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Commentary | 12 August 2014

NATO and the Crisis in Ukraine

The multidimensional and protracted Ukraine crisis is reshaping the European security agenda. It has two interwoven aspects to it. The first is the most immediate: a civil war is underway on Europe’s border posing serious security problems. There is intense fighting in the east of Ukraine, including the use of heavy weaponry in built up areas – with the knock-on effect of significant numbers of civilian casualties (not only those on flight MH17, but local residents) and refugees. Repeated attempts to establish cease-fires have failed and although the Ukrainian authorities have stated that they will bring the situation under control, they have failed to do so. A summer of protracted and possibly heavy fighting in the environs and cities of Donetsk and Lugansk seems likely.

The second, closely related aspect is an international dimension that has multiplied this already serious situation: the conflict has resulted in a serious souring of the relationship between the West and Russia and led to escalating mutual recriminations and the suspension of mechanisms for dialogue and interaction such as the NATO-Russia Council and the G8. Senior Western officials have pointed to an increasingly dangerous situation caused by instability in the region, and the threat posed to international order by Russian aggression against Ukraine. General Breedlove, NATO’s SACEUR, for instance, has stated that Russian policy is a ‘very unwelcome’ part of Europe’s 21st Century landscape and moves Europe further away from the original post Cold War vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

This multidimensional problem emerged as a surprise for many in the West, and leaders have been playing catch up ever since. Having ruled out a direct military response to the crisis, the West has focused on increasing economic sanctions on Russia to try to alter Moscow’s approach to the crisis. However, the impression is that most would prefer the problem simply to go away. If the desire to persuade Russia to change its behaviour is often stated, there is little evidence that Western leaders have a clear goal in sight for what a post-conflict Ukraine might look like – and this hinders the development of a clear and unambiguous approach. This is important not only in terms of the fighting: even when that is brought to an end, there will be deep political and social scars and the matter of rebuilding the Ukrainian economy to be addressed. In the end, addressing this is a core interest of the European community.

At the same time, in the preparations for the NATO summit in September, much is being made of the need to enhance the security of NATO members. Russia, for years a matter of secondary concern to many in the European security architecture, is once again prominent, since it is seen by some as potentially posing a direct threat to NATO members. As a result, a Readiness Action Plan is under preparation that is likely to include more high intensity military exercises, prepositioning of military equipment and supplies further east and improving the capacity of the NATO Rapid Response Force. Collective defence is (again) the theme: as Secretary General Rasmussen has stated, the focus will be on ensuring that NATO remains ready to defend all allies against any threat, and that as a result of the crisis, more military planes, ships and soldiers have been deployed.

If much of this is understandable given Moscow’s long-standing objections to NATO and its enlargement, other points should be taken into consideration. The first is that these actions will almost certainly cause a negative reaction from Moscow. The Alliance should therefore be ready for some of the more obvious potential Russian responses – major strategic exercises (Vostok 2014), for instance, already long-planned for this September, may coincide with a summit declaration that Moscow deems hostile, perhaps combined with a temporary call-up of the Russian reserves. Similarly, it is to be expected that Moscow might strengthen its deployments to Kaliningrad and Crimea.

None of this is to deny the importance of collective defence. But the Alliance should approach this as a dialogue with another party, and with a longer-term view in mind, and thus be prepared for possible escalation with Russia as a result of its moves. A fine balance needs to be struck between ensuring defence while avoiding an unnecessary and possibly deleterious spiral of escalation. Although collective defence can be a source of strength for the Alliance, a spiral of escalation might end up both undermining support for Article V within NATO, while at the same time creating more severe pressure on it from outside.

Second, strengthening the conventional defences of the Alliance meets only part of the potential problem. Much is being made of “hybrid warfare” and unconventional confrontation using unorthodox and destabilising techniques. One of the responses to this should be to strengthen the internal pillars of the Alliance. This will involve both a longer-term counter-intelligence operation within NATO member states and a move to reinforce security sector reforms in Eastern and Central European members.

Third, the coincidence of the Summit in September, the accession of a new Secretary General in October, NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act offers an opportunity to look more strategically across the Euro-Atlantic architecture as NATO enters a new era. The Alliance could seek to develop initiatives to address some of the longer-term problems in European security, including the unresolved conflict in Moldova/Transnistria and arms control. This will not be easy, and will require coordination with the EU, which has also proved difficult in the past – but these are the likely future flashpoints between Russia and the West and so the nettle should be grasped sooner rather than later.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.