The Kremlin’s ham-handed land grab illuminates its defensive crouch, revealing Vladimir Putin as cornered animal. Russia really is acting from weakness. Its buffer states are long lost, NATO has pushed to its border and now that its crony in fraternal Ukraine has fled, the danger of democracy has drawn right up to Mr. Putin’s door.
Weakness doesn’t imply impotence. Animals fearing mortal peril are more likely to lash out, and one immediate and obvious potential target is the NATO alliance, whose expansion into the Baltics, however good it may have looked at the time, has left it recklessly exposed.
In 1994, as Russia lay shambolic after the Soviet collapse, NATO welcomed former Soviet republics and satellites into its Partnership for Peace. Five years later the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became full NATO members. Five years after that, ten years ago this week, NATO took in seven more countries, three of which, the Baltic states, border Russia (Poland also has a border with the Russian exclave Kaliningrad).
Proponents of expansion at the Brookings Institution wrote that “… fears that enlargement would provoke a new cold war were always greatly exaggerated.” Until now. They argued that “… enlargement will be most successful if it can be accomplished without driving a wedge between Russia and the West.” To the contrary, pushing a military alliance that was founded to oppose Russia right up to Russia’s border has done precisely that, giving an embattled Russian leader an opening to upset the entire Allied apple cart.
When the Russians made their move in Crimea, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called upon them not to “violate the Budapest Memorandum,” a 1994 document in which signatories Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and refrain from the use of force against it.
Ukraine saw the memorandum as protection from invasion. Russia violated it explicitly and the U.S. and U.K. brushed it aside, calling it a “diplomatic document,” not a treaty. So much for diplomatic documents. So now Yatsenyuk is on to Plan B, signing deals with the EU, inveighing against Russia, pleading for Western support.
It may be, as Gideon Rachman has written, that a Ukraine war would spell disaster for Russia. But there are more clever ways for the Russian leader to wreak calamity than a military assault on the Donbass.
Consider NATO’s northeasternmost outpost, the Estonian border town of Narva, along the main highway from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, which is 82% ethnic Russian (2011). Suppose Mr. Putin were to move, let’s say, 200 un-uniformed men just over the border to protect the ethnic Russians there against intolerable harassment at the hands of the evil, brutish Estonians.
Neither the U.S. nor the Europeans ever meant to commit troops to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. Do you think they would go to war in Estonia, which is? Sent to buck up the allies last week, Vice President Biden strongly implied that they would. In Lithuania and Poland he declared the U.S. “absolutely committed” to defending its allies.
“I want to make it unmistakingly (sic) clear to you and to all our allies in the region that our commitment to mutual self-defense under Article 5 of NATO remains ironclad,” he said.
Article 5 is the famous “one for all and all for one” clause in the NATO treaty. In the popular imagination Article 5 implies that an attack on any member would require military support from all the rest.
Take a look at Article 5:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Each party will assist the aggrieved by taking such action as it deems necessary. Does anybody believe that the U.S. and German and British armies would deem it necessary to face off with a coven of Mr. Putin’s plainclothes protectors on the Estonia/Russia border? And if not, does anybody believe the credibility of the NATO alliance would survive the next morning’s light?
Everybody loves grand historical markers: “The End of History,” “The American Century,” “The Rise of China.” Asked if this is the beginning of “A New Cold War,” Zbigniew Brzezinski replied that “It’s beginning to look that way.” Michael McFaul, the most recent American ambassador to Moscow, delivered his valedictory démarche in the New York Times, declaring that Crimea “… ended the post-Cold War era in Europe.”
Whether the events starting with Crimea’s annexation will rise to the level of era-renaming remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say relations with Russia will no longer be as they always have for Americans under age 40 or so. Let us hope that a cornered but cunning Vladimir Putin won’t add “NATO embarrassed to death” to the list of ways things are different.
— Also published on Medium.com.