The escalating crisis in Ukraine serves as an illuminating case study of a measured response by NATO. Barring an extreme flashpoint, the crisis will de-escalate in time, perhaps leaving more questions than answers for NATO's leadership, which will be forced once again to consider the alliance's position in an ever changing global security environment. A conventional Russian attack against an alliance member beyond Ukraine, although extreme, would be a relatively straightforward proposition for even a depleted NATO, which was originally built for such an eventuality. However, the absence of a major adversary remains a quandary, fueling the uncertainty that plagues any organization lacking a defining purpose or prominent challenger.
NATO's struggle to redefine itself in the 1990s created a sprawling and indecisive organizational structure.
New members brought large swathes of Europe, previously inaccessible under Soviet rule, into the alliance. Unfortunately new membership came at a cost, both for NATO, which had to provision for countries that were larger security consumers than producers, and also for Moscow, which had no way of checking its old enemy's inexorable creep toward the Russian core.
Under the meticulous supervision of President Vladimir Putin, Russia clawed its way back from complete economic and bureaucratic collapse in 1991 to the point that it once again constitutes a tangible, regional threat not only to NATO members, but to any country that defies it. This is not to say the Russians are foolhardy or unrealistic. Putin is a skilled manipulator and understands that he can bring nations into line by exerting certain pressures, from economic strong-arm tactics to diplomatic persuasion and even coercion through subversive means, including the use of pro-Russian populations in former Soviet states. And if all else fails, the Russian army has again become an effective stick to wield, as Georgia learned in 2008.
When seen through the Kremlin's prism, the annexation of Crimea makes perfect sense. What is harder to clarify are the events leading up to it. The Ukraine crisis was an anomaly that defied Putin's carefully arranged stratagem. Russia found itself backed into a corner, with no choice but to move aggressively if it was to protect its own security and interests. Moscow simply could not let Ukraine move any closer to the West. The thought of Kiev becoming a part of NATO is anathema to Russia, which responded to the destabilizing crisis by doing something it had not done since the Cold War: massing armor within kilometers of another country's border. Although Russia's game has played out through other inflammatory channels, there is no possible way that NATO headquarters in Brussels can completely ignore the widespread mobilization of Russian combat power.
NATO's Limited Response
The glimpse of an aggressive Russia, reminiscent of the days of the Soviet empire, snapped NATO temporarily back into focus. The Kremlin's military planners, however, are unlikely to advocate direct military action in Ukraine because to do so could galvanize NATO into action. Without the guarantee of continued Russian military aggregation across NATO's frontage, the alliance lacks any justification to assemble in earnest. What is happening instead is a shifting of NATO's strategic focal point to the east, toward the Baltics and the Visegrad countries of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The larger, western security providers in the alliance have acknowledged the threat of a hawkish Russia, though beyond the discussion of sanctions and small-scale movement of forces, the chances of an enduring commitment are slim. NATO's founding members remain insulated from Russian brinkmanship and hamstrung by budget constraints and the need to address more pressing domestic issues.
As much as the United States and Russia have been antagonistic toward each other, despite the rhetoric there is no desire on either side to return to the days of the Cold War. Washington's response to the situation in Ukraine has been tepid, in part driven by domestic constraints and also by the fact that the U.S. military is going through a period of retrenchment. Reintroducing large-scale bases throughout Europe is not an option for the Pentagon.
What is more realistic is a shift to an enlarged program of semi-permanent unit training rotations. Improved interoperability has allowed NATO, specifically the western security providers, to quickly redeploy forces to where they are needed.
This has been demonstrated in a limited way through the forces moved in response to the Ukraine crisis and to reassure eastern members. While small, such redeployments have been numerous: a small naval contingent in the Baltic Sea, an expanded Baltic air patrol and companies from the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team sent to each Baltic state and Poland. The U.S. Air Force has committed 12 F-16 multirole fighters to Poland, and a similar number to Romania, along with early warning aircraft tasked to watch the skies and monitor Eastern Europe's borders. Part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force has been used to complement the Black Sea Rotational Force, also in Romania. Alongside the initial distribution of forces is a promise of intent by Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Defense to increase training with the eastern NATO partners. Currently, this has added little real combat power to the region, but it is a policy designed to walk the fine line between reassuring NATO partners and sending a specific message to Russia, emphasizing what is possible without seriously threatening Moscow.
Benefits and Limitations
The movement of high-end assets such as modern generation fighters, warships and early warning aircraft directly supports less capable forces. NATO membership remains inherently desirable for less powerful states, whose national resources alone cannot hope to compete with or deter aggression from more powerful states, such as Russia. The recent Ukraine crisis made a number of small countries nervous. In Sweden, for example, the debate over integration with NATO has reignited. Georgia, which has experienced Russian aggression firsthand, has also attempted to accelerate its progress toward NATO membership.
NATO is the strongest alliance of its type, but size and complexity hamper any ability to make fast decisions on a large scale.
To align the North Atlantic Council over an issue is no small task and NATO needs a significant threat in order to unify. A hostile Russia does cause enough concern to harmonize NATO to some degree, but each member of the alliance has its own interests, which may not be in perfect alignment with the organization's worldview and objectives. Moscow is well aware of the problems facing NATO's secretary-general and will seek to exploit the alliance's indecision. The organization responds very well to black and white scenarios, but it flounders over grey.
If, in an extreme example, Russia were to aggressively take back the Baltic states, there is little NATO would be able to do immediately to prevent it. In the short term, NATO would simply lose ground, but the alliance's eventual response could be devastating for the Russians. A NATO victory would be all but assured. A small incursion, however, into eastern Estonia by a Russian "protectorate" force, safeguarding an ostensibly repressed ethnic Russian village or enclave, would be much more problematic, especially if no shots were fired. Such a move opens speculation as to whether a multi-speed NATO would be able to secure a cohesive Article 5 decision or not. As seen earlier in the Ukraine crisis, indecision weakens the organization's position, and strengthens any decisive opponent's.
The Future Balance of Power
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has revivified to a startling degree. It is still, however, one country, with a singular economy. Regardless of the ententes Moscow builds with other nations, and the states it seeks to influence both overtly and covertly, it is limited by the boundaries of its own ideology, structures and institutions. Russian power is not infinite, nor is its bank balance. As much as Putin has rekindled Russian pride and unity, hubris will not beat NATO in a shooting war and the Kremlin is not willing to accept such an escalation.
Above all else, NATO is an alliance — an imperfect one, but an alliance nonetheless. It has endured for 65 years, beyond the Cold War and through numerous smaller operations and conflicts of varying intensity. Although affiliates have at times been fickle with their contributions, the organization has only grown in membership size. Armies may be getting smaller, and defense budgets reduced, but the ratios of war prescribe that 10 smaller divisions will invariably beat one large one. It may be slow to move, and slow to agree, but given cause to invoke Article 5, NATO can still potentially muster a force without equal. Ultimately, NATO's long-term survival depends on the reemergence of a unifying threat, tempered by the continuous reforms that attempt to shape the alliance into an organization that can deal with the divergent capabilities and interests of its member nations, through ever evolving security environments.