Totalitarian regimes, such as Russia, only listen to the barrel of the gun, or a tough political stance. For appeasement and concessions there is no place in their thinking. Currently, Moscow is (once again) threatening to invade Ukraine. US President Joe Biden has already stated that in case Putin attacks Ukraine, the USA will not deploy its armed forces to stop a Russian invasion. This is giving the wrong signal: Biden should have left Putin in uncertainty what a US response would be. What can be done to contain Moscow in its hazardous endeavours?
The West (USA and Europe) has a ‘legacy’ of giving wrong signals to Russia. In 2008 Russian armed forces invaded Georgia and subsequently occupied and de-facto annexed the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia. The US, NATO and the EU declared economic sanctions against Russia and postponed any cooperation with Moscow. However, soon, first the EU and later NATO as well, they went back to the negotiation table with Russia: to a large extent business returned as usual. A wrong signal! This attitude meant a free pass for Vladimir Putin to do it again: in 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed its Crimea region and instigated an insurrection against Kiev in the Donbas region, which continues until today. This time the Western response was more substantial. NATO-Russia cooperation has virtually vanished and the USA and the EU have imposed serious economic sanctions on Russia.
Considering the current build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine, Putin has already ‘gained’ that the US, and thus NATO, will keep military aside in the event of another Russian military intervention against Ukraine. Recently, Putin, concerning negotiations with the West on lowering tensions around Ukraine, repeated his demand that Ukraine (or any other former Soviet republic, such as Georgia) shall not be allowed to join NATO. Only after a while, the West provided Russia with a solid reply that Moscow has no right to dictate what independent former Soviet republics may do in their policy, nor which states NATO is allowed to accept as new members. But other than that, the West only has warned Moscow that another invasion of Ukraine would result in ‘serious measures.’ A wrong signal: Moscow is not impressed by an empty shell, only by a loaded gun!
Both Georgia and Ukraine have had long-time ambitions to join NATO, and in the case of Georgia, also to join the EU. From the start of their endeavours, it was clear that such a policy would be unacceptable for Russia. The longer NATO dragged on the process of integrating Tbilisi and Kiev into the Alliance, the fiercer became Moscow’s resistance against it. At NATO’s Bucharest Summit of April 2008, Georgia and Ukraine had hoped to join the NATO Membership Action Plan. But NATO, because of opposition of France and Germany, decided to review their request in December 2008. A wrong signal to Moscow: Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, to prevent its NATO membership, and Ukraine in 2014. With the permanent deployment of Russian troops in regions of Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow has accomplished its policy objective: these former Soviet republics are unlikely to join NATO, even though the Alliance states differently. This is the result of a number of wrong signals of the West towards Russia.
The current (way of) negotiations between Russia and NATO offer nothing new. Russia’s demand that Ukraine (and Georgia) will never be allowed to join the Western military alliance has been Moscow’s ongoing theme for decades. Likewise, the condition that the USA/NATO would not be allowed to station any troops or weaponry in Eastern Europe. The demand that NATO should return to the status quo of 1997, the start of the Alliance’s enlargement policy, adding former Soviet-Russian satellite states, is downright ridiculous. Another default theme in Russia’s approach to NATO is that the Alliance or the USA, after the end of the Cold War, promised not to expand in Eastern direction. However, Moscow has never been able to provide any evidence of this promise, simply, because it does not exist!
The aforementioned demands are all part of the standard Russian approach of turning things around. Not NATO but Russia is a threat to stability in Europa, as it has proven by its military operations and subsequent de-facto annexation of parts of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). Another typical trick of the Kremlin –when presenting its current demands – is to try to negotiate with the USA only, leaving NATO/Europe out. Hence, the old adage of divide and rule. Fortunately, the USA did not fall into this Russian trap, but put the negotiations on the table of the NATO-Russian Council.
What to do? NATO should correct its policy towards Ukraine and Georgia where it went wrong in 2008. Since 2008, many countries have joined NATO, usually only after a couple of years in the waiting room. However, the Alliance has kept Ukraine and Georgia already more than a decade in the waiting room. Why? Out of fear to annoy Russia. This fear for Russia has de-facto resulted into an ‘invitation’ to Moscow for military intervention into Georgia and Ukraine, to stop their membership of NATO once and for all. Indeed, the current military occupation of parts of these two states makes NATO membership much more difficult than if they would have joined at NATO’s Bucharest Summit of 2008.
However, if NATO sincerely wants a stable and secure Europe there is only one solution: let Ukraine and Georgia join NATO as soon as possible. Only this step can guarantee their security and protect them from further military action by Russia against their sovereignty. Alas, the consequence of their membership would be that they accept the fact that the territory they lost to Russia, will be lost for ever. That would be the case anyway, Moscow will never return Abkhazia and South-Ossetia to Georgia, nor the Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine. That is the price they have to pay for NATO’s hesitance on their entry into the Alliance. But with that reality in mind, Ukraine and Georgia, as NATO members, would at least be spared from further undermining of their sovereignty, since Moscow will think twice before attacking a NATO member state. In that case NATO’s collective defence would be valid to Georgia and Ukraine, in which an attack on one NATO member state is regarded as an attack on all NATO members.
So, NATO, stop the useless negotiations with Russia and invite Ukraine and Georgia to join!