FPI Bulletin: Don't Waste NATO's "Crucial Summit"

September 2, 2014

As President Obama travels to a NATO summit meeting in Wales on September 4-5, the western alliance cannot afford to waste another moment in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Over the past week, Russian troops have wrested control of parts of southern Ukraine from government forces, expanding the territory under Russian-armed rebel control and opening a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea.  Vladimir Putin has resurrected the tsarist “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia,” to describe this territory - a phrase that indicates Moscow’s unsated aggression.

Since Russia first seized Crimea in March of this year, the United States and its European allies have offered an ineffective combination of limited sanctions, non-lethal aid to Ukraine, and token military deployments.  Obama himself has too often undermined even these measures, suggesting that his biggest concern is restoring a “cooperative functioning relationship with Russia,” and declining just last week to call Russia’s invasion an invasion.  This week’s meeting, which NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calls a “crucial summit,” offers Obama and his counterparts an opportunity to break from this record and finally coordinate meaningful steps to isolate Russia, support Ukraine, and bolster NATO.

Isolate Russia with New Sanctions

The United States and Europe have so far shied from the only sanctions that may be harsh enough to affect Russian policy – sectoral sanctions targeting such vital hubs as Russia’s natural gas and banking industries.  Although European governments have feared that such measures would harm their own economies, the European Union is now preparing to announce these types of sanctions at a meeting set to coincide with the NATO summit.  A strong sanctions package, combined with an effective NATO meeting, is essential, and should include:

  • Sanctions on Russia’s natural gas industry. President Obama should urge European governments to impose immediate sanctions against this key pillar of the Russian economy, which has so far avoided sanctions.  European dependency on Russian energy exports is too often exaggerated, while as Julia Ioffe points out, Russia would actually suffer more from reduced energy trade than would Europe.
  • Sanctions on Russia’s financial sector.  The European Union is reportedly considering a ban on Russian government bonds, and sanctions that block Moscow’s banks from accessing the SWIFT interbank payments system would truly cripple the Russian economy.  Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has pointed out that “the more this looks like the administration is using pages from the Iranian financial sanctions playbooks,” the more likely that success will be.
  • Additional sanctions against senior Russian human rights abusers. In addition to developing sanctions in cooperation with the EU, the Obama administration should fully utilize the authorities provided under the Magnitsky Act, a law providing for sanctions against Russian human rights abusers.  Only 30 people have been targeted so far under this law, but Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) has identified hundreds more candidates for sanction. 

In addition to new sanctions, the United States should work with its European allies to make the current arms embargo against Russia airtight.  Despite Russian aggression against its neighbors, France is poised to conclude the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, an unconscionable act when Russian military officials have already commented on how useful the ships would have been in their 2008 invasion of Georgia.  Despite Russia’s actions, France is proceeding with the sale of two advanced warships to Russia.  The current arms embargo against Russia should be made retroactive to existing contracts, and as Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon have recommended, NATO members should consider purchasing the Mistral ships for the alliance’s use.  Going forward, the enforcement of the European arms embargo against Russia will require close congressional scrutiny.

Help Ukraine Defend Itself

The fact that Russia found it necessary to invade Ukraine after months of backing rebels there indicates the significant inroads that Ukraine had made against the separatists, despite having a small and poorly equipped army.  In light of Russia’s overt aggression, the United States and Europe should provide Kyiv the weaponry it needs to defend itself and deter even larger Russian operations.

So far, the Obama administration has offered limited non-lethal aid to Kyiv, totaling $33 million of assistance, including body armor, night vision goggles, and radios.  The United States and NATO can and should do better.  The alliance should provide Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to enable their military to stand up to Russia’s.  The West should also send trainers to help improve Ukraine’s military readiness, and conduct intense training exercises with their forces.  Of Ukraine’s approximately 35,000 ground troops, only 12,000 are believed to be combat-ready today.  If Ukraine were able to bring more of its forces into combat, it would change the facts on the ground and raise the price of further Russian escalation.

In addition, the Ukrainian government has indicated that it plans to request NATO membership, pending approval by the country’s parliament. NATO has already expressed its support for Ukrainian accession, provided that Kyiv meets the conditions for joining the alliance.  As Ukraine pursues NATO membership, the United States and Europe should make clear that they will support Kyiv’s aspirations.

Strengthen and Expand NATO

The focus of the Wales summit will be on next steps to strengthen NATO, and as Secretary General Rasmussen has stated, to “ensure that the alliance remains ready, able and willing to defend all Allies against any attack.”  To achieve this goal, NATO should:

  • Establish a permanent and sizable presence in Eastern Europe to deter further Russian aggression.  Polandthe Baltic states, and Romania have requested that NATO forces be permanently stationed on their territory.  As a step towards accommodating their request, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen told reporters that the alliance would create a “spearhead” rapid deployment force at the summit next week.  However, this “more visible” NATO presence near Russia is envisioned as a rotation of member state forces, not a permanent deployment.  Although critics say that such permanent basing would violate NATO’s 1997 Founding Act with Russia, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow has noted that the accord is not legally binding. Moreover, the Act allows for such deployments in case “the current and foreseeable security environment” changes, and Russia’s actions have plainly done that. What’s more, the non-NATO states of Sweden and Finland will reportedly soon sign agreements that will allow NATO forces to be deployed to their territory. Western leaders should not shy away from taking appropriate action to protect NATO members and deter further Russian aggression.
  • Recommit to NATO enlargement. In March of this year, 56 former U.S. government officials and foreign policy experts wrote an open letter to President Obama that urged him to press NATO members to provide a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia at the Wales summit and “expanding U.S. military rotations to Georgia.” In addition, the group also urged the United States to support “Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, and other European security partners, if they seek NATO membership.” Although Secretary General Rasmussen has described a package of measures to “bring Georgia closer” to the alliance, membership will almost certainly not be on the table.  The United States and Europe should work to make MAP a reality for Georgia, while also pressuring Tbilisi to desist in its politicized prosecutions of former government officials.  This step, essential for Georgia’s long-term security, sends a vital message of reassurance to Ukraine’s parliament as it debates seeking membership, and puts Moscow on notice that it cannot veto its neighbors’ NATO aspirations.


Through his actions, Vladimir Putin has foreclosed any prospect of a “cooperative relationship” between Russia and the West in the near future, no matter President Obama’s hope.  The task for the United States and NATO, then, is to take actions that both reflect this new reality and meet the alliance’s security needs.  Punishing Russia’s aggression, bolstering Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, and increasing the strength of the NATO alliance would be clear signs that the West is ready to face any challenges Russia may offer.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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