As Russian forces begin exercises on Ukraine's border and continue their hold on Crimea, I worry about military escalation—unintentional and intentional. What fuels my concern about unintentional escalation is a disconcerting interaction I had last year with a Russian general at a NATO conference in Europe. I was leading a breakout session with a dozen generals and admirals from the region. I was taken aback as many of the Western European NATO officers began lamenting their individual countries' declining defense budgets and their inability to keep up with American military capability. As complicated as things might be inside NATO, and as difficult as it is to rally collective action at times, NATO is still the premier military alliance in the world. No one is giving up on it, I assured them.
When the Russian general spoke, he leaned into the table and said, "When I was a young soldier in the Soviet Army during the Cold War, I thought of NATO like this..." and he held his hand into a powerful fist. "But now that I am serving with NATO as a liaison, I am thinking, this..." and his hand went limp and wobbly with a whiny sounding sigh. If this small interaction reflects in any way a wider view of NATO by Russian civilian and military leaders, NATO has its work cut out for it in demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that continued military aggression in Ukraine will be challenged.