Vladimir Putin’s efforts to establish hegemony over Ukraine may now have reached a decisive point both for the balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe and for the NATO alliance. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko warned on August 30 that Russia’s invasion of his country and extensive aid to pro-Moscow separatists could soon “reach the point of no return,” becoming a generalized conflict. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that “the situation is increasingly getting out of control.”
Nonetheless, from the outset, the West and its nominal leader, Barack Obama, have failed to prevent Kiev from being re-subordinated to Moscow. Ukraine is in jeopardy, as is the very viability of NATO, an outcome even Putin most likely did not initially foresee. Under Obama, however, especially because of his flaccid response to Russia’s slow-motion invasion of Ukraine, NATO has begun to disappear like a sugar cube dissolving in hot tea.
The European Union met over Labor Day weekend to consider new economic sanctions against Russia, measures which to date the Kremlin has brushed aside. The unspoken truth is that Western leaders all know that sanctions, whatever their arguable economic effect, have not achieved their intended result. Alexander Stubb, Finland’s prime minister, for example, would say only that the “jury is still out” on sanctions, and reflected Europe’s general malaise by adding that “we need to find a cease-fire, a peace plan.”
No wonder Putin is undeterred. However much fear and loathing Western consumer societies suffer when they contemplate a somewhat-diminished living standard, the hard men leading hard regimes in Moscow, Tehran, and elsewhere in the real world could not care less. Despite NATO members’ bluster in March (as Russia annexed Crimea) that impending travel sanctions would mercilessly pressure Russia’s oligarchs by barring their wives from shopping abroad, Putin marches on.
The continuing resort to marginal increases in sanctions will inevitably produce the same results, especially “targeted” sanctions (naming specific individuals or companies), the most easily evaded. When sanctions were first imposed, Russian stock markets and currency-exchange values dropped sharply. These declines, however, did not signal sanctions’ effectiveness, but rather the broad (and correct) international perception that the political risks of the crisis had risen. When the risks seemed to abate, Russia’s exchanges and currency rose, although not yet back to late-2013 levels.
In the latest round of fighting, Russia’s currency has dropped only from 33 rubles per dollar pre-Crimea to slightly over 37 rubles per dollar today. This is hardly catastrophic, particularly since oil and gas sales, Russia’s chief foreign-exchange earner, are transacted in dollars, unaffected by the ruble-dollar exchange rate. Moreover, at August’s end, Russia’s MICEX composite index registered just over 1,400. This was slightly above the midpoint of its 52-week range, between October 2013’s high of approximately 1,540 and the March 2014 low of approximately 1,250 at the height of the Crimea crisis. Putin believes these and similar costs to Russia are acceptable, and will tend to diminish over time.
More important, whatever the damage to Russia’s ruble, the financial press describes the hyrvnia, Ukraine’s currency, as being “in free fall.” In late August, the hyrvnia reached its all-time low against the dollar. One might well ask how many more “successful” anti-Moscow sanctions Kiev can withstand. It is hardly surprising that Western sanctions adversely affect Ukraine’s economy, which remains closely linked to Russia despite the USSR’s collapse, especially given Moscow’s control of critical oil and gas supplies for Ukraine’s industries.
In short, sanctions have been haphazard and ineffective, failing to materially damage Russia’s economy. Moscow has had ample time to mitigate or evade their effects, such as inefficiencies and higher transaction costs. And in any case, as noted above, the Kremlin’s sensitivities do not quite match those of the Georgetown haute bourgeoisie or the refined salons of Europe’s great capitals.
Accordingly, the West urgently needs a major rethinking of its strategy. On August 30, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk opened the door, telling his cabinet that Kiev should apply for NATO membership, reviving an idea widely discussed a decade ago. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said her party will press for legislation authorizing a nationwide referendum, perhaps in October, on joining NATO.
While Obama is most unlikely to champion a Ukrainian path to NATO membership, this course remains a necessary precondition for any acceptable, long-term solution for Kiev and the West’s most important alliance. We cannot forget, if Obama ever understood, that NATO is America’s project. We created it, we sustain it, we lead it, and if we let it slip between our fingers, we have only ourselves to blame. Europe’s record in meeting its NATO obligations over the decades has been subpar, but the alliance is to protect our interests at least as much as theirs.
Opponents of Ukrainian NATO membership typically raise two objections. First, they say, NATO’s European members will never agree, having already rejected it in April 2008; given the EU’s recent pusillanimous response to Moscow’s aggression, agreement is even less likely today. Certainly, both Europe’s 2008 veto and its current behavior are discouraging and embarrassing. But not fatal. Had Bush moved earlier and more vigorously on Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, rather than in his last year in office with lame-duck status already apparent and evidence of a possible financial crisis growing, the result might well have been different. During the Clinton administration would have been an even better time to act.
Europe’s behavior today reflects the vacuum created by missing U.S. leadership. NATO doesn’t work through spontaneous unanimity, but only after considerable heavy lifting by Washington. That has not happened under Obama. NATO’s Eastern and Central European members see all too clearly the direction Moscow will follow if Western resolve regarding Ukraine collapses. Accordingly, “New Europe” must be energized, along with others we can muster to overcome the real problem: German and French hesitancy. This will not be easy, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent actions are largely because she discerns no hope of Obama responding resolutely. If Obama behaved differently, Merkel would behave differently. That is at least the premise we must test before today’s policy of appeasement does irreparable injury to NATO.
Second, opponents contend that Ukrainian membership is too risky, provoking Russia, turning its on-going military incursions into “acts of war” against all of NATO. This is certainly an interesting perspective. What exactly did Ukraine do to “provoke” Russia in today’s context? Are events in eastern Ukraine not already “acts of war”? Putin never needed a provocation. In his view, Ukraine’s mere independence is a provocation; why should he hesitate further when NATO’s response to date has been so weak?
NATO must act tactically now by providing Ukraine more advanced weapons and redeploying NATO forces into members proximate to Russia. These and similar steps threaten to raise Putin’s costs in invading Ukraine or menacing other neighbors. Although Obama has emphasized that Ukraine could not defeat Russia one-on-one, that is beside the point. Putin faces one very real constraint (not the chimera of economic sanctions): So far, he has avoided substantial Russian casualties in the Ukraine fighting. High casualties could destroy his domestic support, as happened during Moscow’s debacle in Afghanistan. Mantra-like repetition by Western leaders that “there is no military solution” only reassures Putin that he can minimize his human costs in Ukraine.
Longer term, at the strategic level, we must begin resurrecting the structures of NATO deterrence that have fallen into disarray. This is ultimately what dissuades Moscow from acting: the palpable fear that replicating its Ukraine gambit will risk unacceptably high casualty levels. NATO’s military strength deterred Russia from conventional military attacks against NATO members for 60 years, and it can still do so. But countries outside NATO, like Georgia and Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, thereby become more attractive targets. Europeans grasped long ago that without major, visible U.S. participation, no structures they can erect will deter Moscow. That is why U.S. leadership is critical to creating deterrence that prevents “acts of war” by Russia to begin with.
If NATO’s political (not to mention military) deterrence capabilities are not rebuilt, the Europe-wide consequences will be grave. NATO members like Poland and the Baltics, which actually border Russia, may be Putin’s next targets within the two years remaining in Obama’s term. And NATO’s credibility, central to its ability to deter conflict, will suffer such damage that the alliance may be permanently eviscerated. None of this is inevitable, but the time available to prevent it is not infinite.
Undeniably, since we are now acting in the midst of deterrence failure, we face a complex problem of dealing with the ongoing Russian aggression while simultaneously reestablishing an enduring NATO position of strength. That too requires American leadership, and a real commitment by the White House and the national-security bureaucracy. It is hard, time-consuming work, often dirty, unpleasant, and seemingly endless. A real president would not hesitate to get his hands dirty, starting yesterday.
John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06.