NATO’s Next Moves

NATO’s Next Moves

NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea may require it to bolster eastern European members with both military and non-military actions, says expert Christopher S. Chivvis.

March 20, 2014 2:11 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has placed NATO’s fundamental commitments to European security under the microscope. While the Pentagon and its allies have deployed more aircraft to help police the skies over Eastern Europe, debate continues over what NATO should do next. Christopher S. Chivvis, a European security expert at the RAND Corporation, says a military response seems unlikely at this point, but the alliance has a number of options to try to check further Russian moves. NATO needs to reinforce its posture on the continent, he says, but "reassurance and deterrence need to be carefully calibrated and thought through."

What are NATO’s responsibilities in Eastern Europe and its options for responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea?

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According to Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, allies are committed to the principle that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." This is the fundamental responsibility of the alliance to all its members, meaning that any aggression against an ally in Eastern Europe will be viewed as an attack on the United States and all the other allies.

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Regarding Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, NATO’s responsibilities are less clear. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO agreed that Ukraine "will become a member of NATO," but did not specify a timeframe, and after [Viktor] Yanukovich was elected in 2010, efforts on this front slowed considerably. Still, NATO remains committed to supporting Ukraine’s reform efforts on multiple levels and has not rescinded its August 2008 declaration that "Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are key factors for ensuring stability in Europe."

NATO military options for responding to Crimea run the gamut, but a military response seems highly unlikely at this time. What NATO may do now is take measures to deter a broader Russian attack on eastern Ukraine. For example, it could deploy combat forces to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, although this is also very unlikely and would be viewed as very provocative by Russia. Less provocative but still very controversial would be to offer Ukraine defensive weapons systems such as anti-tank or anti-aircraft systems. In addition, NATO could offer Ukraine intelligence about Russian forces and capabilities.

Finally, NATO could deploy additional non-combat training or observer missions to Ukraine. The presence of even a non-combat NATO mission could make Russia think twice about further aggression, especially if NATO staff were deployed in eastern regions. NATO could also provide transport for humanitarian or other non-lethal assistance to the Ukrainian people in the event of, or buildup to, hostilities.

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NATO uniform and badgeThe patch of the NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft attached to a soldier’s uniform.(Photo: Wolfgang Rattay/Courtesy Reuters)

What are NATO’s contingency plans for further Russian intervention in Ukraine and elsewhere?

To my knowledge, NATO has no specific contingency plans, since it has been NATO policy for many years to avoid military planning against Russia. Ukraine is also not a NATO member state. There will, however, almost certainly be an effort to strengthen Ukraine’s hand against further Russian encroachment.

NATO’s strength arises from the broad range of countries that are members. Because these countries sometimes have divergent interests and different preferences when it comes to strategy, building consensus can take a lot of work.

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To what degree does NATO still depend on the United States?

U.S. leadership remains essential to building consensus among the twenty-eight member states. When the United States has ceded leadership of the alliance, things have not worked very well. Even in the case of NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, where allies such as France, Britain, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway played critical military roles, U.S. leadership was essential to building and maintaining allied political support for the intervention.

Anyone who has spent time at NATO, however, knows that U.S. leadership is not the same thing as U.S. dominance. There are many obstacles the United States has to overcome when it leads. Sometimes these are insurmountable.

Does NATO need to reinforce its posture in Europe in the mid- to longer term?

Yes, but reassurance and deterrence need to be carefully calibrated and thought through.

The United States, Britain, and NATO have deployed fighter and early-warning aircraft to Poland and Baltic allies for reassurance, but these are only short-term measures. As we look ahead, reassuring NATO’s east European members of the U.S. and NATO commitment will be critical—and challenging. This will require military and non-military actions. Because the problem is different from the Cold War, it’s not a question of just rolling out Cold War options.

The United States and NATO could increase their training presence in Eastern Europe, participate more robustly in the Baltic Air Policing mission, and possibly consider deploying Patriot missile batteries to Eastern allies. NATO will likely also accelerate the development of cyber defenses to ensure that allies are less susceptible to disruptive cyberattacks. In addition, plans for "Aegis Ashore" missile defense installations will go forward.

To avoid a self-defeating escalation of the tensions in the region, however, these deployments should be somewhat fungible. If they can be altered, this will give Russia an incentive to change course from its current policy. So some flexibility is desirable here.

Reassuring allies in Eastern Europe, however, will take more than changes in military posture. We also need to strengthen NATO’s unity and resolve while visibly demonstrating U.S. commitment to the alliance. At the same time, we should avoid anything that could be viewed as indicating U.S. interests in Europe are secondary to other global interests. And most of all, we need to strengthen our narrative of why the freedom of NATO member states is a critical U.S. national interest through regular speeches, statements, and actions of senior U.S. Leaders.

How does NATO’s rollout of missile defense come into play?

The United States is moving forward with the deployment of its European missile defense system, which is known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach. This system is largely sea-based, and relies on Aegis technology. A small part of the system, however, is planned for Poland and Romania. We can expect these deployments will still go ahead as planned, and indeed could even be accelerated. U.S. missile defense in Europe is the mainstay of NATO’s missile defense system. Over time, however, other allies are planning to increase their own contributions to the system, for example, by feeding radar data into it to improve missile warning and tracking capabilities.

The United States and NATO have repeatedly emphasized that the European ballistic missile defense system is not a threat to Russia’s very sophisticated missile forces. The United States has said this to Russia both in NATO and in bilateral forums. Russia nevertheless continues to claim it fears the system. In 2011, Moscow rejected U.S. and NATO proposals that would have built confidence that the system is not directed against Russia. Even though its fears are groundless, Russia will no doubt portray the strengthening of NATO missile defenses as provocative, and NATO will need to do more to explain to the world why this is not true.

What is the nature of NATO’s contacts with Russia, and what are the contingencies for crisis management?

Most of the diplomacy will not be through NATO, but NATO does have a mechanism, the NATO-Russia Council, to manage this relationship. In NRC meetings, representatives of NATO allies sit together with representatives of Russia to address issues of common concern and identify and organize areas for cooperation.

The NRC is supposed to serve as a crisis management tool, but it hasn’t been very effective as such. It was not useful during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and while it has met once since the Crimea crisis, the meeting does not appear to have had a discernible impact on Russian policy. The fact is that crisis management arrangements only work if both sides want to de-escalate, and that’s not where we are right now.


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