The NATO Paradox
The latest responses by NATO have been dutifully trash-talked by Russian diplomats, but a door has been carefully left open for ‘further consideration’. NATO and Biden have offered negotiations and concessions on arms limits, especially for nukes, and possibly other measures limiting each side’s troop numbers and deployments.
Russia is making demands that it knows cannot be acceded to. Russia insists that Ukraine can never join or participate in any way with NATO, and that all countries that have joined NATO since 1997 must remove NATO forces and weapons from their territory. What that means for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria (and other recent NATO members) is that they would be in reality abandoned by NATO. It would be the end of NATO, which may be the real strategic objective here.
The lazy idea that Putin has a point and NATO should not be in Ukraine threatening Russia is casually thrown around in western and Irish commentary. It ignores the reality that Russia has been supporting an armed secession within Ukraine for years, in violation of its international treaty obligations. The irony is that NATO does not actually want to offer Ukraine full membership of NATO any time soon, notwithstanding a 2008 ‘eventual’ invitation to do so that still stands, technically. Putin is under no illusion about these political realities.
A further irony is that France and Germany, in particular, have been lukewarm on Ukraine getting a security guarantee under Article 5 of the NATO alliance. After all, whole chunks of eastern Ukraine are already occupied by Russian backed separatists and the Crimea has already been illegally annexed. There has been a low level war since 2014 and killing in small numbers has continued. Russian forces have entered Ukraine to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists. Ukraine is quite simply unready to join NATO any time soon.
On balance, however, NATO plays a positive role through a process called “enhanced opportunities partner status” in making sure that Ukraine has a professional and well-disciplined military in place of the rag-tag and ad hoc, ill-disciplined militias and volunteer units that emerged in the crisis of 2014-15. Paradoxically, NATO’s links with Ukraine have probably served to restrain the Ukrainians and reinforce upon them what Angela Merkel has said many times: ‘there is no military solution’ to Ukraine’s problems with Russia.
The Knowns and Unknowns
Be in no doubt: the threat to Ukraine is real. What is uncertain is whether it will be carried out and whether, if force is used, it will be an all-out invasion or a more limited ‘bite and hold’ operation, possibly along the Ukrainian coast taking Mariupol and Odessa and linking up with the Crimea. Another unknown is how Ukraine’s society and military would react. There are signs the Russians could face a much tougher and bloodier fight than they did in 2014–2015. Wars never go according to plan.
Two puzzles stand out. If the Russians are seriously planning to all-out invade Ukraine then why prepare so openly for it, thereby losing all element of surprise? The absence of surprise would suggest that this is primarily theatre: a giant psychological warfare operation with the option to use some force.
On the other hand, now that Russia has mobilised what seems to be an invasion force in scale (over 100,000 troops), Putin has a domestic political problem: can he afford to march his soldiers ‘up the hill’, only to ‘march them down again?’ That suggests that he might have to actually carry out his threat, at least at some level.
That brings us back to the negotiations, currently being prodded by the French and Germans. If some kind of diplomatic deal or Treaty can be brokered giving Putin what he can call ‘victories’, he may well be able to present the outcome to the Russian public as a success. After all, the Kremlin controls most of the newsprint, TV and increasingly much of the Russian internet. Ordinary Russians will be relieved that their sons and daughters in uniform can come home safe.
And here is where the military theatre gives way to what quite possibly will become diplomatic farce and tragedy. The Ukrainians are quite rightly alarmed at the prospect of a Munich style compromise, in which all sorts of concessions and deals could be agreed by the great powers over their heads. The Americans, facing a rising China, are very keen to avoid a nasty brutish war on the borders of Europe, one that nobody can ever really win.
One could conclude, therefore, that Putin has acted with perfect dramatic timing, aided by strong Russian foreign currency reserves, and soaring revenues of his petro and gas economy. If the crisis becomes a larger scale invasion and war, there will be enormous consequences for European politics, the fate of Russia itself, and America’s role in world affairs. It would also be a profound human tragedy for ordinary Ukrainians and Russians. Military theatre could quickly turn to tragedy.