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Will Crimea Save NATO? Not So Fast

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This post first appeared on War on the Rocks, an influential web magazine on strategy, conflict, and foreign affairs:

Will Crimea save NATO? At War on the Rocks, James Goldgeier argues that it will. This analysis follows a train of logic that drove the enlargement of NATO and which actually played a role in contributing to the crisis -- the 2008 decision to promise eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. At the core of this view is a liberal and neoconservative understanding of how we perceive our role in Russia's backyard. We envision it as stabilizing and benign, but Russia does not see it the same way after hearing us lecture them to define their interest the way we think they should. Thus Goldgeier argues: "While Russia has regarded NATO's enlargement as a threat to its security, the Alliance's provision of stability and security across much of Europe in fact lessens Russian insecurity." If we have learned anything over the last week, it is not only that this kind of assumption is not shared by an adversarial and nuclear-armed Russia -- it is also dangerous.

Goldgeier does not argue that NATO has a role to play in the current situation in Ukraine. Even military hawks like Sen. John McCain stress there is no American military solution in Ukraine. However, efforts to bolster forward defense concerns, beyond minor upgrades of existing operations, in new NATO members could spark the exact crisis we seek to avoid. For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski argues:

Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization's contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be precipitated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.

As well-intended as such advice is, this is precisely the kind of action that realists warn would prompt a security dilemma -- leading Russia to see this as an ominous threat and risking a Russian escalation towards annexing parts of Eastern Ukraine. The result could be civil war.

The crises in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are Exhibits A and B of a dramatic failure of the decision to extend NATO engagement into these countries. Of course, Putin is responsible for his own actions. But this 2008 decision by NATO played directly into Putin's own rationalization of the invasion of Georgia -- which was followed by Ukraine's withdrawal of its NATO application and the consolidation of pro-Moscow forces there. Meanwhile, efforts at the time to get hard Russian sanctions on Iran were lost -- which would have offered an opportunity to freeze Iran's centrifuge numbers at 2008 levels instead of the current efforts to deal with far more advanced Iranian capabilities. One might ask exactly how American national interests were served in this process.

The irony of Goldgeier's assessment of NATO is that the very arguments he advances are more likely to weaken NATO, not bolster it. NATO members are not a unified bloc. There are deep divides between new and old members, especially over how to approach Russia. It is likely that some will now quietly question the wisdom of having pushed NATO into the former Soviet bloc. They will have renewed concerns about new members drawing them into peripheral conflicts. Meanwhile, they will also quietly note that this is in fact not the biggest crisis in European security since the end of the Cold War. It pales in comparison to fears generated by Boris Yelstin blowing up the Russian parliament or the deaths of up to a hundred thousand Chechens in Russia's brutal military campaign in Chechnya (while Bill Clinton made friends with Yeltsin and failed to cultivate a broader engagement with the Russian people); the genocide in the Balkans, and the movement of Russian troops into the Pristina airport in 1999 at the end of the Kosovo war; an incident in which Russian early warning systems thought a Norwegian missile launch (for environmental observation purposes) was a NATO nuclear first strike; the securing of the nuclear facilities in the post-Soviet area via the Nunn-Lugar program, and of course the Eurozone -- which remains the most important global challenge confronting Europe to this day.

We also have to calculate our interests in a broader context. America's security challenges are not mainly in Europe - they are in Asia. Our interests in Europe lie primarily in helping the allies there better consolidate their capabilities so they can be in the lead, backstopped by America. As significant as Crimea is, there are no solutions to either Ukraine -- or North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran -- that do not involve the Russians, as unappetizing as that might be. We face tough choices that can only be answered with a wider set of interests at play. Indeed, if this is a "Cold War redux" then we should in fact pull a card from that Rolodex. The first call on this crisis should not be to NATO. It should have been -- and can still be -- to Beijing, to work with them to stay steady on signaling their long-held commitment to sovereignty while knocking Putin off his stride at the same time. By playing the China card, watching the Russian economy fold from capital flight, and acting with strategic patience and strong political pressure points, the US can ensure that Russia will overstretch. Moreover, Putin will be denied they ability to use NATO as a bogeyman -- the one thing he uses to justify his tight grip that most all Russians appear to agree with.

NATO has been a constructive tool in consolidating stability in Central Europe and the Balkans after the Cold War's end -- along with other institutions, especially the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, the 2008 decision to push its role into Ukraine and Georgia was a serious strategic miscalculation. That decision inadvertently (but predictably) played right into the hands of those who are sparking this crisis in Moscow today. Goldgeier rightly concludes that "no one wants a war between NATO and Russia." Yet while we see NATO as benign, Russia has clearly put a heavy foot down on Crimea to make it abundantly clear that, so far as they are concerned, when they hear NATO, they hear "military intervention."

Realism suggests that stability is the priority in Ukraine - and that the vital interest at stake for America and its allies is de-escalation. The obvious deal that can end this crisis is also one from the Cold War playbook -- Kennedy's bargain to end the Cuban Missile Crisis -- in which we withdrew missiles from Turkey and promised not to invade Cuba. Today, with a promise that Ukraine will not be a NATO member, while Russia withdraws from its posture on Crimea and demonstrates it will be a constructive actor in Ukraine's future by recommitting to its sovereignty (verified by the OSCE), this crisis can be resolved. Since NATO never had any foreseeable consensus of ever really bringing in Ukraine (or Georgia) anyway, this would be a win-win.

There are other ways to signal strong determination regarding Russian intentions than to headline the one thing that would actually play right into Putin's flawed narrative. Hopefully, by NATO's September summit, this crisis will have settled down, and the rebalancing necessary in the transatlantic relationship will continue. America has enduring interests in Europe -- but the center of global power is now in Asia and it is vital to continue forward with the pivot there.

Sean Kay, Ph.D. is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of the forthcoming America's Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (2014).

This post first appeared on War on the Rocks, an influential web magazine on strategy, conflict, and foreign affairs: