How Putin Awoke NATO’s Sleeping Giant
Policy + Politics

How Putin Awoke NATO’s Sleeping Giant

United Artists/The Fiscal Times

The crisis in Ukraine has escalated further, with Russian troops taking control of two Ukrainian naval bases in Crimea on Wednesday.  That action followed Russia’s formal annexation of Ukraine and a confrontation in which one Ukrainian soldier was killed and other injured.

On Thursday President Obama imposed sanctions on some long-time political and business allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. .  

The seizure of the military bases is the latest in a long string of indicators that Russia is not planning to back down on Crimea, even as it becomes isolated from the international community. Even China, which has stood behind a series of controversial Russian positions, has condemned the annexation.

Related: Russian Ties to Ukraine Go Much Deeper Than Gas

“China always respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. The Crimean crisis should be resolved politically under the frameworks of law and order. We call on all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalation of the tension,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said Monday.

Talk of a wider war, once seemingly remote, is now real. There are also growing fears that Russia could take similar actions in former Soviet bloc states like Estonia and Latvia.

“As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation,” Vice President Joe Biden said in Ukraine on Wednesday, referring to economic sanctions against Ukrainian and Russian officials. Biden was there to show support not just to Ukraine but to other countries threatened by Russia.

This pledge of support is forcing NATO, which just weeks ago appeared to be a relic of the Cold War, back to the forefront of international affairs. In the years after the Berlin Wall fell the importance of the alliance, specifically created to keep Soviet ambitions in Europe, waned. This was accelerated recently by the European financial crisis, which drastically cut the defense budgets of many European NATO members. Now, Russia’s actions are forcing the alliance to reevaluate its mission.

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Yet “how to check Russian aggression is unclear,” said Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United States, who is now a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“I don’t think there will be a military response unless Russia goes to mainland Ukraine. Other than that I don’t see NATO taking a military response,” he said.

Yakobashvili said that the damage caused by Russia was already clear.

“We can already talk about the direct damage and collateral damage,” he said, referring to the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the impotence of international institutions to stop Russia.

Related: Does Putin Want to Carve Up Ukraine and Take the Spoils?

“I can recall only one case of what Russia is trying to do, and that’s Saddam Hussein in Kuwait,” Yakobashvili added, referring to the Iraqi invasion that started the First Gulf War.

It’s unclear how Russia’s actions would impact strategy at the Pentagon where many of the weapons systems that would be used in a ground war in Europe, including the Ground Combat Vehicle and the Comanche helicopter, are badly in need of modernization. However, because of the tight budget environment, their technology remains out of date.

Related: Does Putin Want to Carve Up Ukraine and Take the Spoils?

“What we see today is an Army modernization strategy that consists mainly of just warming over weapons from the Reagan era," Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute, told Military.Com. “It seems that was the last time the Army was really in control of its fate. ... Some problem has afflicted the Army acquisition community since the Cold War ended and made it impossible to stick with a plan.”

For now, a ground war in Europe is highly unlikely, and even with a diminished force, NATO would likely win. However, it’s the job of military planners to plan for all contingencies, and Russia just created a series of new problems.

Joerg Wolf, editor of the Berlin-based open think tank, says the small possibility of a war should not stop NATO from sending a strong message to Russia.

“NATO should beef up security for all allies that request it. No NATO member should reject this with the argument that it might provoke Russia. We are past that point,” he said. “It's important to be prepared and also to be perceived by Russia as standing strong and united. We need to achieve this with quiet actions rather than loud words, which do not achieve anything, but do some harm.”

He warned, however, that any action might not be enough to deter Putin.

“The phased approach to sanctions shall be continued, although only very comprehensive sanctions will have an effect and only in the long term,” he said. “The Kremlin does not view this conflict in a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis, but is quite dogmatic, as the prospect of "losing" Ukraine from its sphere of influence has been seen as a red line.”

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