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Pushing Back Against Putin

No U.S. leadership, no NATO.

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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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.

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