By Alex Botting
The recent Russian annexation of Crimea was shocking in how efficiently it was carried out – tearing up international law and succeeding in sending waves of fear across the former Soviet Union. In comparison to President Putin’s international display of bravado, the response of the western world – embracing economic sanctions and didactic rhetoric – seems somewhat understated and restrained.
Without a doubt, the long term reasoning behind this response is sound. Force the vulnerable Russian economy to withstand economic sanctions, buy time for European allies to diversify their energy supplies towards Azerbaijan and the U.S., and cause the Russian economy to collapse under its own over-dependency on energy.
But the short-term effects cannot be ignored simply because they are realized 5,000 miles away, and not closer to home. The lack of military response from NATO is likely to embolden a Russian president who takes a fundamentally ‘zero-sum’ approach to international affairs. In the eyes of the Kremlin, our military inaction is borne out of weakness and an unwillingness to defend our allies so close to Russian territory.
Angry rhetoric and sanctions on Russian oligarchs are not nearly enough to protect countries that stand on the brink of Russian annexation. The cliché that talk is cheap would be appropriate, were it not for the great cost being borne by NATO allies in the former Soviet Union. Estonia suffered from a major Russian cyber attack in 2007, Georgia suffered from a Russian invasion in 2008 and, following President Putin’s return to power, Ukraine suffered from the Russian annexation of Crimea.
When dealing with Putin, relying on rhetoric has been very costly for NATO’s eastern allies. The wisdom of President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, President Francois Hollande and co. are not wrong in wanting to avoid a military escalation. But their response must create a tangible cost to Putin – not just his wealthy compatriots – if they are to prevent similar actions in the short term. They must show at least a willingness to engage militarily if Putin moves troops into the Baltics, the South Caucasus or any other former-Soviet republics.
The freedom and independence of these countries requires the protection of stronger militaries than their own. If NATO is truly committed to its allies, it must take a stance. Fast tracking NATO membership for the Republic of Georgia by immediately extending them a Membership Action Plan (MAP) would demonstrate Obama, Cameron, and Hollande’s military commitment to their eastern allies, while avoiding the potential of a direct military escalation. NATO’s eastern allies would see this as a concrete demonstration of support for their territorial integrity after nearly a decade of impunity for Russia. It would also send a strong message to Russia that any encroachment on its neighbours will not be met with impunity, but rather with an uncomfortable encroachment into its neighborhood by NATO.
Georgia itself has made great strides in improving its relations with Russia and in restoring foreign direct investment after the Russian invasion of 2008. Georgia has the 8th best economic climate in the world for doing business according to the World Bank, and just oversaw legitimately ‘free and fair’ elections – a rarity in the region. Georgia is the very model of what we want our eastern allies to become, and yet it remains staggeringly vulnerable to Russian aggression unless NATO commits to its role as security guarantor of last resort.
Nor is this issue limited to Georgia. The Russian aggressions of 2007 and 2008 begat a wave of pro-Russian election from Lithuania, to Ukraine, to Belarus – undermining the positive trends which had gripped the region for the preceding 20 years.
And herein lies the lesson: the citizens of these countries will only support the ‘Western Model’ of free markets and free elections as long as it leads to improvements in their standard of living. But no people can enjoy a high standard of living when their nation’s security is under threat from Russia.
The majority of people in the region now want free markets and free elections– a positive trend which should be embraced. In order to cement this trend, NATO members must commit to creating a security environment that is conducive to such institutions. It’s time for NATO to extend the sphere of security to its eastern allies.
Alexander Botting is a Senior International Consultant to governments and commercial entities in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.