Written by Joseph B. Varner and Joseph C. Ben-Ami
Originally Published in Canadian Centre for Policy Studies
In the debate over the Munich Accord in 1938, Winston Churchill pointed out what he called “the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing,” that what was being represented as a victory for peace and diplomacy was in fact “a total and unmitigated defeat”. The same thing might be said of NATO diplomacy over the past 12 months.
With their blitzkrieg-style invasion of neighbouring Georgia now winding down, Russia is on the threshold of turning what was a strategic mistake by NATO at last spring’s summit in Bucharest into a massive strategic defeat for the alliance; one that threatens to drive a wedge between its original members and its newest, all of which – significantly – are located in Eastern Europe.
One of the key items on the agenda of that meeting was separate requests by Ukraine and Georgia that they be permitted to join NATO, something the Russians adamantly opposed in both cases.
In the weeks and months preceding the conference the Russians waged a surprisingly aggressive campaign to discourage approval of these requests. For the first time in many years Russia conducted military maneuvers in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. Russian naval and air forces test fired cruise missiles in the Bay of Biscay, their combat aircraft ‘buzzed’ a US aircraft carrier in international waters, and their strategic bomber command – resuming combat air patrols on a level not seen since the end of the Cold war – tested NATO air defenses by staging mock air raids.
In addition to these tangible acts of reckless behaviour, the Russian government threatened to target Poland and the Czech Republic with missiles if either participated in the United States’ missile defense plan. It claimed sovereignty over much of the arctic, including areas of Canada’s north and, in the middle of the winter, it threatened to cut Ukraine off of its fuel supplies.
All the while, the Russians continued to stoke independence movements in Georgia’s provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as it had been doing since the early 90s.
Of course, not all of these provocations were calculated to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO, but to the extent that they were, they had the desired effect. When the time came for a decision, although as many as 10 countries – including Canada and the United States – were in favour of welcoming Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, a faction led by France and Germany said no, and so the applications were turned down.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this outcome. In the first place, it confirmed that the Russians now possess a de facto veto over NATO’s most fundamental strategic decisions, something no rational government would ever consider surrendering to a potential enemy. But what’s worse – far worse – is the fact that Russia was able to gain a concession of this magnitude through the use of nakedly coercive tactics and without having to offer up anything in return. In each of the world’s trouble spots – Iran and the Middle East, the Balkans, the Korean Peninsula, Darfur – the Russians have been singularly unhelpful in solving problems. Indeed like the old Soviet leaders who came before them, the Putin gang seems to believe that what’s bad for the West must be, by default, good for Russia.
It may be that the Georgian government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili grossly miscalculated in deciding to use the military to enforce its sovereignty in South Ossetia, but the Russian response has been anything but justified. South Ossetia is, after all, a part of the democratic Republic of Georgia. For that reason, the international community as a whole is obliged to take strong punitive action against Russia, even if it does not intervene militarily in the conflict. Anything less would be a signal to other potential aggressors that they too can use armed force to impose their will on their neighbours and beyond.
For NATO, however, the challenges posed by the Georgian crisis are especially acute. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but NATO’s whole reason for existence is to keep the peace by deterring Russian expansion in Europe. As such, the rejection of Georgia’s request to join the alliance last spring was bound to be interpreted by Putin and his entourage as a sign that they could do as they pleased in the Caucasus. And that is what the world is now witnessing.
In his Munich speech, Churchill described the diplomacy that led to the accord as a “disaster of the first magnitude” and concluded that as a result, “all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will (now) make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi power.” Substitute Russian for Nazi and it’s hard to see the difference between then and now.
Consider the Baltic states. Putin has made no secret of his ambition to reconstitute the old Russian empire, nor has his government (Putin remains the centre of power in Russia despite the fact that he is now “only” the Prime Minister) been reluctant to use any means at its disposal to advance this goal, as evidenced by the events of the past week in Georgia. Once Georgia has been restored to its “rightful” place as a vassal of the Russian bear, will these countries be next? Certainly they will now be so fearful of provoking their restless neighbour that, henceforth, they will be less likely to promote freedom for their citizens internally, and more likely to support Russian diplomacy externally.
What about Ukraine? Unlike the small countries that lie on the Baltic coast, Ukraine is large, powerful and fiercely determined to defend its independence. Will Putin interpret NATO’s rejection of democratic Ukraine’s request to join the alliance as a sign that he can do as he pleases on his western border as well? Only time will tell, but this much is certain: given the example of Georgia, and the ongoing feeble response of NATO to other acts of Russian intransigence, the Ukrainian government is likely to be more bellicose, not less, in defending its own interests. As a consequence, the chance of a major armed conflict in Europe has been increased immeasurably by recent events.
Can anything be done to salvage the situation? The answer to that question is yes, but it will take determination on the part of Western governments and their willingness to assume some degree of risk to succeed.
NATO must convene an emergency summit to discuss the crisis and resolve on a course of action. It is pointless to wait for the United Nations to take the lead on this. If the UN cannot get its act together on Darfur or Iran, it will never be an effective instrument of deterrence against the Russians – especially since Russia has a veto in the Security Council.
What measures should NATO countries take?
First, they should impose meaningful economic sanctions against Russia. The risk in this is that the Russians may retaliate by reducing – or even cutting off – oil and natural gas supplies to Western Europe, but this is a double edged sword for them. Energy is the principle source of foreign currency for the Russian economy, so any long term interruption of supplies to the West will hurt them as much as it hurts NATO countries.
Second, they should announce that they are reassessing Ukraine’s application to join the alliance. The Russians will howl at this, but with the exception of cutting off energy supplies to the West – an act that would, as explained above, be devastating for their own economy – there is little more that they can do in response short of actually going to war. By reopening the question of Ukraine becoming a full-fledged member of the alliance, NATO will accomplish two things: a) it will dispel the misconception that the alliance has, by default, no interest in defending the independence of non-member states, and b) it will leave the door open to Russian concessions.
Third, they must agree to the deployment of the missile defence system in Europe. Like the Pershing II missile deployment of the early 1980s, this will demonstrate more than anything else that NATO is serious about European security. Not only will missile defence guard against Russian missiles, it will also counter the growing threat posed by Iran’s long-range missile development program.
Finally, they must agree on what concessions the Russians must make in order to end economic sanctions or avert other NATO actions, they must establish a timetable for compliance, and once these decisions have been made, they must stick to them. This latter point is crucial, and not just because the Russians respect strength. A policy of deterrence can only work if those against whom it is directed are reasonably certain that the threatened response will be implemented. If Russia (or Iran for that matter) calculates that there will never be real consequences to their actions because NATO is too timid or too divided to react effectively, they will continue to indulge the behaviour that led to the crisis in the first place.
After elaborating on the nature and depth of the calamity at Munich, and the string of diplomatic blunders that led to the conference, Churchill predicted that the appeasement embodied in the deal would not be the last of the moral or material demands made on the free world under threat of war.
“(D)o not suppose that this is the end,” he warned, “this is only the beginning of the reckoning…the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom.”
Stirring words indeed, and words that today’s diplomats should heed.
Joseph C. Ben-Ami is President of the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies.
Joseph B. Varner is the Centre’s Director of National Security and Intelligence Studies.