Rethinking the NATO-Russia-Ukraine Relationship on the Eve of Brussels Summit

Ten years after the NATO Summit in Bucharest, when Ukraine and Georgia were promised entry into NATO "in the future," NATO yet again incorporated Ukraine into its aspirant country list.  The definition regarding the list has been changed just recently, since in the past, Ukraine declared that it was not formally pursuing membership.

Indeed, in 2010, Ukraine, under Moscow's pressure, passed a law on its non-aligned status but dropped it in 2014, after the infamous "Revolution of Dignity," which brought to power pro-Western authorities.  In that same year, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern regions of Ukraine, waging a proxy war and supporting a pro-Russia separatist movement with eventual establishment of Moscow's puppet regimes in rebellious regions.  Facing an escalating armed conflict in a geographical hub of Europe, NATO countries have supported Kiev with military and humanitarian aid, but there were no further talks on a possibility for Ukraine to join the Alliance.

Even though the newly obtained status of "aspirant country" only confirms Kiev's political willingness, or aspiration, to join NATO and is only a transitional step on this long journey, the change of definition on NATO's official website has expectedly caused the Kremlin to nervously overreact, calling it the "West's final betrayal of Russia."  Indeed, NATO's pointless flirtation with Ukraine on the eve of the Brussels Summit on 11-12 June is antagonizing Russia, which has proven to be bold enough to take military action when it feels challenged or perceives a geopolitical loss (Ukrainian territory is obviously a pivotal geostrategic space for Russian security).  Tension between the NATO countries and Russia has recently been fueled by Russian interference in American elections, differences over the Syrian war, and use of chemical weapons in Salisbury (Great Britain) followed by the mutual expulsion of diplomats.  This tension gravely undermines the stability and security of the whole Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia itself.  Improving relationships requires counterparts to change their vision and strategy toward each other, which is in everyone's best interest.

Russia: Dropping Victimhood Narratives

When rationalizing its anti-Western views and policies, the Russian political establishment utilizes a narrative of the West's broken promise" not to expand NATO eastward, since former Soviet republics and satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact were viewed by Russia as its traditional sphere of influence.  True, there were many verbal commitments given to Soviet officials by their Western counterparts, but none of them was concluded as a political or legal pact that would prohibit NATO's expansion beyond the borders of a reunited Germany.  Nevertheless, Russia sees itself as a victim of Western betrayal and thus "justifies" its rogue international actions.

Moreover, for Vladimir Putin's regime, this narrative constitutes an image of Russia as a besieged castle.  Having deep roots in the Russian mass consciousness, the image of an endangered Motherland allows the regime to achieve such goals as to legitimize of personalized and hyper-centralized power of a president, to distract the public's attention from domestic issues to external threats (whether real or imagined), to transfer responsibility for the regime's failures in economic, social, and other domestic policies onto the "enemy's" plan, to mobilize the electorate, and to fight political opposition by simply labeling their leaders "foreign agents."

But instead of engaging the Russians in a witch hunt and a muscle-flexing contest, there is just one and, perhaps, the most important question that Vladimir Putin needs to answer honestly: why do former Soviet republics and countries of Central and Eastern Europe that once were either part of USSR or its closes allies now seek to orient themselves toward the West and not Russia?  Maybe it is because Putin's Russia cannot offer them a positive integrational idea that would inspire international cooperation.  And maybe it is because the Kremlin failed to create an attractive image of a prosperous country that cherishes and respects human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.  The Kremlin needs to stop blaming the West for its failures and crimes and to concentrate on rebuilding its positive image through domestic reforms – primarily in the economic and social sectors.

NATO: Understanding the Kremlin

Although NATO claims that its ongoing enlargement process poses no threat to any country, we must view it realistically.  Just a quick glance at the map of NATO military bases in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States and anti-missile defense systems deployed in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Germany, as well as Aegis-equipped U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea combined with regular military training of NATO troops in Ukraine and the Black Sea region, allows us to understand rightful Russian concerns.  On top of that, Washington has just recognized Russia as a threat in the recently published National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, calling it a "revisionist power."  Naturally, it makes Russia feel threatened, just as the U.S. would be if Russians had their military bases deployed in Mexico and Canada and warships cruising along American coasts. As we noted before, given Putin's readiness to violently react against NATO's advances in Eastern Europe, NATO leaders should concentrate on securing a natural strategic boundary of the Alliance in Europe by completing a logical process of integration of all the states of former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia), strategically securing the Balkan peninsula.  And then the alliance's enlargement must be at least temporarily put on hold.

As the West seeks to deter Russia, the most effective tool to do so is found in economic sanctions that have already proven their efficiency.  After all, military and political strength are rooted in a strong economy.  Unfortunately for Russia, President Putin has not contributed much to its economic development during the past 17 years.  On the contrary – he has built crony capitalism with a mono-economy of natural gas and oil, exports of which keeps the weakening Russian economy afloat.

As for strategy toward Ukraine, NATO should continue its support through consultations, training, and limited military aid aimed to secure Ukraine's eastern border.

Ukraine: Lowering Expectations

As much as Ukraine is important for building of common Euro-Atlantic security, Kiev must accept that the country will not be accepted as a member of the alliance in the near future due to major obstacles.  For instance, NATO rarely accepts countries with unresolved territorial issues.  To be fair, some countries' strategic importance made NATO turn a blind eye to that kind of dispute, as happened in 1951, when Turkey and Greece were invited to join.  But it is not going to happen to a Ukraine that is unfortunate enough to have a nuclear-armed Russia as its adversary.  Bringing Ukraine into the alliance with its simmering conflict in the Eastern regions and an annexed Crimea would factually mean NATO declaring war against Russia, under its obligations according to an Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.  Clearly, no one is ready for this scenario.

Thus, Kiev must manage its expectations and not fan them among Ukrainians.  Instead, it must concentrate on the strengthening of its democratic institutions and fighting a decisive war on corruption that slows down the country's development and damages its credibility. 

All in all, there is no doubt that the mutual strategy in the triangle NATO-Russia-Ukraine must change to prevent any further escalation of tension in Europe.  It is not an easy task, and even if NATO slows down its pace of enlargement, as is highly probable that it will, there is no guarantee that this would pacify Russia.  Luckily, NATO countries possess an arsenal of economic and diplomatic measures to deter Russia's unpredictable reactions. 

Ten years after the NATO Summit in Bucharest, when Ukraine and Georgia were promised entry into NATO "in the future," NATO yet again incorporated Ukraine into its aspirant country list.  The definition regarding the list has been changed just recently, since in the past, Ukraine declared that it was not formally pursuing membership.

Indeed, in 2010, Ukraine, under Moscow's pressure, passed a law on its non-aligned status but dropped it in 2014, after the infamous "Revolution of Dignity," which brought to power pro-Western authorities.  In that same year, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern regions of Ukraine, waging a proxy war and supporting a pro-Russia separatist movement with eventual establishment of Moscow's puppet regimes in rebellious regions.  Facing an escalating armed conflict in a geographical hub of Europe, NATO countries have supported Kiev with military and humanitarian aid, but there were no further talks on a possibility for Ukraine to join the Alliance.

Even though the newly obtained status of "aspirant country" only confirms Kiev's political willingness, or aspiration, to join NATO and is only a transitional step on this long journey, the change of definition on NATO's official website has expectedly caused the Kremlin to nervously overreact, calling it the "West's final betrayal of Russia."  Indeed, NATO's pointless flirtation with Ukraine on the eve of the Brussels Summit on 11-12 June is antagonizing Russia, which has proven to be bold enough to take military action when it feels challenged or perceives a geopolitical loss (Ukrainian territory is obviously a pivotal geostrategic space for Russian security).  Tension between the NATO countries and Russia has recently been fueled by Russian interference in American elections, differences over the Syrian war, and use of chemical weapons in Salisbury (Great Britain) followed by the mutual expulsion of diplomats.  This tension gravely undermines the stability and security of the whole Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia itself.  Improving relationships requires counterparts to change their vision and strategy toward each other, which is in everyone's best interest.

Russia: Dropping Victimhood Narratives

When rationalizing its anti-Western views and policies, the Russian political establishment utilizes a narrative of the West's broken promise" not to expand NATO eastward, since former Soviet republics and satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact were viewed by Russia as its traditional sphere of influence.  True, there were many verbal commitments given to Soviet officials by their Western counterparts, but none of them was concluded as a political or legal pact that would prohibit NATO's expansion beyond the borders of a reunited Germany.  Nevertheless, Russia sees itself as a victim of Western betrayal and thus "justifies" its rogue international actions.

Moreover, for Vladimir Putin's regime, this narrative constitutes an image of Russia as a besieged castle.  Having deep roots in the Russian mass consciousness, the image of an endangered Motherland allows the regime to achieve such goals as to legitimize of personalized and hyper-centralized power of a president, to distract the public's attention from domestic issues to external threats (whether real or imagined), to transfer responsibility for the regime's failures in economic, social, and other domestic policies onto the "enemy's" plan, to mobilize the electorate, and to fight political opposition by simply labeling their leaders "foreign agents."

But instead of engaging the Russians in a witch hunt and a muscle-flexing contest, there is just one and, perhaps, the most important question that Vladimir Putin needs to answer honestly: why do former Soviet republics and countries of Central and Eastern Europe that once were either part of USSR or its closes allies now seek to orient themselves toward the West and not Russia?  Maybe it is because Putin's Russia cannot offer them a positive integrational idea that would inspire international cooperation.  And maybe it is because the Kremlin failed to create an attractive image of a prosperous country that cherishes and respects human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.  The Kremlin needs to stop blaming the West for its failures and crimes and to concentrate on rebuilding its positive image through domestic reforms – primarily in the economic and social sectors.

NATO: Understanding the Kremlin

Although NATO claims that its ongoing enlargement process poses no threat to any country, we must view it realistically.  Just a quick glance at the map of NATO military bases in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States and anti-missile defense systems deployed in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Germany, as well as Aegis-equipped U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea combined with regular military training of NATO troops in Ukraine and the Black Sea region, allows us to understand rightful Russian concerns.  On top of that, Washington has just recognized Russia as a threat in the recently published National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, calling it a "revisionist power."  Naturally, it makes Russia feel threatened, just as the U.S. would be if Russians had their military bases deployed in Mexico and Canada and warships cruising along American coasts. As we noted before, given Putin's readiness to violently react against NATO's advances in Eastern Europe, NATO leaders should concentrate on securing a natural strategic boundary of the Alliance in Europe by completing a logical process of integration of all the states of former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia), strategically securing the Balkan peninsula.  And then the alliance's enlargement must be at least temporarily put on hold.

As the West seeks to deter Russia, the most effective tool to do so is found in economic sanctions that have already proven their efficiency.  After all, military and political strength are rooted in a strong economy.  Unfortunately for Russia, President Putin has not contributed much to its economic development during the past 17 years.  On the contrary – he has built crony capitalism with a mono-economy of natural gas and oil, exports of which keeps the weakening Russian economy afloat.

As for strategy toward Ukraine, NATO should continue its support through consultations, training, and limited military aid aimed to secure Ukraine's eastern border.

Ukraine: Lowering Expectations

As much as Ukraine is important for building of common Euro-Atlantic security, Kiev must accept that the country will not be accepted as a member of the alliance in the near future due to major obstacles.  For instance, NATO rarely accepts countries with unresolved territorial issues.  To be fair, some countries' strategic importance made NATO turn a blind eye to that kind of dispute, as happened in 1951, when Turkey and Greece were invited to join.  But it is not going to happen to a Ukraine that is unfortunate enough to have a nuclear-armed Russia as its adversary.  Bringing Ukraine into the alliance with its simmering conflict in the Eastern regions and an annexed Crimea would factually mean NATO declaring war against Russia, under its obligations according to an Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.  Clearly, no one is ready for this scenario.

Thus, Kiev must manage its expectations and not fan them among Ukrainians.  Instead, it must concentrate on the strengthening of its democratic institutions and fighting a decisive war on corruption that slows down the country's development and damages its credibility. 

All in all, there is no doubt that the mutual strategy in the triangle NATO-Russia-Ukraine must change to prevent any further escalation of tension in Europe.  It is not an easy task, and even if NATO slows down its pace of enlargement, as is highly probable that it will, there is no guarantee that this would pacify Russia.  Luckily, NATO countries possess an arsenal of economic and diplomatic measures to deter Russia's unpredictable reactions.