international analysis and commentary

Why NATO should not move on Crimea


In a piece for Foreign Policy, Retired Admiral James Stavridis, presented the case for NATO stepping up its game in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian crisis developing in Crimea. Despite acknowledging that Vladimir Putin might regard any NATO move as a provocation, the former SACEUR and EUCOM Commander listed a number of actions the alliance could take, including raising the state of alert for the 25,000 strong Response Force – the multinational, high readiness, technologically advanced units that have been trained for similar contingencies, theoretically comprising up to 25,000 troops. While Admiral Stavridis’ push for NATO’s reaction is understandable, and probably inspired by the, so far, weak response of NATO’s European allies, his advice fails to take into account the many risks its implementation would create or aggravate.

Firstly, heavier NATO involvement in Crimea would escalate the current crisis. Shifting the focus of the confrontation from Ukraine-Russia to US-Russia would tie Putin’s hands, and virtually disable him from backing down. The strong support he received from Russia’s Parliament, along with the approval for use of the armed forces, should be seen not only as a proof of his personal strength in Russia, but also a limitation on his room for maneuver. If confronted by a NATO intervention, he would have no choice but to respond by escalating. A further hardening of Russia’s position would  generate the potential for spillover in other states that Russia considers within its sphere of interest. Thus, overly aggressive NATO moves in reaction to Moscow’s moves could have a negative impact on developments relating to Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Secondly, escalation is a poorly suited deterrence technique when applied to the Crimea crisis. This is a battle of wills that the US and NATO simply cannot win, given that Russia cares much more about Crimea than the West does. Taken to its logical conclusion, escalation can only end in one of two ways – with the West backing down, or in war. Short of employing major force, Russia cannot be made to give up its stake in Crimea. In any case, NATO’s European allies would be unlikely to allow the confrontation to go that far, as any action that jeopardizes the stable energy flow to central Europe would be a high a price to pay for regional states, especially Germany. Thus, the most likely outcome is a sort of reckless bluff.

Some may argue that a strong reaction is needed in order to preserve the US and NATO’s reputation as a promoter and defender of democratic values. However, it is far better to appear weak (or just very cautious) than to have one’s bluff called, or ignite a conflict that would be the most dangerous since the outbreak of World War II. 

Lastly, the narrow focus on Crimea is itself counter-productive. The peninsula’s location within the Ukraine is the byproduct of accidental history. “Gifted” to the Ukrainian SSR by Nikita Krushchev in 1954, himself a former head of the Ukrainian communist party, it has always maintained the status of a Russian-leaning enclave, even in the years after Ukraine’s independence. Not only is it home to Moscow’s most important military base outside the Russian Federation, but its population also considers itself ethnically Russian. Any NATO move that equates the status of Crimea with that of the rest of the country would therefore be a grave error. Rather than drawing a red line that seeks to preserve a Soviet era diktat, the US and European nations should focus on preventing any effort to prompt a counter-revolution in the remainder of the country, and deterring further Russian encroachment into Ukrainian territory.

Democratic consolidation requires an expedited aid and loan package that goes beyond that already pledged. A generous offer can buy leverage with the new government, as can a pledge not to allow Moscow a veto over Ukraine’s EU ambitions. In exchange, NATO nations should push the new government to discontinue talk of “an act of aggression” against Ukraine, a formulation it deployed at the United Nations. Equally, further Russian incursions can be avoided through pressure that results in the inclusion of representatives of the pro-Russian east in the Kiev government, as well as credible guarantees for Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity. It will not be an easy, painless or quick process, but the alternatives are terribly worse.

Ultimately, the only realistic outcome of the recent upheaval can be a more pro-Western Ukraine, albeit one with more pronounced Russian influence in Crimea and the east. The alternative is a winner-takes-all dynamic fueled by Cold War era patrons, a loose-loose dynamic that benefits no one. A century and a half ago, the nations of Europe blundered into an unexpected and bloody conflict in Crimea that ought to have been avoided. Cooler heads must now prevail if history is to be prevented from repeating itself.