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How NATO Must Respond if Russia Invades Ukraine

Ukraine
Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Amidst continued speculation as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will unleash yet another attack against Ukraine, the focus has been on the likelihood of a kinetic conflict in Europe along NATO’s Eastern Flank. Still, judging by the scope of the demands presented by Russia in the two so-called “draft treaties” with NATO and the United States, respectively, Moscow must have no illusions that these would be accepted, for they would remake Euro-Atlantic security, creating conditions that would undermine NATO and America’s ability to work with its allies. Putin may have already decided to move militarily, and calls for the West to negotiate could create a “maskirovka” and in doing so provide a casus belli for Moscow, which would try to claim that Washington had refused to consider its terms.

If the demands to negotiate have a larger aim it is to divide the alliance. Most importantly, the idea that Russia would need a written treaty guarantee to forestall Ukraine or Georgia’s accession to NATO is absurd. Putin knows that so long as he occupies Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the countries have no chance of making it into NATO, for a vote to enlarge the alliance would mean in effect a vote to go to war with Russia. Moscow’s demand that the effective status quo be confirmed by treaty is thus nothing short of an attempt to humiliate the West.

It is critical to consider what might happen should Russia invade Ukraine, and what might happen if we do not start thinking long-term about the impact of this crisis. A second Russian attack on Ukraine, should it happen, ought to serve as a long-overdue wake-up call for the West about Russia’s intentions to establish an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and assert Moscow’s claims to exercising influence in Central Europe, within NATO’s perimeter. Assuming the West finally recognizes the immediacy of the threat, the best ancillary outcome would be the rearmament of European NATO allies and an increase in U.S. military presence along the Eastern Flank, including permanent U.S. bases in Poland and Romania. Next, Europeans would need to spend money, not only on developing real, exercised military capabilities, but also on shoring up the infrastructure across the Continent, especially North-South, to ensure that military mobility requirements are met, and to demonstrate this through a series of exercises. Most importantly, the European NATO allies and partners would need to show that they are capable of reaching consensus to respond with meaningful sanctions, beginning with cutting Russian banks off from SWIFT and stopping Nord Stream 2, as well as showing resolve to respond with force should Putin try to use military threats against the alliance. Last but not least, if Ukraine decides to fight back the West should support its resistance against this new Russian assault on its national sovereignty.  

The worst-case scenario would be yet another round of verbal condemnations and toothless sanctions, which would serve to strengthen Putin’s belief that Europe lacks the will to match his challenge. Should the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be more of the same, Europe’s security would deteriorate dramatically. The zone of competition would shift from Eastern Europe to Central Europe and the Baltic states, where the next round of Putin’s demands could be a de facto “Finlandization” of the Baltic States and pressure on the United States and NATO to remove military assets from the intermarium between the Baltic and the Black Seas, especially from Poland and Romania. In this scenario Putin would target Germany as his “partner of preference,” with the expectation that by applying its energy weapon Moscow could eventually coax Berlin into a “neo-Bismarckian” accommodation that would in effect divide Europe into two spheres of influence, rendering the United States increasingly irrelevant to the overall strategic balance in Europe.  

Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Russian Tanks Training. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The above worst-case scenario is less farfetched than it may seem. It rests on historical patterns of Russian imperialism going back three centuries and has its roots in how Moscow understands Germany’s role in Europe since Prussia unified the German states. For Putin the two World Wars – which witnessed the German pursuit of empire in opposition to Russia rather than in concert with it – are outliers.  Putin appears to believe that he can successfully revisit the past yet again, establishing a new Concert of Great Powers in Europe under which the United States, locked in an increasingly existential competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, will be unable to forestall such an outcome. Putin’s recent expression of support for Xi’s claims to Taiwan, in exchange for Xi’s support for Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, are the clearest expressions of this grand design. They underscore the reasons why Russia’s systemic revisionism and China’s drive to replace the existing international system with one built around Beijing’s interests and values go hand in hand. Hence, although historically at polar opposites when it comes to national priorities, and competitors for control of Asia, today Russia and China are allies bound by their common interest in opposing the United States. This alliance has already presented America with a two-front crisis at a time when the country’s resources have been strained by twenty years of counterterrorism operations, the pandemic, inflation, and political divisions at home.  

We are fast approaching a point where a crisis in Eastern Europe, especially the fate of Ukraine, could decide Europe’s security, and by extension, its political future.  What European governments do going forward will either reaffirm the interests and values of Western democracies or will become our greatest defeat since the end of the Cold War. It is a binary choice that cannot be wished away or obfuscated by compromise. If the West shows that it has a spine when it comes to first principles and national interests, the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis will be a watershed, ending Putin’s neo-imperial drive and offering hope not only in Kiev but also in Minsk, for any lasting solution to the security dilemmas in Eastern Europe must be regional. It will also give Russia itself a chance to abandon the path of empire and become a “normal” state, with influence commensurate with its power. However, if European leaders fail once more to acknowledge reality and stand up to it, in the coming decade the Continent will find itself in an ever-more precarious security situation.  

Andrew A. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is also a 1945 Contributing Editor. 

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Written By

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and a new Contributing Editor for 1945. He is the former Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMichta. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Bret

    December 27, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    Give Ukraine 150 medium range nuclear missiles. Offer Russia the same guarantee of any NATO nation. If Russia is invaded we will absolutely come to its aid. If Russia invades any nation we will equally go to their aid.

    The problem is…. Russia is the biggest nation in the world packed full of oil, natural gas and minerals. Yet it wants more. Putin keeps power by appealing to communist nationalist that see their power growing through the re subjugation of most of the nations around them.

    We all know that if Russia were to pull out of Ukraine, out of Georgia and to focus of free market reform, crush corruption and turn it economy toward Europe, the US and provide a military balance against Chinas threat…. Russia would quickly become the second if not the most powerful nation in Europe.

    We all know Russians are amazingly good at developing practical high technology. We know they are spectacular at cyber crime and in return very good at cyber security.

    I find I like the Russia people tremendously.

    Sadly, we all know this won’t happen. Power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts. The I believe Putin loves his nation and people. But as great deal of his decisions are based on gaining additional power wealth. That’s ok, but not at the subjugation of nations around it.

    The US leftist WOKE progressive virus is tearing that nation apart… if it doesn’t find a vaccine for this diseased thinking, it will destroy itself. That will leave China with no real counterbalance of power. Europe also is riddled with WOKE diseases. It will need to find its deep Christian roots and rid itself of the focus on the lies of atheism, secularism elitist and the moral decline that is devastating the fabric of its societies.

    Russia is in a position to unify and strengthen Europe in a manner far more power than the EU. The EU is Germany and progressive elitist. It’s socialism/communism at the cost of small family businesses and freedom from dependence on government for one’s daily living.

  2. Terry Dean

    December 27, 2021 at 8:41 pm

    Your suggestions will end up sparking WW3.

    UKRAINE has NO Statgic value to the USA.
    NATI should have never included the former USSR client states.

    Remember what happened when the USSR put Icbm in Cuba?

    Same difference with NATO inching closer and closer to Russia.

    Imagine Russia putting nukes in Cuba,Venezuela and Nicaragua?

    Same difference.

    The USA had become an arrogant declining empire.

    I predict that when Russia absorbs Ukraine China will absorb Taiwan.

  3. Bankotsu

    December 28, 2021 at 4:38 am

    Why don’t NATO wage war with Russia if Russia invades Ukraine?

    Wouldn’t that be a simpler solution and solves the Russian problem once and for all?

    You talk so much c*ck about Ukraine and Russian aggression but in the end you still won’t wage war with Russia.

    This is just all empty big talk.

    Putin will laugh at you.

  4. Tim

    December 28, 2021 at 6:50 am

    NATO was set up to protect Western Europe from communism. Communism in Europe is dead. The US needs to get out of NATO and stop being the good guy police of the planet.

  5. Rachid ELAÏDI

    December 28, 2021 at 8:41 am

    Tout dépend de la volonté politique des européens et des occidentaux d’une manière générale er de cette volonté découle la volonté militaire . Mais il faut avoir à l’esprit l’armée russe est en exequo avec la première force militaire à savoir USA et donc si cette volonté existe et non des européens qui cherchent tout le temps la paix au prix des Brexit et bientôt hongexit polexit…alors il serait important de souligner que cela serait une guerre non pour defendre Ukraine mais une guerre directe contre la Russie qui edt une évidence depuis la chute du mur de Berlin et l’Ukraine est ce fusible . Maintenant la Russie peut utiliser et la guerre cinetique mais aussi la guerre informatique non seulement terrestre mais en haut dans le ciel à travers ses satellites une forme de guerre des étoiles. Ukraine ou OTAN ne peuvent affronter cd monstre russe sauf les americains maus alors il s’agirait d’une destruction de l’humanité et on ne pourrait parler du nucléaire comme forve de dissuasion mais d’une arme de guerre utilisable et donc c’est un chateau de carte car tous les pays détenteurs du nucléaire utiliseront ce qu’ils ont comme reserve nucléaire encore faut-il avoir juste le temps pour les utiliser ,ces nucléaires, et sous quelle forme missiles ou autre et vers qui seront ciblés ces armes nucléaires . L’OTAN sait ce danger mais croit comprendre l’ours blanc qui est imprévisible. Si Poutine défend le territoire russe alors il y aurait toujours un consensus et des règles à respecter et jamais à s’imposer d’autant plus et à ce stade L’ONU ne peut rien faire à ce niveau et donc nous sommes dans une troisième guerre mondiale et donc un retour pour les survivants à l’age de pierre et des cavernes et tout à recommencer à civiliser en sus des maladies et des handicap car un tel scénario est prévu quand l’être humain arriverait à habiter la planète mars ou autre

  6. Tony

    December 28, 2021 at 10:06 am

    Let the Europeans worry about Putin. The European NATO countries include four of the world’s ten largest economies, and two nuclear-armed nations. Of course they can protect themselves from Russia, on their own, but only if we stop playing the fool. The Europeans have been snickering behind our backs for decades. We should get out of NATO, and let the oh-so-smug Europeans worry about their own security.

  7. Harold Seneker

    December 28, 2021 at 10:54 am

    The shape of a grand bargain between East and
    West in Europe based on facts on the groiund has been staring us in the face all along.

    1. The West gets the Baltics, and Russia gets Belarus.
    2. Russia gets the Donbas, which is 3.4 ethnic Russians, and the West gets the rest of Ukraine as a neutral buffer state that will favor the west and is forever alienated from Russia because of Stalin’s induced famine in the 1930s that killed millions.
    3. Russia gets the West’s acknowledgment of its annexation of Crimea and Trans-Dniester is divided between Ukraine and Romania.
    4.Russia gets to keep its Kaliningrad enclave but pulls out of Ossrtia and Abkhazia in Georgia.

    Unfortunately, Putin apparently is not willing to accept such a deal, at least not as long as the West dithers and wrings its hands and looks weak and irresolute. The West needs to pull itself together in order either make this deal with Putin or to hold the line until Putin departs the scene and we find out what his successor will do.

  8. dave

    December 28, 2021 at 11:37 am

    Either we invite Ukraine (and others.) into the EU and or NATO – or we dont care enough to do anything about it and Russia know this.

    Actions speak louder than words and in this case we are screaming: “We dont want this area in our block so go ahead Russia, take it.”

    All this is bluster and banter but also somewhat meaningless becasue we dont have the will to deter and so we certainly wont do anything about it.

  9. dave

    December 28, 2021 at 11:43 am

    I also need to add – I think we cannot avoid acting politically because there might be maskarova – I think if we want these areas to stay out of Russia influence we need to invite them to the EU. (And thats not on the US. Its a better option than inviting them into NATO)

    Secondly: If we cut Russia off from Swift I suspect we will have a larger war on our hands as they will be forced to respond, it would be crippling to their economy.

  10. Steve White

    December 28, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    NATO is dead. It died the day after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The entire reason for NATO went away. Why should we invoke, defend, or be involved with a dead organization?

    Russia, for the last thousand years, has wanted defensible borders and lots of land to the west of Moscow. Everything the Czars and General Secretaries did was to this end. They understood correctly that land itself was a defense. Now it is almost 2022 and Mr. Putin, a Russian to his core, wants — get ready — more land to his west! He and the other Great Russians believe themselves to be just about naked right now with the Ukraine stripped from Mother Russia, and that just won’t do. So he’s going to get it back.

    The Ukraine itself doesn’t know what to do. About half of it, the eastern/northern half, would be willing (more or less) to become part of Russia again. Certainly the Crimea, traditionally Russian until Stalin ‘gave’ it to the Ukraine, hasn’t been complaining much. The other half of Ukraine is more western oriented in most ways, but certainly not in terms of democracy — it would be happy to be a kleptocracy and strong-man state for the long term future.

    So what would we be fighting to ‘preserve’? Ukrainian independence? Ukrainian democracy? It is to laugh. What next — Belorussian democracy?

    The Ukrainians are stuck — to paraphrase an old saying, so far from God, so close to Russia.

    The Ukraine is not worth the life of a single American. Not one. And any U.S. administration that tries to ‘save’ the Ukraine will be turned out of office.

  11. Andrzej Kocikowski

    December 28, 2021 at 2:20 pm

    Dear Dr. Michta, the penultimate paragraph of your text has some value because one gets the impression that you recognize some issues that are relevant to any attempt to assess what is happening in the world. As for the rest of the text, things do not look good. In your assessments in the first two paragraphs, you completely ignore the case of the dramatic deception committed by the West – with the support of the US – i.e. the breaking of promises/agreements to move NATO’s borders eastwards. Thus, dear Doctor, Russia’s demand that the treaty guarantee the End of NATO’s continued creep “onto Moscow’s porch” is not any “attempt to humiliate the West” – as you write – but just an ordinary, human reminder that there is a line of decency that must not be crossed, or there will be war.

    The third paragraph is fatal. I am not quite sure who you mean by Europe? Great Britain has prudently removed itself from its ties and is trying to strengthen the previously neglected United Kingdom and cooperate more strongly with the USA. Germany, which you write about just fine, will side with Russia and not with France crying over yours fate. Do you see anyone else capable of opposing the Russian Federation militarily? Threats to cut off SWIFT and “shut down NS2” – Are you writing this seriously?

    As for the U.S., its domestic situation precludes any serious military intervention outside its borders. In addition, President Biden has the so-called “midterm elections” on his mind, which, if the Republicans win, will bring the Democrat governments to their knees. The country is boiling and it will not take much for a popular revolt to occur there. Thus, the United States will not play an important role in Europe (“in its fight – as you write – with Putin”), as long as we exclude a global nuclear catastrophe, because it has more important things to do.

  12. Michael Veritas

    December 28, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    MichtaAndrew A. Michta Is not going to send his relatives to die in war for Ukraine but he’ll gladly offer up ours. The American public is not interested in WW3 with Russia. Ukraine is none of our business. How about we focus on our southern border instead of foreign ones?

  13. David Tate

    December 28, 2021 at 10:35 pm

    I think that I have a different analysis.

    NATO was formed in 1949 as a military alliance to complement the Marshall Plan and enable Europe to resist Communism. The Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1990 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since that time NATO has continued to exapnd Eastward. This expansion replaced the Partnership for Peace. Currently NATO includes 30 member states including the United States. NATO includes the former Warsaw Pact member states and Baltic States. NATO is the largest and most capable military alliance on Earth. NATO has the capability to conduct military operations across the full spectrum of military operations from assymmetrical through conventional warfare. Three NATO member states have access to weapons of massed destruction. NATO member states are wealthy and generate $39 Trillion in annual GDP. Russia only generates $2 Trillion in GDP.

    NATO is unprecedented in the history of Europe. It has unified Western Europe, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe in opposition to Moscow. NATO combat units are, theoretically, within 100 miles of St Petersburg and within 500 miles of Moscow. NATO has successfully isolated Russia (Muscovy) both militarily and economically.

    NATO member states have conducted more than 20 contingency operations in Balkans, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. All of these operations took place in former Russian satellite states or Russian sphere of influence. Not one of the states that NATO engaged was a direct threat to NATO. Article 5 has only been invoked once.

    The Russian government is correct to be on guard under these circustances. The Russians must defend it’s Western Frontier from the Norwegian Sea to the Black Sea. NATO air or naval assets could be in position to strike St Petersburg or Moscow. Essentially those strikes could arrive on target within minutes of launch.

    The Ukrainian Army includes over 140,000 members with another 40,000 in reserve. The Russians would need between 225,000 and 300,000 Soldiers to overcome a force the size of the Ukranian Army. It is not clear that the press reports and intelligence reports of Russian intentions are accurate. There is no indication that the Russians are moving additional units to the Western Military District. The Russians would need to mobilize their reserves. There is no indication that the Russians are mobilizing their reserves.

    NATO expansion Eastward expansion is very dangerous. The Russian government is isolated militarily and economically. The NATO alliance is unprecedented in that it has unified almost all of Europe in opposition to Russia. The Russian goverment is in a precarious position. Ukranian membership in NATO would bring NATO combat units to within 450 miles of Moscow. The Russians must defend themselves under these circumstances.

    Realistically, the United States has no national security interests in the Ukraine or the region between the Dneiper river to the Donets River that I am aware of. None. The proof of that is the Cold War. The Baltic States, Belarus, and the Ukraine were member states of the USSR during those years. The Ukraine holds more national security interest for Russia than the United States.

    Let us hope that there is a diplomatic solution that provides a compromise solution to Russia. The Russians have legitimate national security interests that must be satisfied.

  14. Thomas Moffatt

    December 28, 2021 at 11:53 pm

    NATO should have been disbanded in the mid 90’s.

  15. ambrish dhaka

    December 29, 2021 at 3:00 am

    Sometimes one can give a big heartful laugh when an academician talks like a military general. It’s both a stupid and a disservice to the national interest.

  16. Gunny

    December 29, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    NATO is a group of deadbeat countries who have no interest in defending themselves and instead rely on dumb us taxpayers to foot the bill. US should pull out and let these idiots fend for themselves.

  17. Keevan Morgan

    December 30, 2021 at 8:16 am

    This article is not reality based.

    It is not that the analysis might not be strategically wise.

    However, neither the United States nor any NATO major power has a population willing to lift a finger in its own defense, much less commit a single troop to a foreign adventure. Barack Obama withdrew from power politics because he did not consider the U.S. worthy of the world, and Donald Trump withdrew because he did not consider the world worthy enough for the U.S., but the result is the same.

    Machiavelli won’t allow a leader to engage in a foreign conflict if the leader’s people won’t pick up a cross-bow.

  18. kerim

    December 30, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    Michta reprezentuje typowe polskie kołtuństwo !

  19. Alex

    January 2, 2022 at 8:15 am

    Roughly once every hundred years, the collective West is the first to attack Russia. First there is propaganda about “aggressive” Russia, then about the “inferiority” of the Slavs. And every time he is defeated. Does the US want to repeat? The people of Europe will not fight for the United States. In case of war, the continent of North America will go under water. Russia is the only country that can do this.

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