As talks involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, get underway in Belarus, evidence mounted that Russia is escalating its incursion of Ukrainian territory by sending troops and a column of tanks into eastern Ukraine.
NATO was quick to condemn Russia’s actions Monday, Aug. 25, yet similar previous condemnations have done nothing to deter Putin. But the alliance does have options beyond harsh words to deter Russia’s insurgency in a key European neighbor.
Ukraine doesn’t belong to NATO, so the alliance is not obligated by treaty to deploy ground troops or air support. NATO could provide weapons, but the fight would be the Ukrainians to win.
Even if NATO allies don’t supply the Ukrainians with weapons, they may end up indirectly paying for arms that Ukraine needs down the road. Its economic situation is dire as the conflict drags on far past the mere "hours" that Poroshenko predicted it would take to rout the separatists when elected in May.
The Putin doctrine — the belief that Russia has the right to act to protect Russian-speakers, no matter where they are — puts NATO nations such as Estonia, Latvia, and Poland at risk. Each of these countries has citizens who speak Russian; the Kremlin has suggested it would penetrate those borders if Moscow thought those populations were threatened.
According to Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009, the alliance is now in the middle of a delicate balancing act: It’s trying to show enough force to warn Russia away from NATO members that were part of the old Eastern Bloc, while not appearing openly hostile in a way that would provoke Russia’s territorial ambitions. The last thing NATO wants is a second Cold War.
"The higher we make the line for protecting allies, the worse it is for countries like Moldova and Georgia and Ukraine," he said. "You’re telling Russians that if you’re not a NATO member, you’re fair game. That’s a dangerous signal."
Since the Ukrainian crisis began, NATO has conducted shows of force in former Soviet-bloc states. It’s planning a large military exercise in Poland in October. It tripled the number of air patrols over Baltic states in May and conducted additional naval exercise in the region. And U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Estonia ahead of a NATO summit in Wales next week, a powerful show of solidarity with a country that Putin has publicly eyed as a candidate for Russian intervention.
However, Volker thinks that the alliance could do more.
"NATO could reconstitute an ace mobile force, a NATO response force," he said. "The idea is that you have units that exist not just on paper — that are identified together and exercise together. They could exercise as a multinational force in Eastern Europe. It would be a strong show of multinational solidarity."
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it detained 10 Russian paratroopers in the country’s contested Donetsk region. Russian news agencies reported that Russian officials said that the soldiers were there by accident. Late Tuesday, Ukraine released videos showing the captured Russian soldiers.
This "accidental" incursion follows a more blatant one on Monday, when a column of tanks and troops crossed into southeastern Ukraine from Russia.
"The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway," the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted just past midnight on Tuesday.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted, "Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine," including air-defense systems, tanks, soldiers, and artillery, "represent significant escalation."
All this comes just after Poroshenko dissolved Ukraine’s government on Monday in an attempt to rid it of Russian sympathizers. Russia’s outright contempt of international opinion, combined with the political instability in Kiev, inspires little confidence in Poroshenko of Putin’s ability to reach a deal ending the crisis. By late Tuesday, the only public show of goodwill between the two was a handshake.
According to John Herbst, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, there wasn’t much hope of a deal even before Russia’s latest violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
"There will be no progress tomorrow unless Poroshenko is willing to concede an additional part of his country to Putin," Herbst said on Monday. "It’s clear that the only solution that Mr. Putin will accept is one in which he has either a major say, if not a veto, over what happens in [eastern Ukraine]. Without that, Putin continues his irregular war and insurgency. We have no evidence that he is willing to cease his aggression in Ukraine."
Ukraine’s budget also gives Putin more leverage.
Ukraine’s currency has lost 60 percent of its value since the beginning of the year, and manufacturing and spending have been hit by the uncertainty over the separatist conflict. The country is burning through a $17 billion loan from the IMF. If the conflict drags into the fall, Kiev will also have to grapple with holding aside enough reserves to buy gas from Russia for the winter — not to mention that negotiating a price for that gas will give Moscow another lever to pressure Ukraine into make concessions in the east.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said the key to deterring Russia from using this leverage is showing that NATO can react quickly to a threat.
"NATO is not going to put large numbers of troops in Eastern Europe on a standing basis, barring some specific threat," he said. "The questions is, how do you put in place capacity for rapid response? There, NATO has a lot of work to do."
For Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, military solutions do not go far enough. He said that NATO should publicly question the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a 1997 agreement that states that each side does not view the other as a threat.
"This agreement is based on the notion that there is no threat from the east," he said. "Putin’s behavior in Ukraine has changed that."
The X factor in coordinated alliance action is Germany. At the outset, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hesitant to punish Russia. But after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, she successfully pushed for tougher sanctions. However, according to Joerg Wolf, editor in chief of the Berlin-based think tank Atlantic-community.org, Berlin would view additional penalties as unnecessary escalation.
"The belief is that a forceful response would be counterproductive and a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., if NATO were to go into full Cold War mode and set up big, permanent military bases in Poland and the Baltic states, then Russia would consider this a provocation and an excuse to escalate the situation further," Wolf said. "As result of World War I and many centuries of wars on our continent, Europeans are more concerned than Americans about unintended consequences, vicious circles, and spirals leading towards war."
Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he understands this hesitancy. But maintaining the border integrity of non-NATO European countries is also a key interest of the alliance; European NATO members do not want Russia seizing territory without consequence along the alliance’s eastern border.
"We have an interest of keeping stability in Europe by protecting its borders, not just of NATO members, but also protecting the territorial integrity of our partners," he said, noting that Ukraine and Georgia are officially partners of the alliance.
"I think that a passive or soft position actually encourages Russia to keep this up," he added. "When NATO doesn’t push back, Russia can go on to the next [incursion]. You need a clear line that Russians know they can’t cross."
Senior reporter Jamila Trindle contributed to this report.