Putin's foray into Ukraine has highlighted NATO's inability to deter and dissuade provocative activity on its borders and has raised fundamental questions about the Alliance's current and future role.
For 20 years, NATO and the European Union have sought to take advantage of post-Soviet Russian weakness to expand the virtuous alliance of mostly like-minded democracies into the Cold War battlegrounds of Eastern Europe. For the first decade-plus of this period, Russia, which views this expansion in a zero-sum manner, had few options but to accede – sometimes meekly, sometimes petulantly – to this expansion.
In recent years, however, Russia has recovered some of its lost influence and power and has regained confidence in and commitment to the foundational Russian belief that the country is a superpower and the rest of the world should expect it to pursue and exert power and influence like one. Current events in Ukraine have exposed Western overstretch in seeking to bring states into an expanded economic and security orbit while not being fully prepared or equipped to defend the states most vulnerable to Russian coercion and influence.
Putin recognised this gap between honest intent and actual capacity as well as the lack of NATO levers to dissuade pre-emptive action in Crimea. As a result, NATO's status as a deterrent force against destabilising activity in non-NATO European states has been diminished, as has its ability as political-military alliance to appreciably affect the situation on the ground in Crimea.
The alliance is left to reassure Ukraine – via NATO member states and the EU – and reinforce allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These are critical and correct actions as there is still much at stake for Ukraine and NATO's eastern allies. However, these actions are entirely reactive, and reflect only a capability to stop a crisis from spreading to NATO borders rather than an ability to deter or dissuade a crisis in a partner state from happening in the first place.
The crisis in Ukraine, then, is also a significant event for NATO because it reinforces the idea that 2014 and 2015 will be vital years as it grapples with the significant challenge of re-formulating its core mission for at least the third time in 20 years. This moment comes as the result of several intersecting drivers and events unfolding more or less simultaneously:
- The end of the 12-year NATO-led mission in Afghanistan -an extended deployment that has drained the alliance of political will to use force in contested non-Article 5 missions
- The capability gaps arising from a half-decade of constrained and in many cases reduced budgets stemming from the 2008 financial crisis
- A shift both in the geopolitical center of gravity of the international system and US foreign, security and defense policy focus to Asia
- NATO engagement in Libya
- An assertive Russia seeking to play a more prominent role both in the old Soviet space as well as in regions of growing strategic value and competition, particularly the Middle East, the Arctic and Central Asia
Fortunately, an opportunity exists for NATO to address this issue. Officials have told IHS that the alliance views the September 2014 Cardiff summit as a forum to discuss the future military capabilities that should be prioritised for development and cultivation. In light of recent events, the alliance might be better served by using this forum and associated intra-ally dialogues to evaluate and get ahead of the broader issue of Russia's Western strategy.
Most fundamentally, it needs to begin to address the central questions of what NATO will become, how it can most effectively manage and influence European and international security, what capabilities it can bring to bear, and what the 28 member states in North America, the North Atlantic, and across Europe are allied for or against.