Occupation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine was supposed to be a turning point in NATO’s relations with Russia. The Wales summit, in this regards, was expected to reform policies towards the country. However, the expectations did not come true due to the fact that the member states focused more on building an international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in an effort to deal with the rise of terrorism in the Middle East. In contrast, the alliance agreed to undertake rather limited actions to deter security challenges, posed by Russia. While setting up a rapid-reaction force, which represents the key decision of the summit in response to the eastern threats, can be considered as a step forward, the fundamental approach of the organization towards official Moscow has remained the same.
NATO’s current policy is based on the perception of Russia as an indirect security threat to the alliance. Thus, the organization advocates not a military, but a political solution. For more than two decades, NATO has tried to engage the Russian leadership in constructing the Western security architecture. Yet, this policy has long failed to produce positive results. In April 2008, at the Bucharest summit, NATO denied Georgia and Ukraine from the Membership Action Plan (MAP), in order not to provoke the Kremlin. Though, within three months, the Russian Federation occupied Georgian territories beyond the disputed regions and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian conflict, the alliance continued partnership with the country. Threatened by a military or nuclear response from Russia, in 2009 the USA’s plans for deploying long-range missile defense interceptors as well as equipment in Poland and the Czech Republic, which were supposed to become an integral part of NATO’s missile defense system, were canceled. Instead, the 2010 Lisbon summit saw spheres of cooperation between the alliance and the Russian Federation. In 2012, in frames of the NATO-Russia Council the chiefs of staff of the two sides also met to endorse a military cooperation program. Despite aforementioned accords, the policy of engagement could not prevent Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which not only violated the sovereignty of the neighboring state, but has denied the post-WW international order.
Illegal invasion of Crimea showed that military operation in Georgia in 2008 has not been an exception. Russian occupation has become a trend. In recent years the country has transformed into a military aggressor, which manufactures hybrid warfare in NATO’s neighborhood. The state destabilizes neighboring countries internally, supports and funds separatists, uses economic and energy blackmail, propaganda machine and ground invasion, to regain its influence. What’s more important, Russian military ambitions are growing. In 2011, Russian defense officials announced 10 year US$640 spending plan to modernize the army and fund re-armament. Russian military budget, which is already the third largest in the world and higher than the defense budget of any other European nation, is expected to rise from US$78 billion to US$98 billion by 2016. Russia is also authorized the use of nuclear weapons if national security is threatened. NATO’s response to the eastern security challenges, by creating a high alert force of a few thousand soldiers, thus, partially corresponds to potential threats, and is disproportionate.
The Wales summit outcomes show that the eastern security dilemma is underestimated in the West. Primarily, this is due to the fact that Ukraine’s case is still understood as a regional conflict in Washington. Obama’s administration is focused on dealing with terrorism, which the administration has recognized as a direct threat and a global security challenge. Limited American leadership against Russia does not create favorable conditions for the alliance to prioritize and further strengthen its defense capabilities in its East. Thus, while NATO’s attention is centered on the Middle East, Russian military build-up and influence in Europe is rising.
NATO expansion, as well as military infrastructure in Russia’s various backyards has been claimed as a direct military threat by the Russian national security strategy. But keeping itself far from the Russian borders has not promoted stability in the shared neighborhood. NATO has to strengthen the eastern border by permanent positioning of its infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe; but it also has to create an enhanced cooperative military framework with countries in the Russian neighborhood, which would need to go beyond training, exercises and interoperability opportunities. As President Petro Poroshenko said to the US Congress, “blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket”. Credible assistance to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to develop defense capabilities will be of a crucial importance.
Modern warfare does not necessarily require Russia to initiate a ground invasion against the members of the alliance. Moscow’s power to destabilize eastern states internally, especially where Russian minorities reside, should be analyzed in depth. In this critical time of history when Russian actions undermine and change decades’ long international order, NATO does not require minor initiatives. It needs to go back to the basics of its policy and adequately estimate threats coming from the Kremlin. If the alliance does not occupy itself with strengthening its defense capabilities against possible Russian aggression, the security of Europe will be tested.