Olivier Matthys / AP

NATO summit could leave Ukraine out in the cold

The 28-nation bloc meets this week to address Russian aggression in its backyard, but defending members is the priority

On a visit to Estonia ahead of Thursday's NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales, U.S. President Barack Obama offered reassurances to a Baltic ally that has grown insecure as Russia's alleged invasion of Ukraine appears to proceed unabated: "We will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally," he said. "Obviously, what's happened in Ukraine is tragic, but I do think it gives us an opportunity to look with fresh eyes and understand what it is that's necessary to make sure that our NATO commitments are met."

But there was no hiding the implication in Obama's words that NATO has effectively ruled out acting against Russia in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, though its current government is eager to join. That sense of de facto resignation over Ukraine previewed the tone of this week's summit, where analysts expect NATO to signal a reorientation toward its charter of collective defense, leaving Ukraine out in the cold.

NATO has suffered from a lack of clarity in its global role since the end of the Cold War, being drawn into expeditionary ventures first in the Balkans and then in Afghanistan and Libya. But amid “the most dangerous European crisis since the Cold War’s end,” according to Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, the 65-year-old alliance is under intense pressure to shore up its front lines — Central and Eastern Europe — from feared Russian encroachment and to prove its mettle after months of anti-Moscow rhetoric were undermined by internal divisions and backed by little action.

“Ukraine has really brought the original mission of NATO back to the fore," said Julianne Smith, a former Pentagon official in charge of Europe and NATO policy and a director at the Center for a New American Security. "Now we have an alliance that is focused like a laser on collective defense.”

Since the early days of the separatist movement in Ukraine's southeast, NATO has offered considerable evidence that Russia continues to arm the pro-Russian rebels — a policy that Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued in large part over fears that a country on Russia’s doorstep could be incorporated into NATO. Putin, the prevailing narrative holds, wants a radically federalized Ukraine, in which the Russian-majority eastern part of the country can counter Kiev’s current momentum westward and prevent Ukraine from being drawn into a geopolitical camp that is hostile to Russia.

NATO leaders have been splintered over how to respond to Putin’s aggression, with a group led by Germany unwilling to jeopardize economic ties and others fearing that tit-for-tat measures will only goad Putin to escalate, as they have done for months. That dissonance has made it clear, as Obama implied, that NATO, which makes decisions by consensus, simply isn’t willing to bear the costs of direct confrontation with Russia over a country they have no treaty obligation to defend.

But the crisis in Ukraine has left other former Soviet republics and satellites in NATO on edge; if Russia gets its way in Ukraine, NATO’s front-line countries — particularly those with large ethnic-Russian populations — fear they could be next. Unlikely though it may be that Putin would stage a similar incursion in a country NATO was obliged to protect, the alliance is feeling pressure to restore its credibility.

“We’ve come to the point, especially here in Poland, where we need a bold response in the East against Russia,” said Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office. “But that does not necessarily include military support for Ukraine and certainly not intervention.”

In Wales, NATO will formally announce the creation of a rapid-reaction force (RRF) of about 4,000 troops that could be deployed anywhere in Eastern Europe or the Baltic states on 48 hours’ notice, though they wouldn’t be stationed there permanently. NATO’s Readiness Action Plan “responds to Russia’s aggressive behavior — but it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a press release. Member states will be called upon to meet the 2 percent of GDP they are expected to contribute to defense spending, he said. Until now, most have failed to hit that target.

These measures and other temporary troop deployments have been spurred by the crisis in Ukraine, and they will be announced in the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has been invited to address NATO on Thursday. But they are not designed to change the military balance in Ukraine, analysts say. NATO can tout its newfound readiness to bear down on any future Russian incursion, but the obstacles that prevent it from doing so in Ukraine have always been political rather than logistical.

Even so, news of the RRF has already elicited an escalation in Russia’s rhetoric. Moscow has long viewed NATO as a hostile force encroaching on its “near abroad,” and the pro–European Union uprising in February that toppled Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine was taken as confirmation of the narrative that the Western military alliance was pushing right up to Russia’s border.

On Tuesday a senior Russian military official, Mikhail Popov, said Russia might revise its military doctrine to respond to “changing military dangers and threats.” He specifically cited the potential expansion of NATO as “one of the leading military dangers for the Russian Federation,” referring to the possible incorporation of former Soviet republics Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Such expansion of NATO membership, however, is not likely to be treated with any seriousness at this week’s summit.

“Some members don’t want NATO to do anything, for fear of pouring gasoline on a raging fire. Others say Putin’s going to escalate either way,” said Smith. “Half of the alliance feels admitting Georgia will spur more bad behavior. The other half says, ‘Draw the red line and pull Georgia in.’ NATO hasn’t bridged those gaps yet.”

More energy in Cardiff will be spent bridging gaps between NATO members over the crisis in and around Ukraine. One of the salient questions is whether the alliance might reverse course on the tenets of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which precludes the establishment of permanent bases in NATO’s eastern member states — something Poland and the Baltic states have demanded.

Hawkish voices in the alliance, meanwhile, will continue to press NATO — or even the U.S., unilaterally — to expand direct military support to Ukrainian security forces. Writing in The Guardian over the weekend, former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley Clark argued that the only solution to the crisis was diplomatic. “But, as we are learning, that persuasion requires not only diplomacy and sanctions but also assisting Ukraine in creating the military means to defeat Russia’s new war strategy,” he wrote.

Most NATO analysts believe such a prospect remains unlikely. Facing down Russia in Ukraine must come second, said Buras. “It’s up to NATO to give a credible response to what’s going on and demonstrate its seriousness about the security of its member states,” he said.

“I don’t think its really relevant now whether the steps by NATO will fuel Russia’s aggression or not. We are basically not able to influence Russia’s behavior, so we should be much more preoccupied with our own security than with the expected reaction of Russia in Ukraine.”

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