Our panelists discuss the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), its expansion from twelve to thirty countries, its evolving mission in the post-Cold War world, as well as the alliance’s role and influence in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The CFR Young Professionals Briefing Series provides an opportunity for those early in their careers to engage with CFR. The briefings feature remarks by experts on critical global issues and lessons learned in their careers. These events are intended for individuals who have completed their undergraduate studies and have not yet reached the age of thirty to be eligible for CFR term membership.
LAFOLLETTE: Thank you, Laura. Welcome, everyone. Good evening. I am Stacey LaFollette. I’m managing director of the Meetings Program here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And here I’m in New York—I am based in New York.
Now, many of you have joined a few times before. Some of you may be new to this program. I welcome everyone and we hope to see you many more times in the future.
Now, if you’re not sure why you’re part of this group, it’s because you were recommended to us by a CFR member. And this group is for those of you roughly in your twenties who have graduated college but are not yet able to apply for CFR membership. The minimum age is thirty years old. So we hope to keep you interested in foreign policy and someday for you all to apply for CFR membership.
Now, this is the second Young Professionals Briefing Series meeting that focuses on Russia and Ukraine. There is a lot to talk about, as you can imagine, on this topic. Tonight we’re going to be taking a deep dive on NATO. And the Council has been producing quite a bit of content on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and I want to encourage you all to go to CFR.org and take a look at these resources. We have articles, reports, podcasts, events that we hold for our members, and it’s all there. Conor’s going to chat it now in the chat box. If you want to click on the link, you can find it all there. And we’re trying to produce regular content to just, you know, look at this crisis from all different angles, from the refugee crisis to implications for the global economy, energy security, U.S.-China relations, NATO. There’s just so much. So we’re continuing to cover it, and we hope you’ll go to our website and take advantage of all the resources that are there.
Also, some of these resources were highlighted in a newsletter that we’ve begun for the young professionals. And we just sent out our second newsletter last week. We hope you got it. We hope you opened it. It came to you by email. And we’re doing these newsletters on a monthly basis. So some of the Russia resources were highlighted there. We also put in upcoming Young Professionals Briefings in that. So we’re really trying to provide you all with useful resources that, you know, you’ll find interesting and things that you can use in your professional careers as well. So if you have any feedback on that, we’re open to that. Please let us know what you would find useful in these monthly newsletters.
And speaking of the Young Professionals Briefing meetings such as the one tonight, we’re also trying to do these once a month. So hopefully you find these useful as well.
Now, we’re going to start our program in just a little bit, but I encourage you all to start thinking about your questions. Just try to think of what you’d want to ask our expert panel, raise your virtual hand. This is for you all, so please just, you know, we want you to be engaged. Ask whatever questions come to mind.
And again, I want to thank our panel of experts. Thank you for your time this evening. We really appreciate it. We’re excited to hear you all and what you have to say about this topic. And I also want to thank our wonderful presider, Elmira Bayrasli, who’s going to moderate the discussion with our experts this evening. And I hope you all enjoy the discussion tonight. So thank you and over to you, Elmira.
BAYRASLI: Thank you so much, Stacey. I’m so pleased to be moderating this conversation. And so a formal welcome to all of you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “Security (sic; Securing) Europe—NATO Then and Now.”
As Stacey mentioned, I’m Elmira Bayrasli. I am the director of the Bard College Globalization and International Affairs Program, which is based in New York City. I’m also the founder of a newsletter called Interruptrr. It comes out every Friday. It’s focused on highlighting female voices in foreign policy. And I will preside over today’s discussion.
And we’re joined by three experts on NATO and European security, all of whom are currently CFR term members.
I’m pleased to introduce Heidi Hardt, who is a Council on Foreign Relations Fellowship for Tenured Relations Scholar at the State Department. She is also an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine.
We are also joined from Germany by Seth Johnston, who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Defense. He is also an adjunct professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
The third panelist is Claire Kaiser. She is the head of strategy and regional director, Eurasia at the McLarty Associates. She is also an adjunct professor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University, and she has a book that is coming out in the fall on Georgia and the Soviet Union. I’m going to give you a little plug, Claire: It’s Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood and the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus, so you should all be on the lookout for that.
I do want to make a note that Seth and Heidi are speaking in a personal capacity and in an academic capacity, and their views do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the Department of State, or any government agency.
A reminder that this discussion is on the record.
And so, with that, I’m going to kick it off. And so since the title I’m going to take it—I’m going to take the first question in queue from the title of this panel, which is “Security (sic; Securing) Europe.” What are we talking about when we talk about European security? I can dive a little bit into that, but maybe I can—I can just kick that off to our panel. I don’t know who wants to—who wants to try to take that first. Seth, please, go ahead.
JOHNSTON: Thanks so much, Elmira. And maybe just a quick note of thanks to everybody. What a delight it is to be on such a distinguished panel. What a delight it is to be with all of you young professionals. And thanks so much to Stacey LaFollette for convening this.
Elmira, I especially want to acknowledge and thank you for your service in the State Department with the late and great Secretary Madeleine Albright from your time at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations starting in 1994. We’ve really lost a national icon and a defining figure in U.S. foreign policy, certainly in the post-Cold War era.
And to your question, I think that the—you know, I think that when we talk about European security in today’s terms we’re really talking about either a post-Cold War or a post-World War II definition of European security. In the post-Cold War era, former President George H.W. Bush articulated a vision for a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and in many ways that continues to be the defining goal of what we’re thinking. In a broader sense, European security is for the United States the really revolutionary decision that that country—our country—took after 150 years of following George Washington’s advice to avoid entangling alliances in Europe instead to decide on a policy of engagement in Europe and the building of institutions.
The United States recognized after World War II that in the seventy years leading to the 1940 campaign of World War II, for example, Germany had invaded France three times; caused two world wars, both of which draw in—drew in the United States; and that this was no longer a tenable foreign policy rubric for the world’s most powerful country. And so we embarked on a policy of engagement, on a policy of institution-building. And that was one that involved the creation of NATO, and we’re going to talk about that, but other institutions that helped preserve the peace but also in a way that demonstrated a great deal of military strength throughout the Cold War and then evolved to that post-Cold War ideal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace as well. So European security is something that has deeply involved the United States for at least seventy years, and one in which the United States has and continues to play a leading role.
Claire, can I—can I draw you into this discussion? Seth just talked about how European security involves the United States, but when I look at—you know, when I look at who the current members of NATO are there’s, obviously, continental Europe. There’s also Turkey, which is largely in Asia, which is a member. It’s been a member since 1952. And there has been discussion about having other countries like Ukraine and Georgia in the alliance. We have countries like Ireland, Sweden, and Finland that are not members of NATO. So what are we talking about when we talk about European security?
KAISER: Well, and I think, thanks, Elmira, or—(changes pronunciation)—Elmira, for kicking this off, and Seth for the great, you know, intro in terms of how we’re understanding European security today.
You know, I think as we all know, NATO is a creature of the Cold War. It was designed explicitly, you know, to grapple with the post-World War II, you know, Soviet Union and all of the security challenges that posed. And you know, that’s why—precisely why countries like Turkey signed up when they did, pretty early on all things considered. And I think because it, you know, had a very clear reason for existence and mission, you know, for the, you know, forty-two years—its first forty-two years, I would say, in terms of protecting its membership from the Soviet threat, of course post-1991 it encountered kind of a profound, I don’t know, soul-searching exercise to figure out what its mission would be going forward.
And so I think, you know, there’s been a significant amount of, you know, effort devoted to figuring out what that new mission would be since 1991. Of course, the U.S. has been significantly involved in sort of forging that path. And you know, that search has similarly opened the question of new membership and several subsequent waves of enlargement, which I think, you know, any newer member of NATO is very happy to have been included in the club given everything that’s going on with regard to European security and its threats these days.
You know, I think from the Russian perspective—and I will—I can go into this a bit more later—you know, I think the question that has become most timely and most urgent right now is that over membership for Ukraine, for Georgia, and you know, Moldova as well, though I think that makes it into the headlines a little bit less. You know, these clearly are countries now that have been republics of the Soviet Union. Unlike the three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—the U.S. had never formally recognized those as being part of the Soviet Union, and so making the case for NATO membership, which they of course did end up getting, was a bit different than making the case for Georgian and Ukrainian membership, something that in 2008 this NATO summit that I think has, you know, become the focus of much attention in the past couple of months since the Ukraine invasion got underway, you know, the question of whether these countries could realistically have a path toward membership; if so, what that would look like in substance as well as in timing; and then, you know, how Russia would react to such a proposition. And of course, you know, we’re seeing the, you know, very gruesome Russian response to that, you know, as we speak in Ukraine.
But this is something that clearly has—you know, we’ve seen other instances of this in 2008 with the Russia-Georgia war. You know, it only lasted five days, but you know, that doesn’t mean that the conflict there has, you know, fully gone away by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, in 2014, too. These are not divorced from the NATO conversation. Indeed, I think for Russia, you know, NATO has been front and center of a lot of the sort of tensions with the West generally, as well as with understanding its place in Europe and as a great power in general.
I definitely want to dive into the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But before we do that, I do want to spend just a moment or two more on looking at European security, kind of—kind of creating that backdrop. And so, you know, obviously, it’s changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and since the end of the Cold War. And aside from the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s, there hasn’t really been a major conflict in Europe for several decades. And in fact, if you actually take a look at Europe, it’s really focused more—you know, for the past three decades, it’s really been very much focused on economic integration and the economy in the European Union. Obviously, in the last several years we’ve seen Brexit and other movements within various countries to disconnect, their desire to break free from the EU. Has this created a gap in European security? Or how has this changed European security? Heidi, maybe I can draw you into this discussion.
HARDT: Yeah. I think you’re raising a lot of good points.
So one of the things that’s been quite amazing is the extent to which in this post-Cold War period we have had interstate peace, largely, in the region. And in fact, the European Union was given the Nobel Peace Prize because of this as a recognition of the—you know, of the importance of economic integration and a lot of the extent to which there had been political integration among countries through what, you know, used to be called the European Community and, like I said, is now called the European Union.
But I think one of the successes that we need to focus on is the role of institutions, which is kind of connecting back to some of the points that our other fantastic panelists have brought up, which is that, you know, Europe—and when we think about European security and defense, there’s actually three major institutions. One of them usually doesn’t get as much credit or focus, but they all play really integral roles in creating a forum for continued dialogue among member states on all sorts of issues—you know, broad issues, whether you’re thinking about, you know, hybrid issues or cyber; to more, you know, traditional issues—you know, nuclear threats, conventional arms control. And I just want to make sure that we—you know, especially because many of the audience may not be as familiar with some of those institutions, but we kind of recap what those are.
So NATO, of course, is an institution that I think most people are more familiar with, which is this collection of thirty member states that have come together around the North Atlantic Treaty, which is sometimes referred to as the Washington Treaty. And it was also, you know, very much a product of the Cold War in response to the rise of the Soviet Union and the arms race between the U.S. and the West, so to speak, and the Soviet Union. But the—NATO is really focused primarily on collective defense. And so as we’ve been hearing more recently about this rhetoric of, you know, Russia even, Putin in particular, identifying NATO as a, quote/unquote, “adversary,” I think it’s important to highlight that NATO has and continues to be a defensive alliance. So that means that it exists primarily around several of the articles in that North Atlantic Treaty, that founding treaty, but particularly Article 5, which is the article that suggests that if one state is attacked then other states have a responsibility to come to the defense of that state. So we have NATO, and NATO, you know, even though it initially kind of started off as a collective defense organization, has emerged to cover three areas: collective defense, cooperative security, and then crisis management. Many people are familiar with the extensive decades that NATO was involved in Afghanistan. It has—continues to be involved now in other areas, despite its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The other institution I already mentioned, the European Union, started off as something that was called the European Coal and Steel Community. And that was—the idea was really a response to the—to, again, the World War—World War II and really the atrocities there. And the designers of the—what is now the European Union, formerly that Coal and Steel Community, was to try to find a way to integrate the defense industries themselves, because the idea was if you could link them together and make these industries across these multiple states reliant on each other maybe we’ll have less chance of war among the states themselves. And that is why I was, you know, initially referencing that Nobel Peace Prize.
And then the final institution that, like I said, doesn’t get as much credit is the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is one of the few organizations that actually does have Russia involved. So you can imagine that the Ukraine crisis has created, really, an existential crisis in itself for that institution, which is also, you know, a product of the Cold War.
But those institutions have really proliferated, but protected a lot of the democratic values and the norms of this rules-based order that we talk about when we think of European security and defense.
BAYRASLI: I’m glad that you brought up the OSCE. I actually did work for the OSCE in Bosnia for some time, and you’re right, Russia is a member of the OSCE. And so it’s interesting—I mean, and Russia has, obviously—even when it was the Soviet Union it was engaged with the United States and a lot of the members of NATO. And at the heart of what we’re seeing at the conflict currently between Russia and Ukraine is this question of NATO enlargement. And I know that there’s been a lot of debate on whether NATO should have enlarged or shouldn’t have enlarged, and I think, you know, that’s, obviously, an entire hour separate conversation or entire day conversation that we can have. And so rather than going down that route at all, I’m actually curious to know what is the Russian view of NATO and of European security. And so maybe, Claire, I can draw you into this discussion. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s changed since the 1990s?
KAISER: Sure. And I think this should give us a lot of material to work with going forward since, yeah, the Russian view of NATO is profoundly different, I think, from how members of NATO tend view European security architecture. And you know, that brings us to where we are today.
You know, I think, of course, the Soviet view of NATO is fairly self-explanatory, though I think it’s useful to understand that there were, you know, various points in kind of the Soviet-NATO confrontation where, you know, the Soviets were very actively trying to expose and exploit tensions between the U.S. and European members. So, you know, that’s something that I know we’ve talked a lot about since the—I mean, in the leadup to the invasion of Ukraine this time around, as well as subsequently. So just to highlight that that’s not—that’s not necessarily new. It’s something that Russia’s tried to do, you know, for quite some time now at various points.
But in general, I think the Russian narrative on NATO tends to really start with discussions about the extent to which, you know, a reunified Germany should be included in NATO in 1990. And you know, there are very differing accounts here from the Russian side versus the U.S. and European side, but the Russian version goes that Gorbachev was promised that, you know, NATO would not expand past East Germany, and you know, in effect, those promises were betrayed shortly thereafter with the subsequent waves of NATO expansion. I think, you know, most non-Russian analysts tend to believe the documentary record on this, but—which does not, you know, have such a betrayal, you know, in transcripts and memoranda and that sort of thing. But Russians are sticking to their version of events here, and Putin in particular has sort of cited this incident as, you know, the sort of, you know, jumping off point for the more tense, you know, relationship or standoff that Russia has had with NATO over the past thirty years.
You know, I think that clearly was an important point of departure. Having said that, the ’90s are not insignificant here with both the NATO involvement in Bosnia as well as the campaign starting in 1999 in Kosovo. And Russia kind of viewed those two NATO engagements pretty differently. Of course, you have Yeltsin in the—in the arena for Bosnia, and Russia actually participated to some extent as a—as a partner with NATO in that period, which seems very, very distant I think now in terms of where we are. In 1999, of course, with the NATO campaign in Kosovo, you know, I think Russia had a significant shift away from, you know, viewing that NATO intervention, you know, positively. They clearly took the side of the Serbs there and then also subsequently viewed that campaign as an important precedent, especially after, you know, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 of kind of using that as sort of an international legal justification for then applying, you know, questions about sovereignty and territorial integrity to things closer to Russian borders.
We’ve talked a bit already about the discussion on Ukraine and Georgia membership in 2008 and then in 2014 as well. You know, I think, clearly, we’re solidly kind of in Putin mode in Russia at this point, though I don’t think that he necessarily, you know, came in in 1999 knowing or having this sort of hardened view with regard to NATO that he seems to have now. Clearly, that has moved in a very, you know, contrary direction given things on the ground these days.
But I think, you know, looking at kind of the long term over the past thirty years, you know, I think that the fundamental question really is: Does Russia have a stake in the European security architecture? And if so, on whose terms?
In addition to this kind of Gorbachev betrayal narrative as well as this Kosovo precedent that is often brought up in Russian narratives about European security, I would say the other recurring theme that we’re hearing from Russia is that of Russia as a great power, and deserving not just an equal seat at the table kind of in the sort of balance of power questions with regard to European security but a special status to set the rules. So just signing on to a European security architecture that from Russia’s perspective has been largely defined by, you know, the United States and a couple key players in Western Europe is not something that Russia thinks is – you know, is fair. And so I think that, combined with very different understandings of sovereignty and territorial integrity – you know, Russia compared to NATO members and the West generally – has really led to a perception by Russians but especially by Putin that their views and concerns aren’t being taken seriously by the U.S. and NATO.
And I think more broadly, understanding that the Russian view and, you know, Putin’s view in particular of NATO is not of NATO as a defensive security alliance. They tend to discount the fact – you know, whatever promises NATO is making – saying hey, you know, we are explicitly defensive, we ae not out to get you; you know, enlargement is not about finding ways to attack Russia – they really tend to not believe that, precisely because I think for Russians and for Putin NATO is a cultural and a civilizational challenge. You know, they – a country that becomes a NATO member really undergoes profound, profound changes socially/culturally, and this really affects all walks of life. And so, you know, undoing stationing of troops or access to certain military technology is one thing. You know, undoing some of those fuzzier, more intangible elements of NATO membership as Putin understands it, that is, you know, much more difficult to walk back. And I think, you know, that the sort of geo-cultural element here really can’t be discounted.
You know, after Brexit, I think we’ve seen that it’s possible to leave the EU, even if maybe that doesn’t look appealing to most EU members. I don’t think anyone’s clamoring to leave NATO at this point, and I think that’s a pretty powerful distinction and something that the Russians likely have not, you know, taken unnoticed either.
Seth, I saw you trying to—raising your hand to get in there, so I’m going to—I’m going to hand the mic over to you.
JOHNSTON: Oh, no, thanks very much, Elmira. No, I think Claire really nailed it. What I was going to ask as a point of clarification was whether, you know, in the description of the Russian view of things, you know, Russia—we’ve all heard that, you know, Russia sees NATO as the primary adversary. And the question I was going to ask but which Claire already answered was, you know, does Russia see NATO as a military threat or the model of Western liberal democratic systems as the threat? And I think—I think Claire addressed that pretty decisively, that it’s the latter. It’s not so much that NATO troops are fearsome, but rather the idea that even Eastern European nations, even former Soviet Socialist Republics like the Baltic states, or perhaps even one day Ukraine or Georgia, Slavic states might become successful Western liberal democratic states, that this represents a civilizational challenge. Perhaps it even represents a personal challenge to the leadership of Vladimir Putin, whose system may not be able to accommodate those kinds of liberalizing reforms. If I understood Claire, I think she addressed that very clearly.
KAISER: No, precisely, Seth. And I can just maybe add one further element there. You know, I think that disconnect and that perspective gets us where we are, you know, in Ukraine today. I think, you know, there’s been all kinds of discussion about how, in spite of what Putin was telling us for years, no one really expected him to go as far as he did—(laughs)—with regard to, you know, just a full-scale assault on Ukraine. But I think, you know, it’s a sort of safe maybe not assumption, but it’s certainly plausible that from his vantage point he genuinely believed that support for NATO and Ukraine was not high, that there was possibility someday for Ukraine to kind of, you know, run back to Russia with open arms. I think everything that we have seen from Ukraine, certainly in the past eight years but even going back further than that, suggests quite the opposite. But whatever information he was getting, you know, was leading him to take a very different path. But, yeah, NATO and the civilizational challenge is very much at the center of it.
I’m going to open up to questions in just a moment. So to ask a question during the Q&A period, please click on “raise hand” icon in your Zoom window. And when you’re called on, you’ll state your name and affiliation before asking your question.
But before we do that, I want to—I wanted to ask Heidi, since we’ve been talking about Russia and Ukraine, and at the heart of it has been this question of NATO, how should we understand the restraint that NATO is exercising?
HARDT: Sure. I mean, I think at this point NATO is working to try to, you know, balance itself between two very difficult situations. So on one hand, you know, we’re working—you see NATO working to try to avoid escalation at all costs. Because I know that there have been some experts who have been making analogies to, you know, Kosovo or Libya or other situations that have been extreme humanitarian disasters and suggesting, well, why don’t we see a coordinated response by NATO in the same way that we’ve seen NATO act in the past, but in this particular situation—those were situations where you didn’t have a nuclear power that was actively intervening in another state. And so that makes it difficult because, you know, you certainly don’t want to see escalation with a state where there have been these veiled nuclear threats that have been made by Putin.
On the other hand, NATO doesn’t want to be seen as too weak or underperforming, so to speak, because it’s—you know, as an organization, it’s also in a situation where as a collective defense entity it’s working to deter against threats that may be imposing themselves onto NATO allies themselves. And so that means trying to be effectively—you know, effectively deter threats, and that means making sure that messaging is cohesive. So NATO’s also, you’ll see as you—if you follow, for example, statements from the secretary general or, you know, social media or things, you’ll notice that there’s a big effort on maintaining the cohesion that has really been bolstered as a response to this invasion. And so the—you know, even though we don’t see a full-out operation, right—we don’t see NATO invading; we don’t see this as a NATO conflict—what we see instead is a lot of increased coordination happening and just conversations among allies to make sure that allies are aware of what each of these individual nation-states are doing to provide their respective military assistance, humanitarian assistance, et cetera, to avoid duplication and problems in that sense.
But you know, we’ve seen kind of a historic number of summits. I think it was, you know, three summits within nine months. There is—obviously, this is—this is the number-one issue for NATO allies, is trying to, you know, do what states can to make sure that the member states of NATO themselves, who are called—referred to as allies, are—you know, are doing what they can to defend their own territory. But I think one of the big risks here is as troops increase—as we see more and more, you know, troops along the eastern flank—that messaging and those communications become particularly more important, because if you look at some of the scholarship on, you know, causes of war and how do conflicts happen, you know, conflicts can also happen from misperception and miscalculations and misunderstandings.
You know, I think one of the things that maybe some people didn’t—may not have read about was about this drone landing in Croatia’s backyard that, you know, came out of a product of this war. And so there’s a lot of concerns that there’s going to be spillover and a risk that suddenly Article 5—which is that article, again, that protects that—that, you know, commits allies to collective defense—may accidentally be tripped. And so I think that’s another motivator for why allies are working so hard to try to make sure that their messages are on point, that they’re communicating as much as possible, and you know, providing support for Ukraine but without taking that next step of actually having a situation where there’s a risk that you could have Russian and, say, U.S. planes in the air directly, right? Because, you know, that’s been very much a norm of the Cold War, was that you got to do whatever you can to avoid direct engagement so that you don’t end up with that—with escalating the risk to nuclear options.
BAYRASLI: OK. Actually, I’m going to—I’m going to ask one other question. I’m going to pick up on your point that you pointed out about the coordination of—that NATO has engaged in. And I think one of the things at least that struck me—and I think it struck Vladimir Putin as well—is Germany’s response. And so, Seth, I wanted to—you’re in Germany right now, and Germany has—it’s announced big changes to both its foreign policy and its security policy. Can you talk a little bit about that and the impact that this will have on European security?
JOHNSTON: Yeah. Thanks very much and good evening from Germany.
Before I do that, I did just want to underline a couple of things that Heidi just mentioned as well about the level of coordination in the NATO response. I think that in many ways it was a—it was a great question—yours originally, Elmira—you know, that, has NATO exercised restraint? I think I would—I would politely—and I think this underlines Heidi’s response as well—I would politely disagree with the premise of the question. I think NATO has masterfully exercised a proportional, responsible, but incredibly cohesive response in the face of this aggression from Russia.
You know, I’ll say just in my personal experience as a—as a commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, for example, you know, we enjoyed a lot of alliance cohesion in the face of some tough challenges then, but I’ve seen nothing like the level of cohesion and strength/unity from the NATO allies that we’re seeing today. Just in the last couple of weeks, for example, the announcement of the doubling of NATO military forces in Eastern Europe; the activation for the first time ever of the NATO Response Force and its very high readiness joint task force; the implementation of NATO’s defense plan, which are the first such plans that NATO has developed, you know, very specifically on the military side since the Cold War. And when I served in the alliance, you know, we were actually—we were actively involved in developing those plans, you know, for a worst-case or a bad scenario like this one. And that’s just the military side of things.
When you consider the level of coordination on, you know, allied economic sanctions, the level of political solidarity, and the diplomatic unity that NATO has showed, you know, if Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal in some of this aggression towards Ukraine and the West was to fracture the alliance or to somehow weaken the West, he has produced exactly the opposite reaction from what he intended. NATO has demonstrated enormous strength politically, economically, militarily, and it’s also done so in a—in an intelligent and responsible way, in my opinion.
From Germany, you know, no country’s reaction to the current crisis further exemplifies this galvanizing of NATO unity more than Germany. Germany really learned the lessons of—its own hard lesson from World War II. And its integration in institutions like NATO and the EU, as we’ve discussed, created a very powerful and deep-rooted culture of anti-militarism or even pacifism in this country. And for many decades, it was the longstanding policy of Germany not to send weapons to conflict zones. It’s written into the constitution that German forces, you know, will not participate in military operations abroad. For a long time, Germany has resisted implementing a plan to increase its national defense spending to the level that it and all other NATO nations agreed to spend, which is 2 percent of GDP on defense spending.
And within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany tossed all of that out the window. It sent antitank missiles and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. It authorized other countries that had purchased German-made weapons to do the same. It announced a 100-billion-euro defense fund and a sustained commitment to defense spending in the future that would be written into the constitution. You know, so, if implemented, would make Germany the biggest defense spender in Europe.
This is a huge U-turn, a revolution in German foreign policy, and a major shift in the European security power dynamics. I mean, this will have big implications for many, many years. But it’s a sign of not only the seriousness with which Europe takes the threat and the threat that Russia poses, not only Ukraine but to Europe and the entire system of global security, but it’s also an articulation of the incredible cohesion that NATO allies have shown, all of them, in this crisis.
BAYRASLI: Great. Thank you so much.
Well, now I’m going to turn to questions. I want to remind our audience that this discussion is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the queue. I believe that we have a number of questions. So operator, can you give us the first question?
OPERATOR: Sure. (Gives queueing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Josh Schoen.
Q: Hi. My name is Josh Schoen. I’m CEO of a software company, and most of our programmers are in the Ukraine. Before that, I was an Alpha fellow living in Moscow.
My question is about the nuclear doctrine, the Russian nuclear doctrine. So one of the things in the nuclear doctrine is that it allows the use of force if there’s an existential threat to the territory of the Russian Federation. I’m wondering how you see that and how you see Vladimir Putin’s viewing an existential threat to the Russian Federation, its territories, or its allies.
Does that mean necessarily that if there is a no-fly zone, and as long as we’re in Ukraine, that we’re not threatening the existential nature of the Russian Federation? Is a shellacking going to cause an existential threat to the Russian Federation? I understand everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face. But I’m curious how you view it.
BAYRASLI: Who would like to take that?
KAISER: I can maybe start, but I know Seth probably has more insight into the nuclear sort of security specifics here.
I will say, you know, there’s been a lot of focus on nuclear saber rattling in the past couple of weeks, you know, first and foremost because Putin is the one who’s been rattling the saber, which, of course, should concern us all. The prospect of deploying nukes on a battlefield or something more, you know, would be a game changer globally, for all the reasons that we know.
Having said that, I do think that if Russia pursues this sort of—I think they call it escalate to deescalate in their own doctrine—if they pursue this path, which is slightly different than the scenario that you painted, Josh, you know, I’m inclined to believe, and I guess maybe hopeful, that this really will stay in the saber-rattling realm, precisely because it, in the immediate term, gives Putin what he wants. We’re all sort of shaking in our boots at the prospect of Russia actually doing something as bold as actually using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and therefore are trying to respond with the sort of, you know, seriousness that that would require.
I think actually, you know, doing something in that regard would sort of—you know, you would lose the upper hand in sort of that negotiation scenario. So, you know, but in terms of the sort of specifics of Russian nuclear doctrine and their likelihood, you know, Seth, you likely have more to elaborate on there.
JOHNSTON: Thanks, Claire, for your perspective on the Russian view.
And Josh, thanks for your question. I think this is a really important question. We are all having to go back to school again on nuclear deterrence and some of the conflict—some of the concepts that were, you know, sort of basic during the Cold War but which fortunately, for better or worse in this case, we’ve not had to think about for several decades.
A couple of points, Josh, on how nuclear weapons are part of a national strategy or an alliance strategy. I think it’s worth recalling historically that in the early Cold War, the recourse to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence was the strategy of the side in the Cold War that had the weaker conventional forces, and that was NATO.
The original NATO strategy in the Cold War was what they called massive retaliation. Western allies knew that the Soviet Union and its allies had larger conventional forces compared to the West, and so the original NATO nuclear strategy of the Cold War was to say that if Russia tries or the Soviet Union tries anything with their superior, larger conventional forces, then that will be met with massive nuclear retaliation by the West.
To a certain extent, now the tables are turned. The Russian conventional forces in the conflict in Ukraine have shown themselves to be much less powerful, much less capable, than many analysts expected. Ukraine is not a nuclear-armed country. Russia is not at war with NATO or any of the nuclear-armed states in NATO, of which there are three, by the way. So there is no nuclear threat. There is no threat from a military standpoint to Russia.
But—and I think this is where you were going, Josh, is that, faced with the prospect of a conventional defeat in the field, would such a prospect be so fearsome to the Russian leadership that they would start to grasp in desperation for other ideas for how to achieve their aims? And Claire quite smartly invoked this concept of escalate to deescalate, which you sometimes see in Russian thinking. And this concept, of course, is the idea that if you threaten, if you demonstrate with weapons of mass destruction, then that may cause adversaries to back down.
It's worth pointing out too that the United States and NATO allies have backed away from so-called tactical and intermediate-range nuclear forces. This was, of course, the basis of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, one of the really landmark arms-control agreements of the Cold War, which just recently expired, mostly because—or it was recently unraveled mostly because NATO allies agreed that Russia had violated its terms, and the United States therefore withdrew.
But one of the dynamics that we now have is that Russia maintains a—not only a conceptual idea about the use of nuclear weapons, but also a material capability with the so-called tactical and intermediate-range nuclear weapons that have not been so prominent in Western thinking, notwithstanding the fact that NATO—as I mentioned, it’s not just the United States, but also France and Britain maintain their own independent national nuclear force.
And NATO since the 1960s has implemented sort of a nuclear sharing program in which allies coordinate on nuclear strategy and certain nuclear—certain NATO allies fly so-called dual-capable aircraft. These are aircraft of European NATO allies that are capable of being connected with U.S. nuclear weapons and flown into combat in that respect.
All of this is to say, once again, Josh, it’s a great question. We all need to go back to school on nuclear weapons. There’s a lot we can learn from the past. But it is fair to say that over the last thirty years the West and Russia have evolved somewhat different ways of thinking about nuclear deterrence and defense. And it’s worth reconsidering all of that, but at the end of the day remembering that there is no threat to Russia from a military sense that would justify that kind of escalation.
BAYRASLI: Great. Thank you.
Laura, can we take the next question please?
OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take the next question from Lillian Posner.
Q: Hello. I’m Lillian Posner. I’m a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on global health.
My question, I think, is probably best suited for you, Claire. But it’s about Georgia’s decision sort of not to support the war in Ukraine. To my mind, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova kind of have a similar interest in becoming NATO members. That has now, you know, been especially complicated. And Georgia has taken a kind of unexpected, to my mind, stance on the war.
So I’m just wondering what you think the outlook for those three countries is—you know, NATO or EU accession—and if they really have the kind of solidarity that we thought they did or if they will take different paths.
KAISER: Great question. Thanks, Lillian.
So I guess I would maybe separate a couple of these issues. You know, we have the NATO issue, of course, but the EU accession issue. And each of the three countries is kind of treating those a bit differently, for reasons I can get into shortly.
As far as EU’s accession goes, you know, a couple of weeks ago, when Ukraine perceived Commission President von der Leyen of indicating EU openness to welcome or fast-track Ukraine as a member, of course, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia promptly submitted their application paperwork. You know, that was, I think, a very symbolic but a very meaningful move. And all three countries would happily join the EU tomorrow if that were, you know, logistically possible.
As we all know, the EU membership track is extremely long with—because it’s the EU, a significant number of, you know, regulatory and political changes, you know, in terms of economic integration, legal system, rule of law. I mean, it’s a hefty package that all three countries have been, you know, trying to improve their track record on for years at this point. They still have a ways to go. But I think, you know, on the EU front, they are aligned in the fact that they would very much like to be an EU member, sooner rather than later.
On NATO, I think they’ve made their wishes known there as well, though it does seem like Zelensky and his team have been walking back the NATO-membership element of some of their demands as the negotiations with the Russians are continuing; so, you know, to be determined on where they land as far as that goes.
Getting to your question about Georgia specifically, you know, I think I would distinguish the Georgian population from the Georgian government in terms of how they’re viewing the war in Ukraine. Tbilisi—I think demonstrations on the streets of Tbilisi are not uncommon. Having said that, the demonstrations in Tbilisi in support of Ukrainians and kind of expressing their disappointment with how their government has reacted to this conflict really are quite telling.
You know, I think the population on the whole has been disappointed that the government hasn’t stood up, you know, more strongly to support sanctions, to even just support for what the Ukrainians are trying to achieve, since, you know, anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia is pretty high anyway, for reasons that I think everybody can understand and everything that’s flowed since 2008.
So we’re seeing kind of a bifurcation in, I think, the popular opinion as well as the government. But we’re also seeing a bit of a schism in the government right now since the president, Salome Zourabichvili, who is also French, you know, has decided to sort of take a more independent course and voice more support for the Ukrainians in this effort and try to get Georgia to, you know, step up a bit more than they have to date. And that has not gone down well with the rest of her government.
So not an easy picture in Georgia. But, you know, of course, worth noting that Georgia has really gone above and beyond in terms of committing to serving with NATO forces in Afghanistan, serving in Iraq, really investing heavily in just building that defense and security partnership with NATO, so really has been exemplary in that regard. So, you know, they’re taking this seriously.
But I think, you know, as I understand it, from the government’s perspective they are, you know, somewhat legitimately afraid to, you know, further stoke the ire of the bear to the north, given the fact that they continue to have occupied regions and simmering conflict, I think, in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So that’s likely where they’re coming from. But that message has not been conveyed very effectively to the public. That’s for sure.
BAYRASLI: Great. Thank you so much, Claire.
We only have a few minutes left, but I am going to ask Laura for another question before we wrap it up.
OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take the next question from Neal Caldwell.
Q: Yeah. Thank you so much to all the panelists for a wonderful conversation. My name is Neal Caldwell. I’m a master’s student in international relations at New York University.
And I wanted to ask a question about escalation. If you view providing support to Ukraine an escalation in terms of a kind of continuum, where are we on that continuum now, as the situation stands? You know, I think the threshold is probably—in terms of Western support being provided to Ukraine is probably only knowable by President Vladimir Putin. But how much of a tightrope or how would you categorize, you know, the risk of providing support now?
And then, secondarily, given the fact that Ukraine shares a border with four NATO member states, the threat of escalation in terms of spillover; just wondering how you all would categorize the current risk.
Thank you so much.
Heidi, can I actually call on you to chime in on this?
HARDT: Sure. I think it’s a great question, and I think it’s a question that we all really want to know the answer to, because it affects, you know, the way that we think about what, you know, the possible best responses are to a really, you know, disturbing situation.
I think that probably the—you are correct that ultimately Putin is going to be the one who is, you know, deciding what—whether, you know, responses have been significantly escalatory or considered not. And I think it speaks to the importance of some of the points that we were raising earlier about cohesion and messaging, that ultimately it’s important to make sure that we still have—and there are, you know, mil-to-mil kind of crisis, worst-case type communications that are there between, say, Russia and the U.S. and Russia and other states, but to make sure that cohesion exists among, you know, the allies in terms of what each of these steps is.
So going back to some of the points Seth was making about, you know, why is the NATO response force, you know, being introduced, why are certain measures being activated, and justifying those in a very public way, so that there’s a lot of transparency about what’s happening and why, and repeating that message that again this is not—you know, each of the steps that’s being taken, say, by individual allies or by NATO in particular are not necessarily being taken as—you know, as a means of trying to provoke or, you know, treat Russia as an adversary in a conflict, but rather thinking of this as, you know, what are signals that we can—that, you know, the alliance and the members of the alliance can send to signal that, you know, violating the international norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity is an extremely dangerous precedent, and we don’t want to see—you know, we as a general people, don’t want to see those violations be tolerated in the future.
I mean, when we talk about precedent, we start thinking about, you know, what does this mean then for other states that have nukes? Does this mean there will be impunity moving forward? And we definitely don’t want to see that. And I think that probably speaks to why the sanctions, for example, have been so coordinated, why the response has been so severe on the economic page, to send the signal that, you know, this is an extreme violation of, you know, the U.N. charter and, you know, the fundamental way in which states exist in the international system.
BAYRASLI: Great. Thank you so much.
Obviously, there’s a lot to dig into on this topic, a timely topic that it is. But we are out of time.
I want to thank all of the young professionals who have joined us. I hope you got a lot out of this, as much as I did. And I really want to thank Claire, Heidi, and Seth for your expert insights into this very relevant topic, and to the Council on Foreign Relations for putting it together.
Everyone, wherever you are, you have a good evening. And we look forward to welcoming you to a future Council on Foreign Relations event.