Aggressive Kremlin returning raison d’être to NATO

With the Afghanistan operation drawing to an end and NATO continuing to look for a new purpose, along came Russia’s moves against Ukraine to bring a fresh lease of life to the security bloc. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president elected after the Euromaidan revolution, made a huge defense policy U-turn. Realizing that his country would not be able to beat marauding Russia-backed forces and units of the regular Russian army, he attempted to grab NATO’s attention. Ukraine had previously flirted with NATO membership until 2011, but there was never popular support for joining the alliance in Ukraine. Until now. With increasing evidence of Russian troops in the Donbas, Ukrainians are warming to the idea. A poll in June by reputable pollsters Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Centre showed 41 percent support membership and 40 percent oppose. That is the best ‘yes’ figure to date.

A membership referendum, however, is not on the horizon. Still, Russian aggression prompted Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk to declare in the first week of September that the country needed a new defense doctrine defining Russia as ‘an aggressor state’. The government then approved a draft law abolishing non-bloc status and taking a course on joining NATO. On the other hand, Russia is also revising its military doctrine, and will likely target the U.S. and NATO as Russia’s ‘primary enemies’. Now it was NATO’s turn to dramatically shift its policy.

NATO changes bearings at Newport

In Wales, NATO decided to ensure the permanent presence of forces in the Baltic States and Poland by creating a special rapid reaction unit of about 4,000 personnel ready to arrive in the aforementioned countries within two days. It was a clear signal to reassure NATO members closest to Russia. The defense plans of the Baltic States are finally being harmonized with the prospect of a realistic invasion by Russia.

It also promised EUR 15 million worth of assistance to Ukraine, but without lethal aid, which is what President Poroshenko really sought. NATO has pledged to help reform the Ukrainian army and security sector. NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen believes Ukraine has a chance of membership, but the alliance will not force the issue. Army expert Serhiy Zhurets told BBC Ukraine that it was more realistic to expect weapons from NATO for strategic rearming rather than for assisting forces fighting in Donbas. A policy shift was already taking place. Just days before the Wales summit, President Obama confirmed in Estonia that his country and NATO would defend the Baltic States just as seriously as Paris, Berlin or London.

A deep chill has descended over NATO’s relationship with Moscow. NATO has already halted practical security cooperation with Russia. Rasmussen has repeatedly told Russia to stop attacking Ukraine and remove its troops. The alliance’s Deputy Secretary-General Aleksandr Vershbow had earlier stated that “Russia is not a ‘troubled’ neighbor, but a state actively undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” On September 20, NATO’s Supreme Commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove, reiterated that Russian forces were “still inside Ukraine”. Russia still flatly denies this. It also refuses to entertain any idea that Ukraine could regain its nuclear status.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko tried his best in the U.S. on September 18. The goal was military and financial aid. The president asked for weaponry but got none, asked for billions of dollars, but got millions. His request for special status with NATO was turned down too.

NATO’s future role defined

Rasmussen certainly does not believe NATO is a Cold War relic. “NATO cannot be a global policeman, but we need a global vision. NATO should be the hub of a global network of partnerships for security.” Some see it having a global role, such as in Afghanistan. Others envision a return of European security, its original goal. The more so as the Kremlin, the old threat, is back with a vengeance.

The Wales summit showed the organization is internally more unified than ever. The Ukrainian crisis offers NATO a clearer mission than in the past. Russia’s indifference to common rules and its attempt to change borders through force is a clear sign: NATO countries must be prepared to respond quickly to new threats. Its basic mission, the military defence of allies, seems more topical than ever.

NATO is a party to the crisis. Russian rhetoric and actions do not allow the bloc the option to be merely an outsider. By underlining defense, NATO strengthens the alliance’s unity. The bloc needs to develop cooperation with Ukraine and find a balance between condemning Russia’s actions and understanding its interests. That won’t be easy. On September 4 the Ukraine-NATO Commission issued a joint statement ending with the words: “We confirm our strong aspiration to develop the Special Partnership between Ukraine and NATO in the future, which will help to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe.”

Russia’s bitter attitude towards NATO is supposedly a “defensive” response to the bloc’s new members of 1999 and 2004. From another perspective, those states wanted to protect themselves from the threat posed by Moscow. Events have shown they were absolutely right in their choice. Membership averted the worst. Russia may be unhappy, but it has never dared to behave with the Baltic States or Poland in the same dismissive manner as it has with Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine. Europe needs a strong NATO now more than ever.

Peter Dutczyn, Ukraine Crisis Media Center