Responding to Crimea by Bolstering NATO’s Military Presence in Central and Eastern Europe
Small Wars Journal Discussion with A. Wess Mitchell
SWJ: How should we explain Putin’s escalation in Ukraine?
A. Wess Mitchell: There is a longstanding if somewhat repressed desire among the Russian political elite to repatriate lost limbs of the former Soviet empire. This impulse runs very deep in post-Cold War Russian strategic thinking. The conditions that developed in Ukraine over the last few months provided a political pretext for acting on that geopolitical impulse. The democratic backlash to President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to move his country closer to Europe at the EaP Summit and his ensuing ejection from Kyiv threatened the possibility of a more Westward oriented Ukraine on the doorstep of Russia. In both strategic and ideological terms, these developments were seen as being unacceptable for the interests of the Russian state and elite. Recent U.S. diplomatic behavior also suggested to the Russians a permissive strategic environment in which Putin could act without incurring high costs. This created an opening for a kind of “rebate revisionism.” Putin seized it.
SWJ: Does the record of President Obama’s unenforced red-lines play a role in incentivizing Putin’s probing in Ukraine?
A. Wess Mitchell: Yes.
SWJ: How do you see the implications of Russian aggression for the larger European security order?
A. Wess Mitchell: The post-Cold War European security order has been put on notice. In territorial terms, the Crimea seizure marks the de facto revocation of at least four treaties – the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Memorandum, the NATO Founding Act and the Russo-Ukrainian Treaty of 1997. It was an unprovoked and, to date, unanswered land grab that could undermine the foundations of the post-1989 geopolitical settlement in Europe, signaling the end of a stable territorial status-quo East of Poland and radiating insecurity into the eastern member states of the Alliance. Once the legal basis of the territorial status quo has been effectively challenged in any international system, bad things typically follow. Russia may be emboldened to try similar techniques elsewhere, and opportunities abound around its troubled periphery. Crimea- or South Ossetia-style land grabs by Russia suddenly become imaginable throughout the post-Soviet space—and, for that matter, the Baltic States, which possess many of the same triggers that were present in Ukraine and Georgia.
This in turn may lead small states both inside and outside of NATO to look for ways to bolster their security through a variety of mechanisms, perhaps leading to sharpened security dilemmas like those facing U.S. allies in East Asia.
SWJ: What is the message that an unpunished Crimea land-grab sends to the region and to the world?
A. Wess Mitchell: It is a demonstration effect that will create ripples of insecurity in Central and Eastern Europe but also in other global regions in which small and mid-sized U.S. allies sit in close proximity to large historically predatory powers. Jakub Grygiel and I first warned about a trend in this direction in 2010, and we are now seeing this concern is validated on a grand scale. Crimea offers a template for low-cost revisionism—a dangerous precedent for other revisionist-minded powers in the international system who may draw the conclusion that the use of force will be rewarded with geopolitical faits accomplis and territorial gains at little cost to themselves. It sends the message that the rules are flexible for those who are willing to act boldly and use military force to revise the status quo.
The parallel danger, which Jakub and I have catalogued extensively, is that U.S. allies in other regions may draw the lesson that the United States is only a conditional guarantor at best of their security. Crimea sends a signal to small and mid-sized American allies in Central Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific that we may be entering an era of self-permissiveness on the part of revisionists, and that the chief guardian of the status quo, the United States, may or may not be willing to underwrite the stability of the system as a whole. The undermining of the Budapest Memorandum is especially significant because this treaty solemnized Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for territorial guarantees from major powers. The fate of Ukraine may suggest to other states in similar positions that their best bet is to develop a nuclear deterrent rather than count on outside protection.
SWJ: Over the past year, the Obama Administration rebranded itself as a champion and a guarantor of the core norms that make the texture of the international order. Now in Crimea, “The Norm”, of the international order is under assault. In case this remains unpunished, without real consequences, should we expect that other states with anti status-quo impulses will be incentivized to probe their own normative regional frameworks? Should we expect to see a more probing China in relation to the international norms of the East China Sea and South China Sea?
A. Wess Mitchell: Yes. The Chinese situation is obviously different, since it is primarily maritime in nature and does not involve a large land-locked territory contiguous with the Chinese geopolitical core. But for practical purposes, the situation is analogous, and the Chinese will no doubt take note. Ukraine reinforces the negative precedent from the Georgia War that a regional geopolitical status-quo at the outer periphery of U.S. power is subject to abrupt revision without heavy costs to the revisionist. It is a dangerous moment in any international system when the underlying foundation is shown to be violable without significant penalties, since this can invite challenges to the status quo elsewhere.
A good example of this happening in history was the Russian military approach to the Straits in the 1870s, which invalidated the Metternichian order with its emphasis on solidarity between the three Eastern powers. Only a response from the status-quo powers—Britain, by sending a naval squadron to the Black Sea and Bismarck, by interposing a new diplomatic status quo at the Congress of Berlin—re-affirmed the foundations of the European order and ensured stability. Ukraine is similar to the Straits Crisis in constituting a test of the system, but without the firm response or leadership from the status-quo powers that would be needed to unambiguously reassert the legitimacy and therefore durability of the underlying order.
SWJ: What leverage do we have on the table in order to alter Putin’s calculus?
A. Wess Mitchell: We have a lot of leverage. But in order for it to matter, we have to have the willingness to use it. As Edward Lucas has pointed out, NATO’s collective economic strength is 20 times wealthier than Russia ($40 trillion in GDP versus $2 trillion). With a unified command structure and determined foreign policy, the Russians are using a weak position well, while Western disunity and lack of purpose are neutralizing our natural advantages. Using Western leverage effectively would require a higher degree of commitment from the United States and major European countries to sustaining Western unity in the face of aggression than we have so far shown the political willingness to sustain.
We also have military leverage. Russia would lose any pitched confrontation with NATO. But here too, the Russians have developed an asymmetric strategy—a kind of “thrust and pause” that involves moving into a territory rapidly with limited objectives and halting abruptly to allow Western divisions to surface in the inevitable post-conflict bickering—that plays to Russian strengths of geographic proximity and concentration of force. No one wants a shooting war over Crimea. But if Ukraine matters to us strategically, then we should be more willing to use military levers to strengthen the Western diplomatic position. To use the previous analogy of the Straits Crisis, Lord Salisbury sent the British Mediterranean fleet into the Black Sea as a counter-demonstration to Russian aggression in the Balkans. Even though he famously saw the issue itself as constituting a secondary interest to Britain, he recognized the damage that an unanswered land-grab would have in destabilizing the status quo and inviting repeat cycle of tests of strength initiated by revisionist powers. We should use Western military power in a similar way as Britain in the Straits Crisis – to create a lasting impression of our willingness and ability to confront territorial revisionism in future crises, particularly involving the Baltic States.
SWJ: What are the expectations that the most exposed Eastern NATO states have from the U.S.? What do they expect U.S. to do for their region?
A. Wess Mitchell: They expect the United States to demonstrate its commitment to defending the European security order established in 1989, which was founded on the good faith and credit of the United States as a geopolitical guarantor. This means showing fidelity to the NATO treaty obligations ratified by the U.S. Senate in the event of a future crisis and strengthening the conventional deterrence mechanisms that would help to avoid such a crisis in the first place. Clearly, Ukraine is not in NATO, but it does suggest what could happen to states that are. The same triggers are present in the Baltic States. There is a reasonable expectation among Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that America will match Russia’s rescinding of the territorial status quo east of NATO’s borders with a commensurate bolstering of the status quo west of those borders.
This means relinquishing the traditional U.S. resistance to moving military assets into the post-Communist member states of NATO. If CEE states are indeed allies of the United States, then they have a legal and politico-historical basis for expecting that they will be treated as a serious component of U.S. global strategy, that the United States will have a confident answer to Russian adventurism in this crisis, and an immediate, militarized response to aggression affecting any state within NATO. America can communicate this strategic intentionally by stationing military assets on CEE member-state territory. Strengthening the NATO military presence in CEE countries should be done in a way that is strategically adapted to the evolving geopolitical environment of the Eastern European frontier. The Russian military modernization program is investing in access-denial (A2AD) capabilities that could preclude NATO from effectively reinforcing CEE allies in the event of a crisis. Much like America's Asia-Pacific allies, the CEE states should be bolstered with both indigenous and outside capabilities that allow for an effective counter-A2AD capability that strengthens conventional deterrence in the Alliance.
There is a wide legal and strategic space between the current, minimal extreme of a handful of F-16s and the maximal extreme of moving an entire BCT to Poland. NATO should exploit this fertile middle ground, and America should lead the way.
SWJ: Is this the right time for fixing the unfinished business of repairing the security of NATO’s Eastern Flank, by revising the clauses of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act in order to deploy significant NATO infrastructure on the territory of the new member states?
A. Wess Mitchell: It is imperative. Five years ago, the Georgia War underscored the vital need to address what is essentially the “original sin” of the post-Cold War NATO - that it is a two-tiered alliance with a separate set of terms for its insulated Western member states than for those states which entered the alliance after the Cold War. No alliance can function for long in this fashion. We have already seen the political costs of this two-tier alliance in previous years, through perennial divisions in NATO spawned by differing threat perceptions between secure and exposed members creating political paralysis. The dual structure and the need it creates for continual physical acts of reassurance has been a major driver of political frictions between the United States and CEE countries, because it essentially totem-izes every security project that comes along beyond what is actually worth. If the eastern member states had already received the military attention that they deserve as members in good standing of NATO, then their need for smaller tokens of commitment would be less acute, and the political relationship therefore would be more stable. It is in everyone’s interest to see the Alliance amend this flaw. If Ukraine has the effect of focusing attention on this problem, it will have done the West a service—provided we are willing to act upon it.