truly dire.

    • Corlyss

      I suspect the O-man will NEVER see any situation as dire enough to send troops. Their ideology says war is such a 20th century artifact, violence never solves anything, and the UN should always lead the way in these confrontations. I.e., 3 governing concepts that will ensure that nothing is done.

      • Jim__L

        I wonder if the thought that they may be revitalizing Defense as a winning GOP issue might scare them into action? They do prefer winning to principle, after all.

        • Corlyss

          You won’t hear diddly from Congressional Republicans. Their plan is be silent viz the O-man and his policies outside the beltway because it raises their profile. They want the win in Nov. to be obviously the product of O’s misbegotten policies alone, less any national criticism from them. IMO it’s a surrender strategy that admits they are inept in the marketplace of ideas, even though we know they aren’t, because they can’t seem to figure out the key to drowning out the din from the Democratic Sound Machine.

  • BobSykes

    This is a recipe for war. The crisis exists because the US/EU engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew the legitimate, democratically elected government of the Ukraine and installed a junta consisting entirely of extremist ethnic Ukrainians along with a few left over Nazis and armed criminals. The reunification of the Crimean peninsula with Russia is simply Putin’s response to the coup and his rectification of Khruschev’s original error.

    By continually raising the threats, the US/EU risks the Japanese scenario. Roosevelt thought he could force Japan out of China with harsh economic sanctions. Instead he got Pearl Harbor and the Pacific war. A new European war would quickly go nuclear and would spread to the US.

    The US/EU need to climb down and begin de-escalating the crisis.

    • montfaucon1916

      Mr. Sykes,

      Let us not forget that when Latvia raised concerns regarding their old town of Abrene (now Pytalovo) due to a Russian post WWII redrawing of the map, Putin said something about “Dead Donkey Ears”.

    • LivingRock

      “The crisis exists because the US/EU engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew the legitimate, democratically elected government of the Ukraine and installed a junta consisting entirely of extremist ethnic Ukrainians along with a few left over Nazis and armed criminals.”

      I think Mr. Putin is now a TAI reader. And he’s disguised himself with the screen name “BobSykes”.

      • El Gringo

        It gives me many giggles to see that half the commenters on TAI don’t believe that American or European leaders are capable of tying their own shoes while the other half is convinced that those same leaders somehow managed to successfully and secretly engineer a coup that overthrew the Ukranian government.

    • Corlyss

      The Stephen Cohen gloss?

  • Bretzky1

    What is happening in Ukraine/Crimea is of no concern to the US. If Putin wants to destroy the historical affection that Ukrainians have for Russia by dismembering or swallowing their country, then so be it. Future Russians will roundly curse him for doing so. And the US will have suffered no harm even if the situation comes up roses for Russia.

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