As NATO Convenes Its Summit, It Should Stiffen Its Doctrine and Arm Ukraine for Self-Defense

The Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea, its six-month-old war-by-proxy in southeastern Ukraine, and now its invasion of the southeast with its own paratroopers, armor, and artillery, are conclusive proof of a dangerous policy that requires a strong, comprehensive response from the Transatlantic community. This danger should have been evident in 2008, when Russia sent its army to seize Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.  There was an unfortunate tendency then – which is still apparent in some quarters now regarding Ukraine – to see these Kremlin aggressions as individual acts, each focused on a specific problem, rather than as components of a broader, more threatening campaign. 

The Putin Doctrine

But President Vladimir Putin himself has openly laid down policy principles that pose a threat to virtually all of his neighbors. He has proclaimed on numerous occasions his duty and right to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be. Such people live in great numbers in Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Latvia, and Estonia. Significant numbers are in Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Putin’s new principles build on longstanding Kremlin policy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow has promoted instability in neighboring countries as a means to exercise influence. This was true in Georgia (Ajaria, in addition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moldova (Transnistria), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh) and Ukraine (Crimea).  This was Russian policy even during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. This policy predated NATO’s acceptance of members in Eastern Europe, a fact that undercuts the arguments of those who explain Kremlin aggression in Ukraine and Georgia as a response to the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact nations in NATO.

A Comprehensive Western Policy Response

Unless we decide that the Kremlin has the right to use subversion, irregular warfare and outright invasion to control its neighborhood, all of this means that the West has a Putin problem. To address this, we need a strong policy not just to help Ukraine re-establish order in its East, but to persuade the Kremlin that this type of aggression is not in its interest. Otherwise the Kremlin’s exploitation of “ethnic rights” and promotion of social disorder will create problems in countries beyond Ukraine, including among our Baltic allies.

Had we found the right policy in Georgia six years ago, we might have averted the Ukraine crisis. A policy to stop Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere must make clear to Russian leaders the cost of that aggression. It must make aggression too expensive.

Strengthen NATO

There are three elements to this policy. The first, economic sanctions, has been pursued relatively vigorously. It is essential but probably not sufficient. The other two are military. To demonstrate that we understand the broader dangers posed by Kremlin policy, we need to strengthen NATO doctrine regarding Russia. That doctrine is governed by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which sees Russia as a partner and commits the Alliance not to build infrastructure or to deploy permanently major forces within the territory of its eastern members.

Russian policy pronouncements and aggression in Georgia and Ukraine contradict the understandings of the Founding Act and require a review of that document. Ideally, the Alliance will be able to reach agreement on changing the Founding Act to take into account the new threats of Russian policy. If that is not possible, NATO should maintain temporary but major deployments in the Baltic states (perhaps Poland and Romania, too) of air, missile and armor assets.

The rationale is clear: to protect these states from future Russian aggression. But the unspoken message would be that Kremlin aggression in Ukraine has created a new strategic problem for Russia and its General Staff. Instead of enhancing Russia’s security, Kremlin aggression in Ukraine will have demonstrably weakened it.

Send Arms for Ukraine’s Defense

The third form of Western support for Ukraine should be military supplies, including weapons.  It should include anti-armor, anti-aircraft and anti-missile capacities.  It also should include real-time intelligence and technology to help Ukraine secure its border.

There are several reasons for this. The Kremlin has bet that it can produce disorder in southeast Ukraine’s Donbas region the way it has in Moldova’s Transnistria. But this bet has proved to be a loser.  Ukrainian forces demonstrated over the past two months their ability to defeat the insurgency, even as Putin threw in more supplies and paramilitary fighters, including Cossack and Chechen police auxiliary units.

That’s why Putin more recently has sent in regular troops. And his goal seems to be not just to consolidate the gains that his irregular warfare operatives have achieved, but to take more of Ukraine.  Russian forces are advancing toward the important port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which is on the road to Odessa. Putin has already indicated that that this may be his objective. Since his regular troops entered Ukraine, he has made several statements on the importance to Russia of “Novorossiya,” a swath of Ukraine that stretches across one-third of the country’s provinces, from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odessa in the southwest.

Ukrainian forces are clearly outgunned by the Russian aggressors. Without help, Russian troops can roll ever deeper into Ukraine. With the supply of anti-armor and anti-aircraft equipment, the Ukrainian forces can slow down Kremlin gains and inflict more casualties. 

This would be a serious problem for Putin. Only 5 percent of Russians support sending their troops to fight in Ukraine, according to a new poll from Moscow’s Public Opinion Foundation. The Kremlin is using its control of the media to hide from its own people the fact that its troops already are doing so. The government is conducting secret burials of its soldiers and concealing from bereaved mothers where and how their sons are dying. The greater the number of these casualties, the harder it is for the Kremlin to keep the truth from the Russian people. This is a serious vulnerability that could give Putin pause.

Opponents of providing Ukraine with lethal military equipment make two arguments. The first is that doing so will lead to escalation by Russia. But escalation already is Moscow’s policy; it repeatedly has increased its intervention without Western military supplies reaching Ukraine. 

The second argument against military aid is that, given the penetration by Russian intelligence of Ukrainian military and security organizations, the technology or intelligence could be compromised.  This is a serious objection. Any intelligence given would need to be carefully vetted to protect intelligence means and sources. As for technology, Ukraine’s need is not for the latest high technology. Anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons from the 1970s would do very nicely, and is built of technology that Moscow already has. 

Whether or not sending arms to Kyiv helps persuade Putin to cease his aggression in Ukraine, it will surely make him wary of further foreign adventures. We should have no illusion regarding his intentions.  A win in Ukraine will not slake his thirst, but stimulate it. He provided another reminder last month with his statement to pro-Kremlin youth that Kazakhstan was an “artificial country,” a reprise of his remarks to then-President Bush that Ukraine was not a “real country.” We already know what happens to “artificial countries” in Putin’s world.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He served from 2003 to 2006 as US ambassador to Ukraine.