Will NATO survive Russia’s aggressive challenge?

Viewed through the prism of Putin’s ultimate goal of collapsing NATO, the Kremlin had pursued the strategic goal of disintegrating the alliance ever since its inception in 1949.  Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is not only an attempt to re-subjugate a major ex-Soviet republic but is, simultaneously, also an experiment to test the West’s mettle.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | August 19, 2014

Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine – waged as a form of unconventional, destabilizing proxy war – has led quite a few analysts to pose a disconcerting question: how would the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) respond to a similar Russian attack on a post-Soviet NATO member state, such as Estonia or Lithuania? Could NATO muster the sufficient unity to stand up to the Kremlin, or would an unconventional Muscovite assault against one of the Baltic states simply disintegrate the trans-Atlanticist alliance? Such a scenario now seems quite conceivable.

The fact that Moscow has been allowed to keep the fruits of its aggression against Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008) and Ukraine (Crimea in 2014) has greatly emboldened Vladimir Putin. In addition, the West’s relatively meek response to Russia’s unconventional war against Ukraine has once again revealed the strains within NATO and demonstrated that most Westerners do not consider Central and Eastern European ex-“captive nations,” such as Ukraine, worth a scuffle with Russia. The Chekist-in-Chief Putin, who was after all trained by the KGB to penetrate into the psyches of others (not to mention deceiving and destroying the “enemies of the Soviet State”), can smell the blood. His aggression against Ukraine is not only an attempt to re-subjugate a major ex-Soviet republic but is, simultaneously, also an experiment to test the West’s mettle. In this sense, Moscow’s current “ambiguous war against Ukraine – and any potential future utilization of this doctrine against the Baltic states (or even Poland) – should be viewed through the prism of Putin’s ultimate goal of collapsing NATO.

The Kremlin had pursued the strategic goal of disintegrating NATO ever since its inception in 1949. The defensive alliance was forged soon after the Second World War primarily to check further Soviet expansionism in Europe. During the late 1940s the Soviets had already gobbled up the eastern half of Europe (thanks in part to the sellout at Yalta and the West’s disinterest in the fate of its eastern borderlands), compelling the exhausted Western Europeans to beg the Americans to save them from Soviet barbarism and communist tyranny. Eventually, however, many Western Europeans began to take for granted the prosperity and security afforded by the American nuclear and military umbrella. During the 1960s and 70s, this complacency blended with the growing tide of left-wing radicalism (“New Left” neo-Bolshevism) undermining Western Civilization to produce growing anti-American and pro-Soviet (or at least “anti-anti-Soviet,” which usually amounted to the same thing) sentiments. Thus, throughout the Cold War, Moscow hoped to divide or, at a minimum, weaken NATO by courting and attempting to detach Western Europe from the trans-Atlanticist bloc.

This strategy continued into the post-Cold-War period, intensifying during the Putin era. The collapse of the Soviet Empire seemed to have removed NATO’s main raison d’être, causing Americans and Western Europeans to seek new roles for the alliance, including “peace keeping” interventions in places like Kosovo (which generated intense anti-U.S. and anti-NATO sentiments in Serbia) or Afghanistan. The all-too-familiar refrain in the West became that “the Cold War is over.” The only problem was that Moscow – and particularly the Soviet-nostalgic post-KGB Putinist milieu – did not “get the memo.”

The Kremlin persisted in viewing NATO as an enemy and the “near abroad” (i.e. former Soviet republics and satellites) as its rightful sphere of influence. Since the former slaves and vassals in Central and Eastern Europe or the Caucasus begged to differ, they petitioned to join the Atlanticist alliance, and – after a long struggle – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Balts, Romanians, and Bulgarians were eventually admitted. Moscow was furious that its ex-colonies dared to exercise their sovereignty (and that NATO dared take them in), portraying NATO’s eastward expansion as a hostile, aggressive, malicious element of the evil West’s age-old attempts to “encircle Russia” (this line has been parroted by various Russophile “useful idiots” in the West to this day). It is on the basis of this very same logic that the Russians – who invaded and detached Crimea and are fuelling a proxy secessionist insurgency in eastern Ukraine – portray their own actions as merely defensive and forced upon them by Western aggression and meddling on the side of Ukrainian “Fascists” (i.e. the pro-Western government in Kyiv).

Putin said as much in an April talk to the nation, “Our decision on Crimea was partly due to … considerations that if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in and they will say: ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with you.’”

In Russia’s anti-NATO strategy, Ukraine also plays the role of a testing ground to perfect the tactic of “ambiguous war.” The objective of “ambiguous war” is to defeat the victim without resorting to a conventional military invasion, which – based on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 – obligates all alliance members to come to the aid of the attacked NATO member state. It bears emphasizing, however, that Article 5 fails to specify the exact form of this assistance, mentioning only “such action as it [another NATO ally] deems necessary, including [emphasis added] the use of armed force.”

Thus, to avoid the possibility of activating the Article 5 obligations that other NATO states have towards an attacked ally, Moscow has devised a tactic to accomplish its goals – including the conquest of territory – while circumventing the letter of Article 5 and retaining some “plausible deniability.” So-called “ambiguous warfare” may allow post-Soviet Russia to destabilize, partition, or re-subjugate the Baltic states – through cyberwarfare, proxy insurgencies by ethnic Russian separatists, and outright invasion utilizing special forces troops sans any Russian Federation insignia – while permitting pusillanimous NATO “allies” to weasel out of their obligations. That, however, would spell the de facto end of NATO, exposing it as little more than a reincarnation of the impotent League of Nations during the 1930s. And that is precisely Putin’s objective.

So far, the big players of “Old Europe” (Germany and France in particular) have been extremely reluctant to sacrifice trade with Russia and her natural gas to stop Moscow from destabilizing a strategic region of Europe. The shooting down of MH17 by the post-Soviets was a rude awakening to Western Europeans, but will it be enough to overcome their unwillingness to reign in Russia and increase their defense contributions to NATO? The Russian aggression against Ukraine also appears to have angered the Obama administration, if only because Putin has made a mockery of the current president’s “reset”” policy. Putin understands this, but he also believes that Westerners are generally unwilling to “die for Ukraine,” or the Baltics, or Poland, or any other former “captive nation.” Will it take hordes of Russian tanks on Germany’s eastern border to finally shake the West from its complacency? The problem of post-Soviet Russian imperialism and aggression is not likely to “go away” by itself; it can either be nipped in the bud – i.e. in Ukraine – or we can allow it to metastasize, in which case we will eventually be compelled to contain a much stronger neo-Soviet threat.

If we wish to opt for the more prudent course, one of the things we should do would be to revise and update the definition of “attack” contained in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to include the tactics of Russian “ambiguous warfare.” Since the U.S. is the indispensable linchpin holding NATO together, it goes without saying that we should pursue, with much greater vigor, our missile defense program to neutralize Russia’s nuclear blackmail capability.

Perhaps the upcoming NATO summit in Wales will, as Mr. Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general and its supreme allied commander, Gen. Breedlove, assure the West that they will indeed “make the right choices for NATO.”

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.