Vladimir Putin is placing a cynical bet that he can invade Ukraine just one week before a NATO summit – and that NATO will do nothing to stop him. The alliance must prove him wrong.
Despite sharp words from Brussels, Washington, London and Berlin, the Russian president believes that NATO lacks the will to challenge his dismemberment of Ukraine. By sending troops, tanks and artillery directly into the Ukrainian fighting, Putin is making a point: He will fight for Ukraine, and NATO will not. He is calling NATO’s bluff.
The Western response will be read carefully from Kiev to Tallinn to Moscow. For the sake of Ukraine’s integrity as a country, for future European security and for NATO’s credibility as a defense organization, NATO leaders need to make some tough decisions and push back militarily against Russia.
NATO has already taken significant, positive military steps concerning its members in the east – particularly Poland, the Baltic states and Romania. This is important: The alliance’s only obligation is to collective defense. That must be sacrosanct. NATO has increased air policing over the Baltics, expanded exercises, promised to strengthen its defense planning and decided to deploy ground forces temporarily in Eastern Europe. These strong steps will cause Russia to think twice before expanding its aggression from Ukraine to NATO member states.
However, drawing such a bright line around NATO territory is being read by Putin as a signal that non-members such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are – literally – up for grabs. With Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in the open, NATO needs to focus not only on defending alliance members but also on crisis management and projecting power beyond NATO territory.
To prove Putin wrong, NATO should take the following steps at its Wales summit:
Although it did not start out this way, the upcoming summit in Wales may be the most important NATO gathering since Prague in 2002, when NATO added seven members. The signal the organization sends next week – whether it will stand up for European security or concede to Russian aggression – will ripple through Europe for years to come.
Volker is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. Brattberg is a visiting fellow at the McCain Institute from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.