Judy Asks: Can NATO Help End the Ukraine Crisis?

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Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform

NATO can do little to end the Ukraine crisis; but by doing nothing, it could make the consequences much worse.

The leaders of NATO countries, including U.S. President Barack Obama, made a big mistake by ruling out any alliance-led military effort in defense of Ukraine. At the start of the crisis, the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, authorized President Vladimir Putin to deploy forces on Ukrainian territory. At that stage, a clear statement that NATO would not stand by while the territorial integrity of one of its neighbors was violated could have had an important deterrent effect, creating uncertainty in the Kremlin about the implications of invasion. Instead, Russia knew that it could occupy Crimea without the risk of a military confrontation with NATO.

With “Putin’s Martians,” who are clearly covert Russian forces, active in Eastern Ukraine, it is now too late for deterrence. The question is whether the Ukrainians will defend their territory; and if they do, whether NATO will help them or merely watch them go down to inevitable defeat at the hands of Russia. Europe’s security landscape will be immeasurably more dangerous if NATO does nothing to prevent the dismemberment of a country of 45 million people that shares borders with four NATO allies.


Constanze StelzenmüllerSenior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The crisis in Ukraine is a watershed moment for Europe, with a newly resurgent Russia testing Western resolve. It is key for the EU and the United States to maintain unity, patience, and nerves. The thorniest question is how to counter Russia without contributing to an escalation of the conflict (or giving Russia an excuse to provoke such an escalation), and what role NATO should have in that task.

The alliance must do four things. Some are already happening; others are future options. The first is deterrence. That is difficult given the state of European militaries and recent withdrawals of U.S. forces from Europe. This makes political clarity and tough sanctions all the more important.

The second is reassurance. NATO’s easternmost member states, the Baltics and Poland in particular, need guarantees that the alliance will do what it takes to preserve their security. Visits by top Western policymakers, ramping up air defenses, and undertaking military exercises are all important. Stationing ground troops in these countries is currently ruled out by a Western agreement with Russia—but this arrangement could be forfeited if Russian aggression in Ukraine continues.

The third is support for those states that seek closer association with the West: Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Offering training and assisting with military exercises are useful and should be done; providing weapons is not—for now.

NATO’s fourth option is to extend an offer of membership. That is not feasible for Ukraine at the moment. But if Russia intervenes in Ukraine beyond Crimea or in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, the alliance might offer a membership perspective to Georgia and Moldova.



Comments (6)

  • What do you need do to get a "transatlanic fellowship"?
    "But if Russia intervenes in Ukraine beyond Crimea or in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, the alliance might offer a membership perspective to Georgia and Moldova." - WOW.. that's really bright.. Why then shouldn't Russia return their bases to Cuba and other strategic locations, in case NATO members   want to invade (or how they call it - protect) a country that's pro-Russian??
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  • Bartek
    It is really a high time for dislocation of NATO (American) soldiers and establish new military bases in Eastern Europe. I guess we all remember Kremlin's furious reaction on American plans of setting up elements of anti-missile system in Czech Republic and Poland. Coming back to this plans would be probably the best answer to Russia's aggressive foreign policy. The other question is: how NATO would react if such insurgence as we observe now in Ukraine happened in Estonia or Latvia? Formally it's not an external aggression but unrest of Estonian/Latvian citizens of Russian origins. Could the art. 5 be used in this case?
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  • R.A.Rios
    There are certain mechanisms under international law that would allow other countries to assist the Ukraine. But NATO itself would require unanimous agreement in order to help under such mechanisms and would be of minimal help in the time it takes to get the "ball rolling". Any action by the UN would of course be Vetoed almost immediately by the SC, so where does that really put the West in regards to this situation? Perhaps outside the Scope of NATO and maybe through the European Union members itself, there might be a little bit more flexibility in terms of action in the form of a European Coalition or Humanitarian Peacekeeping mission. This would also have the effect of starting to create a common policy and approach to foreign policy within the EU.

    As for Mr. Stelzenmüller, The first point is interesting and some what ironic. As we all know nuclear deterrence has always been seen as the solution to all out conventional war with Russia. But when it comes to regional conflicts it of course has different dynamics. What is a cash strapped Europe suppose to do? Build up conventional military forces when a lot of European countries economies are struggling and while many economies are still recovering at a glacial pace? And when most European countries are cutting back military spending as a result? True, that leaves sanctions as deterrence. Much like those sanctions imposed on Iran. But who do these sanctions tend to affect the most? The Russian oligarchs? If anything it creates the opportunity for Putin to further boast the Rhetoric he is using now to gather more people into the West is out to get us mentality and consolidate his power base.

    The second point is reassurance, well that's the point of NATO as a collective security alliance...if NATO can't continue to do what it is meant to do than Europe as a whole is in trouble and NATO has no point. We have seen how Russia as of Crimea goes about playing the geopolitical game and let me say, it looks like all bets are off and the gloves have come off.

    I agree with his third point, but it might be to little late to start training and cooperation for what would be at best a fight to stall time, if it comes down to that, which i firmly believe it won't. We shouldn't be giving out weapons as of right now to people we don't know whose side they will be in tomorrow. Fourth point i flat out disagree, NATO cannot afford to over extend itself, doing so puts the whole alliance at risk.

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  • Smudge the cat
    Nothing will deter Putin, unless you threaten him with military might. This guy is a tough nut to crack, and he has no time or interest listening too other countries repeatedly telling him to pull back. Putin, wants Ukraine as his playground, so he can destabilise and coerce former communist states, in order to cause a unsettling ripple affect throughout Europe and Nato States. Watch him, rub this in, at the coming, " May Day Parade," in Red Square, it will be the biggest show on Earth, and maybe the last!
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    If NATO won't intervene in Ukraine because it's not a member, what's it doing in Afghanistan?
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    • Smudge the cat replies...
      NATO has to tread very carefully on this on; its nothing like Afghanistan. Putin, has the military might and ability to do a lot of damage and NATO has got more to lose if he decides to go for it. Ukraine is weak and fractured and is going through the greatest crisis since World War II, and Putin knows he's got the upper hand by a big margin and can play with Ukraine, 'like a cat with a mouse,' till it caves in completely. Putin, will turn the world upside down if he's not careful, he's too much of a maverick and loose cannon and he's the wrong man at the wrong time, and NATO, needs to look at it more of a, 'Putin versus The West'; rather than Russia, as, no doubt he's out to get us as well?   

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