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Talks open this week between Russia and NATO, the prospects for progress seem limited. On the core issue – Ukraine’s potential entry into the alliance – NATO has all but ruled out any change to its official position, which holds that Ukraine will one day be a member. Despite public rhetoric, NATO’s can reverse this policy – a move that would not guarantee de-escalation of the crisis but could contribute to it. More broadly, NATO should engage with Russia in an ongoing dialogue. Such a step should not be seen as a “reward” for Russian belligerence, but rather as a practical measure necessary for maintaining stability in Europe. It would also harken back to the alliance’s Cold War history, when diplomacy was as essential a tool as deterrence for NATO.
The Adaptable Alliance
NATO has always been a flexible institution. It is likely one of the reasons it has endured so long. Originally, its main intent was to give the battered nations of western Europe a financial cushion: the sole atomic power would protect them for a finite period, allowing them to avoid spending on defense, instead devoting funds to economic recovery. Two factors changed that arrangement. First, the Soviets broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly. Second, halfway around the world, North Korea showed just how poorly western militaries were prepared for conventional communist aggression.
Those who lament the lack of attention given to defensive considerations when the Baltic states were admitted to NATO can take comfort in knowing that it was in keeping with a proud tradition: the alliance was founded without mechanisms for unified planning or coordinated operations. Western Europe would be defended but no one had a clear idea how. There was no SHAPE, no SACEUR. All of these came into being after Kim Il Sung sent his armies south. And the temporary commitment by the United States to the defense of Europe gradually became a lasting one.
Over the next seventy years, NATO has performed multiple functions and tasks in European security and beyond. But one thing it has never been is a legalistic instrument.
There are few hard and fast rules as NATO ultimately is a political organization of sovereign states, not a supranational body like the European Union. Everything comes down to bargaining and compromise.
Even its most sacrosanct feature – the Article 5 guarantee – is really more of a strong suggestion than an automatic response. Members must vote on it, as they did in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Significantly, the alliance’s second act of expansion involved eliding its most solemn commitment: West Germany was admitted in 1955 even though there were still Soviet troops (and a hostile communist regime) on the eastern half of German territory.
This example is worth dwelling on. It is sometimes mistakenly asserted that Ukraine could not be admitted into NATO because it does not control all of its territory. This is incorrect. Nor is it true that upon Ukraine’s entrance, Article 5 would automatically be in play and the alliance thus immediately at war with occupying Russian forces in Crimea and the Donbass. As West Germany shows, NATO can – or cannot – do what it wants.
But while this illustrates a path for Ukraine to enter the alliance, it also shows how it can be excluded. Again, NATO can do what it wants. That includes precluding a given state’s membership, if there is the political will to do so. This has never been done before but that, in itself, should not eliminate the option now.
Such a move by NATO – as a collective organization – could carry more legitimacy than Washington and Moscow simply cutting a deal over Kyiv’s head. A collective statement by the alliance could also provide political cover for President Joe Biden who likely would face significant backlash from across the American political spectrum if he issued such a declaration unilaterally.
While there is a natural instinct to recoil at this step, the decision boils down to two unavoidable truths. First, NATO is unwilling and unable to defend Ukraine under the current circumstances. Second, NATO membership is the main stated motivation (though admittedly not the only one) for a prospective Russian invasion. The alliance is faced with a choice: does it insist on something it is not prepared to give and let a third party pay a dear price for its principles? Or does it admit what everyone knows in a move that would alleviate – though not completely remove – the threat of Russian aggression?
Ceasing to be an empire
One does not need to be an advocate for spheres of influence, to acknowledge the reality on the ground in eastern Europe today. Russia simply has greater strategic interests in Ukraine and also more immediate military means to bring to bear on Ukrainian territory.
For NATO, the stakes are far less intense. This is partly a product of the alliance’s own Cold War success. Soviet forces, as recently as thirty years ago, lined up on the territory of what is now a unified German state. In the intervening three decades, Moscow lost its entire alliance network, parts of its country, and a thousand miles of strategic depth.
The concern is now what Russia might do east of the Dnieper, not west of the Elbe. This is a tremendous strategic windfall. Yet Ukraine is treated as if it is the make-or-break point in a civilizational struggle. It is not.
None of this is to disregard the Ukrainian people or nation. They have a right to determine their own future and to make independent foreign and defense policy decisions. However, as any country, they must make those choices within the context of their geography, with a clear reading of their strategic setting. And not all states have the same range of options. This is not fair, but it is true.
NATO is sometimes miscast as an aspirational organization, a reward for a certain level of democratic development. But at its core, it must be a military alliance, one that serves the defensive interests of its members, not the states outside its domain. No one deserves to join NATO. They enter if it enhances collective security as determined by its members, not least its primary security guarantor, the United States.
There is only one way Ukraine joining NATO could enhance U.S. security: by permanently hobbling Moscow’s power. Zbigniew Brzezinski identified this prospect shortly after the Cold War’s end, when he infamously observed that Russia without Ukraine ceases to be an empire. The problem is that in highlighting Ukraine’s strategic importance Brzezinski also identified the stakes. Ukraine was the one thing Russia was never going to let go.
This reality was ignored in favor of misplaced hope Ukraine would grow sufficiently independent and strong in its own right. To its credit, the Ukraine that today faces Russian invasion is far more capable militarily and far more cohesive as a society than the Ukraine of fifteen or certainly twenty-five years ago. But it is still a fundamentally weak state, per capita one of the poorest in Europe. In that regard, it has disappointed. This failing reversed the desired dynamic: instead of Ukraine achieving true independence from Russia and then joining NATO, the formulation became NATO membership as the conduit for Kyiv’s final break with Moscow. This set up the inevitable clash currently playing out.
Getting realistic about neutrality
In the wake of Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, Brzezinski’s response was to call for the deployment of troops – but to the Baltic states, not Ukraine. For Ukraine, he instead proposed Finlandization – as did Henry Kissinger. Neither was parroting Kremlin talking points. They were recognizing the limitations of the situation and proffering the best outcome they could envision for Kyiv.
That said, Finland during the Cold War is often viewed through rose-colored glasses. “Neutrality” was a fig leaf for vassalage to Moscow. Some Ukrainians understandably recoil at the model. “Finlandization” was not that different than what ousted President Viktor Yanukovych pursued in 2013 when he declared a policy of non-alignment and abrogated Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. Those actions – seemingly a formal shift into Moscow’s orbit – triggered the Maidan protests and the ensuing turmoil in which Russia annexed Crimea. This highlights an essential point: the Ukrainians themselves have agency and their internal dynamics also matter for stability.
The Austrian model is perhaps more suitable for Ukraine, even as it is imprecise. On the one hand, it is wrong to compare Ukraine’s situation to that of a defeated, occupied Axis power. On the other, Vienna enjoyed greater independence than did Helsinki during the Cold War. An even more salient point is that neutrality is something the Austrians decided upon themselves – to the chagrin of the Eisenhower administration – rather than having it imposed on them, as in the Finnish case. They pursued a multilateral mechanism for ensuring it – a treaty not with a single power, but with multiple states recognizing their neutrality. This could still be a useful template for Ukraine.
Admittedly, conjuring a form of non-alignment that simultaneously satiates Russian security concerns and the desire of many Ukrainians for closer ties to Europe is a tall order. Yet given the alternative, it is an option in need of exploration.
The starting point is to formally end any Ukrainian hopes of salvation through NATO. Doing so also could stay Russia’s hand – at least temporarily. It is clearly wrong to assume that the current crisis is a one-issue matter. NATO expansion is the public face of Russia’s grievances, but there are deeper, perhaps intractable issues. Brzezinski’s formulation remains relevant. Moscow may never be willing to accept a truly independent Ukraine because of what it would mean for Russia’s own status and power.
At the same time, there are still reasons to believe that Russia might seek to avoid invasion. Foremost is the commitment of manpower and expense it would entail. When Moscow intervened in Czechoslovakia in 1968, it used roughly 200,000 troops, but it had approximately 6 million troops at its disposal across the Warsaw Pact. Today, Putin has an active military of about 900,000, perhaps a quarter of which are one-year conscripts. Leaked estimates suggest the invasion of Ukraine would require 175,000 troops.
This would be a massive commitment of Russia’s military power for an unknown period of time. Occupation of a territory the size of eastern Ukraine is unlikely to be smooth or easy. If Putin can achieve his goals without that expenditure – and without the general risks and uncertainty large-scale warfare always entails – he still might demur. This could be the case not least because post-invasion, Russia will face an energized NATO, possibly one that has further expanded to include Finland and Sweden. And Putin also can not completely rule out the possibility a difficult occupation could increase domestic dissent in Russia.
Deterrence and détente redux
NATO was not necessarily meant to last forever. Article 13 of the Washington Treaty contains a clause which allowed members to exit the alliance after twenty years. As it approached this anniversary, NATO conducted a strategic review of its future prospects. Led by the Belgian foreign minister, Pierre Harmel, the review’s findings called for a twin track approach – deterrence and détente. Enshrining the latter option in formal alliance policy was an important shift after two decades of steady animosity between East and West.
The path laid out by the Harmel Report led to the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) talks in the 1970s and later the negotiations that produced the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the agreement on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. These talks were never easy nor always productive. The MBFR negotiations in particular are noteworthy for their contribution to that act of dialogue than any concrete product. Yet collectively they helped reduce tensions at various points during the second half of the Cold War and arguably contributed to its relatively peaceful end.
It is worth remembering that nine months after Harmel presented his report, the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. To its credit, NATO did not abandon its “twin pillars.” It rightly enhanced its defenses – as the alliance should now – but it did not abjure dialogue, eventually proceeding not only to the MBFR talks but also the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. NATO thus should not preclude talking to Russia even if it means taking the dubious treaty terms proffered by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a starting point. All negotiations must begin somewhere. Over time, talks could be expanded to address additional concerns, including troop exercises and operational deconfliction.
Ultimately, nuclear matters might once again be on the agenda.
Writing six months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Harlan Cleveland, Lyndon Johnson’s NATO ambassador, argued for keeping channels with Moscow open simply because, “the case for trying to do something about the nuclear missile race, and do it soon, is simply overwhelming; subjects that even possibly bear on survival cannot long be postponed for the sake of appearances.”
Evoking the Cold War arms race might seem overwrought today, but 2021 has shown nuclear matters are again preeminent in international relations. China’s intention to significantly expand its strategic arsenal is part of this, but so is the potential nuclear implications of a NATO-Russia clash over Ukraine. It has been almost forty years since the last serious nuclear crisis between East and West and this has sometimes shown in the quality of punditry over Ukraine. Neither the United States nor NATO can act toward Ukraine without consideration of nuclear risks, no matter how tempting it is to suggest the alliance do more than sanctions.
The nuclear factor provides one more compelling argument for engaging Russia in renewed and sustained dialogue. As NATO’s own history shows, such talks have been part and parcel of the alliance’s mission for at least fifty years. None of this would stop NATO from taking whatever military preparations it felt necessary to protect its actual members from Russian aggression. Diplomacy is not the alternative to deterrence, but rather its essential complement.
Mike Sweeney is a PhD student at the Schar School of Policy and Government and a Fellow at Defense Priorities.