NATO Needs to Move Now on Crimea

Action may provoke -- but so does doing nothing.


Now that Vladimir Putin’s Olympics are over, his gaze has turned inexorably to what he clearly regards as the premier foreign-policy priority of the Russian Federation: retaining determinative influence — if not full control — over Ukraine.

He went to the Russian parliament to formally request permission for what he has already done — send troops into Ukraine — and it approved the move. News reports indicate the Russian military has seized Crimea. This is a volatile, dangerous situation without foreign intervention; and his behavior is reckless. Like a chess player leaning forward, his moves are sweeping the board.

What is NATO’s move?

The United States has responded strongly through normal diplomatic channels, with Secretary of State John Kerry calling this an action with "grave consequences" — freighted language in the world of diplomacy. The president and secretary of defense have echoed this, and further condemnation will no doubt be forthcoming.

Certainly the shadow of recent Russian activity in Georgia, including the invasion and creation of the "independent" states of Abkhazia and Ossetia, looms over the situation, as does Russian activity in Transnistria. Will Crimea be next?

All of this, of course, is magnified by the strategic importance to Russia of the Black Sea port and the presence of a significant part of Russia’s fleet and its guaranteed access to the Mediterranean and the Levant.

Hopefully, there can be high-level diplomatic discussions at the United Nations, European Union, and other international organizations that will lead to full territorial integrity of the sovereign state of Ukraine. And the state of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has to be sensibly resolved, as do important trading and energy relations. The hope is that cooler heads will prevail.

However, hope is not a strategy, and therefore further action should be considered. Planning is vital to laying out options to decision-makers, and NATO’s military planners should have a busy weekend at least.

This is a classic case of a situation where the United States should be working in lock step with its allies around the world, but especially its European friends and most notably the 28 members of the NATO alliance.

NATO should call an immediate emergency session and weigh its options in the political, diplomatic, economic, and military dimensions.

In the military sphere, these include ordering the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), led by U.S. Gen. Phil Breedlove, to conduct prudent planning and present options in response to the situation. While such planning should be left to the current commanders and military experts, some ideas to consider would include:

  • Increasing all intelligence-gathering functions through satellites, Predator unmanned vehicles, and especially cyber.
  • Using the NATO-Ukrainian Commission and existing military partnerships with the Ukrainian military to share information, intelligence, and situational awareness with authorities in Kiev.
  • Providing advice to Ukrainian armed forces to prepare and position themselves in the event of further conflict.
  • Developing NATO contingency plans to react to full-scale invasion of Ukraine and to a partial invasion likely of Crimea. NATO contingency planning can be cumbersome, but in Libya it moved quickly.
  • Assigning one of the NATO Joint Force Commands (either Naples, Italy, or Brunssum, Netherlands) into direct overwatch of the situation.
  • Standing up NATO crisis centers to full manning, especially at SHAPE and the relevant Joint Force Command.
  • Ensuring that the Land and Maritime Component Commands (Izmir, Turkey, and Northwood in the United Kingdom, respectively) are conducting prudent planning in their areas of expertise and feeding their analysis to the Joint Force Command.
  • Bringing the NATO Response Force, a 25,000-man sea, air, land, and special forces capability, to a higher state of alert.
  • Convening allies with cyber-capabilities (this is not a NATO specialty) to consider options — at a minimum to defend Ukraine if it is attacked in this domain (as Georgia was).
  • Sailing NATO maritime forces into the Black Sea and setting up contingency plans for their use.

Many will consider any level of NATO involvement provocative and potentially inflammatory. Unfortunately, the stakes are high and the Russians are moving. Sitting idle, without at least looking at options, is a mistake for NATO and would itself constitute a signal to Putin — one that he would welcome.

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj