Since Russia’s August invasion and occupation of Georgia, the short and long term implications have been much debated.  Is Russia reasserting itself in an attempt to become the global power that its predecessor the USSR was?  What’s going on inside Putin’s head?  Is Russia a “rational actor?”  What should NATO do about Ukraine?


These are good theoretical questions but they miss the most fundamental of messages:  Russia invaded Georgia because it could get away with it.

As Thucydides’ wrote so long ago, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  NATO’s freedom of action is held hostage by members whose constituencies cannot live without the energy supplies they receive from Russia and the Caucas.  If NATO is to remain a credible Alliance it must develop an energy policy that unties its strategic hand.  

The Strong

Awash with cash from soaring energy prices, a growing sense that it successfully weathered the 1998 ruble crisis and that it can survive the current global credit crises, a decline in its stock market and continued equity volatility, Russia has started deploying its navy and air force bombers far out of area—something that it has not done in nearly a decade.   Indeed, recent well-publicized out of area military deployments and an announcement of a 25% increase in its military budget tell the story of a Russia uninhibited by international scrutiny. 

While some might argue that the Russian business community, oligarchs in particular, will serve as a moderating force for Russian leadership’s propensity for future expeditionary action, there are no guarantees.   Others argue that Russia’s economy is small compared to that of, say, the U.S., and that its military is even smaller.  Although true, we cannot ignore the fact that relative to its neighbors, it is big enough to invade and intimidate. 

In the old Soviet neighborhood, size still matters—a lot.

The Weak

Since the Russian invasion, NATO member foreign ministers have convened a special Ministerial session, made high-level visits to Tbilisi and Gori, and given birth to the NATO-Georgia Commission.  Meanwhile, in NATO capitols around the world, governments are preparing for the next round of Ministerial meetings and contemplating its agenda.  Here in Washington, an august group of Beltway think-tanks is contemplating what a 21st Century NATO Strategic Concept might look like.  There is even rumbling about amending the Charter.  These are grand theoretical ideas, but what NATO needs now, more than ever, is a credible and executable strategy.  An energy policy that unties NATO Members hands is a critical first step.    

So, as the Ministerial approaches, NATO must keep at least two things in mind.

First, Russia invaded Georgia and the Alliance could do little to stop it.  Consequently, any discussions on “what do about Georgia” should include a candid postmortem about what the Alliance’s strategic options really are given key members’ dependence on energy that comes from potentially non-friendly NATO countries.  More specifically, what are the Alliances’ options should Russia’s recent propensity for expeditionary action continue?

Second, the Alliance did what it had to do—meet, condemn with words and send humanitarian assistance after the fact.  The broader question, of course, is:  What could the Alliance have done if its members had alternative sources of energy?  We cannot know for sure.  We can, however, surmise that without alternative energy sources, the Alliances’ freedom of action was curtailed. 

The Future

Going forward, the Alliance must consider the implications and consequences of its dependency on resources that reside outside of its members.  Does this mean that every member must, for example, hoard one or two years’ worth of energy supplies?  No, not necessarily.  But, certainly, the Alliance should consider ways to ensure that all of its members have the minimal energy needed to sustain their economies should a crisis erupt that disrupts their normal supply.  

Of course, there will be those who say that NATO should not get into the business of developing an energy policy because it is the sole province of the each member state or the European Union.  Still others will argue that developing a NATO energy policy is just too tough, too complicated—Europe will never fully integrate its energy grid.  But if NATO is to remain an Alliance with any measure of credible deterrence, it must have an executable strategy and that requires an energy policy.  Right now, it does not have one.

James Easaw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.