The Ukraine Crisis – A Failure of Deterrence or Just the Kick the West Needed?

In this opinion piece, Sean Corbett, founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes National Security Advisory Board, discusses the challenges facing NATO in light of the Ukraine crisis

As increasingly belligerent rhetoric by NATO and EU leaders declares that their nations have never been more united over the Ukraine crisis, and that Russia will pay dearly for its actions in the form of unprecedented economic sanctions, Putin’s forces continue unabated to deploy into separatist controlled areas of Ukraine.  Just under the surface, western allies are struggling to maintain the visage of unity.  The UK Prime Minister, under pressure in the House of Commons for the limited nature of the economic response, let slip that he was prioritising ‘unity with our allies’ over sanctions.  The declaration by the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 project would not now go ahead, while clearly very welcome, came as somewhat of a surprise, further underscoring differences in national responses to Russian aggression.  While a generous interpretation could argue that limited sanctions allow an escalation in response to future Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, a legitimate strategy, it could also be perceived as a continued weakness by NATO and her allies and reinforce Putin’s perception of an ineffectual and divided alliance.   But this view, perceived or otherwise, was almost certainly cemented 14 years ago, with the lukewarm western response, first to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and then, the more blatant annexation of the Crimea and parts of the Donbas region in 2014.  In each case, diplomatic activity and limited sanctions were the sum-total of the immediate response.  Understandable for Georgia perhaps, as a non-strategic priority for NATO, but with Ukraine being accepted into NATO’s Membership Action Plan at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, Putin is likely to have interpreted the lack of a decisive response to his Ukrainian adventure as a template for future land grabs.  That President Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken were heavily involved in what was widely considered to be an ineffective US response to the 2014 Crimean invasion may also have been a factor in the formulation of Putin’s future strategy.

Fast forward to today and the distraction of western leaders by domestic politics, the chaotic and uncoordinated NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, fractures within the EU fuelled by BREXIT and the national-centric responses to the Covid pandemic, may all have further convinced Putin that now is the perfect time to execute his long-term strategic intent.  He clearly sees Ukrainian independence and more recently its aspirations of NATO membership as the most visible and painful manifestation of the break-up of the Soviet Union, although how far his aspirations go, for now remains opaque.  NATO member military support to Ukraine in the form of training, equipment and indoctrination has been piecemeal over the past decade and calibrated, presumably so as not to provoke Russia, but it appears to have had the opposite effect.  There is every possibility that had NATO embraced Ukraine in a much more significant way in 2008, including the permanent positioning of sizeable advisory and training forces over and above the cumulative but still limited dialogue and cooperation activities, Putin may not have been emboldened to act now.                       

But hindsight is easy, and the real question is what happens next.  It could be that Putin has already made his mind up, and nothing the west can do now will cause him to reconsider his intended course of action, but in any case, options to influence an already emboldened Putin are extremely limited.  The primary leverage NATO and allied partner members now have at their disposal appears to be more sanctions, but these will need to be much deeper, far-ranging and coordinated for Putin to really take notice, and it is difficult to believe that he and his network of Oligarchs haven’t learned lessons of the past and strengthened their financial resilience to mitigate such a response.

If Russian forces do advance all the way to Kiev, or to capture the full extent of the Donbas, despite an unprecedented sanctions regime, then the reputation and credibility of NATO, the EU and their allies will be significantly damaged, possibly irrevocably.  For NATO, every decade or so, in the face of a difficult security challenge, commentators declare the Alliance is in some form of existential crisis (the Gulf War in 1990, Kosovo in 1998 and Libya 2011), but invariably it prevails, often followed by extensive lessons identified exercises, occasionally a restructuring, and a reaffirmation of its mandate.  But this time feels a little different.  If Putin is undeterred and Ukraine is a precursor to a more strategic attempt to re-imagine the Soviet Union, then NATO members and allies will have to significantly step up their game, not just diplomatically and economically, but in the commitment of hard power, and in a much greater demonstration of unity will be needed.  Early signs are that this has been well recognised, with the forward deployment of admittedly largely nominal forces to vulnerable NATO member nations, notably by the US and UK, but talk of unity will have to be backed up by much more significant and coordinated activity.

If there is therefore any positive to be taken from this crisis, it could be to shock the west into a refocus away from domestic short-term considerations in favour of a renewed strategic convergence on the ever more complex challenges of the global security landscape.  Without that, NATO and her allies may not be subject to an existential threat, but worse, may into sleepwalk into irrelevance.  In the meantime, China, with more than one eye on Taiwan, will be looking on intently………     

Sean Corbett is the founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes National Security Advisory Board. He retired from the Royal Air Force in September 2018 as a two-star general after a 30-year career as a professional intelligence officer. He was the first Non-US Deputy Director of a major US Intelligence Agency

In this opinion piece, Sean Corbett, founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes Nat...

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