This past weekend, NATO held its biennial summit in Warsaw, Poland. This year among the topics of great concern being discussed at the summit was reinforcing NATO’s eastern border along Russia. Due to increasing tensions with Russia, NATO is specifically concerned with the sovereignties of its eastern states, primarily those of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who border Russia, and are at risk of potentially being invaded.
According to the Washington Post, following Russian annexation of Crimea, “ the Kremlin has been building up its military along its border with the former Soviet satellites.” The region has become a heavily militarized zone and studies of simulated Russian invasions approximate that the “Baltic capitals would be overrun within 60 hours.” The threat of invasion is significant in the Baltic States, and as a result, NATO has responded with significant military tactics of its own.
Among increasing response troop numbers, heightened response times, and general oversight in the region, international powers, including the U.S., are enacting a strategy of “tripwire deterrence” against Russia. As a part of this deterrence, the coalition is set to deploy battalions from the United States, Britain, Germany, and Canada to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In addition to that, the U.S. has also promised to increase next year’s funding to $3.4 billion, in order to increase American forces in the area and also to add additional heavy weapons. These measures are in many ways a warning for Russia, a discretionary notice that upon invasion, it will face the full force of an internationally joint operation. However, while NATO’s response to this Russian threat is significant, it is drastically different from its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
After Russia annexed Crimea, NATO took a diplomatic standpoint:
At the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014, NATO leaders condemned in the strongest terms Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and demanded that Russia stop and withdraw its forces from Ukraine and along the country’s border. NATO leaders also demanded that Russia comply with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities; end its illegitimate occupation of Crimea; refrain from aggressive actions against Ukraine; halt the flow of weapons, equipment, people and money across the border to the separatists; and stop fomenting tension along and across the Ukrainian border. They reaffirmed that NATO does not and will not recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea.
However, they did not go as far as enacting military operations, instead halting any joint operations they were to have. The most significant reaction was the creation of the Readiness Action Plan, as a way to be able to react hastily to any changes that may concern NATO member states. The United States specifically enacted numerous economic sanctions against Russia, intended on hurting President Putin’s purse. The sanctions did not hurt Putin directly, but they did negatively impact the Russian economy. Nonetheless, the sanctions did not achieve their end goal of getting President Putin to retreat from Ukraine.
The steps taken against Russia in response to both the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and the more recent uptick of military tension on the eastern border of NATO, while significant in their own rights, very clearly differ in intensity. The measures enacted during the Warsaw summit against a possible Russian invasion are far more severe than the West’s actual response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the reason behind this anomaly stems from one single detail: Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are NATO member states, while Ukraine is not. Ukraine has a long-standing working relationship with NATO and is on the track to becoming a NATO member, however it is not yet a member, and thus does not have the privileges that members have, like being protected under NATO’s collective defense article.
Collective defense requires NATO members to retaliate against an attack directed at any of their own because at its core it “means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” NATO must either fight back, upholding the principles it is built upon, or violate those very principles by not helping their own. To make matters worse, in terms of the latter, failing to honor its core values would mean that NATO destroys itself, effectively destroying what Professor Jakub Grygiel of Johns Hopkins University calls, “ ‘the last European institution standing…and…the main link between Europe and North America.” According to Grygiel, NATO is “ ‘likely to become more important as the E.U. weakens, because it will continue to serve as a mechanism of coordination and cooperation.’ ” Thus the situation on the eastern front is more sensitive than the situation in Ukraine was. While the annexation of Crimea was illegal and violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, it was a much more localized issue than the present threats facing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The illegal actions against Ukraine did not warrant an excessive threat that could foment a prospect for change because Ukraine was not in a position with Europe to be granted such a privilege. The pure irony of the situation is that increased Western sentiment on the part of the Ukrainians angered and provoked Russia into invading. In the end however, the system the Ukrainians praised failed them, in that it left them virtually alone against Russia.
This is because the main issue is not that Russia is the threat. Instead the issue lies in the fact that the threat occurred outside of NATO’s borders. It was in an area that the West had no legal obligation to protect, and as a result, it could not act. There was too much risk of NATO instigating a military conflict that had a high potential of escalating into all-out war. Thus, at the expense of the Ukrainians, waiting it out and diplomatically attempting to de-escalate the problem was NATO’s, and in essence the world’s, best option.
Ukraine’s disadvantage purely stemmed from the fact that it is not a member of NATO. It has an ongoing working relationship with NATO, but even that could not help it, even though, according to the international organization, “A sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.”
The Washington Post:
The New York Times: