20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 12, the U.S. and the EU expanded their sanctions against Russia following the escalation of the Ukraine crisis; however, as Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, points out, NATO members have been holding back in their aid to Ukraine.


At a NATO summit in Wales, NATO supported Ukraine rhetorically, but avoided committing to any significant aid. Photo: Reuters


As NATO representatives met in Wales on September 4–5, the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels signed a ceasefire deal that at least temporarily solidified recent territorial gains by the insurgents in Ukraine’s increasingly bloody war. The agreement, made with the Kremlin’s backing, appeared to be a first step toward the creation of a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine’s east and south—a frozen conflict of the type Moscow has exploited in Moldova and Georgia to exert control over former Soviet satellites, thereby thwarting their prospects of joining the Western alliance. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko had gambled in recent months that Ukrainian forces could defeat the separatists without Moscow’s direct intervention. But the absence of significant NATO or Western military help—as well as Moscow’s commitment of manpower, equipment, and resources to the separatists—enabled the rebels to reverse government gains in the past two weeks. The insurgents recaptured villages and towns south of Donetsk and to the south and southwest of Luhansk just before the ceasefire.

On the eve of the summit, many experts believed that NATO was situated in one of the most pivotal moments in its history. Russia’s actions in Ukraine reminded its members that the organization must still be prepared to manage its collective defense and practice effective crisis management, and that deterrence and reassurance are as important as ever.

Thus, two concrete issues confronted the participants in Wales: first, providing robust, sustained reassurance to the alliance’s eastern members that their security would be ensured, despite Russian aggression; and second, finding effective ways to respond to emerging unconventional threats such as Moscow’s mastery of asymmetrical twenty-first-century-style warfare, which has kept the West off balance for most of the crisis. The problem, as former UK diplomat Ian Bond recently wrote, is that since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Western leaders have repeatedly shown they do not have the will to use the means available to them to stop Russia’s gross violations of international law.

Russia’s escalation of the conflict in Ukraine as the alliance met, therefore, made a mockery of the NATO summit. The alliance supported Ukraine rhetorically, but the organization avoided committing to any significant aid. NATO promised to provide €15 million ($19.4 million) to help in areas such as logistics, command and control, communications, and the rehabilitation of wounded troops, but the amounts are relatively small and will do little to meet Ukraine’s need for better-trained manpower and modern weapons. NATO members verbally agreed to establish a future rapid-reaction force of about 4,000 men to deal with crises (and to a “continuous” rotational presence of an unspecified number of troops in Eastern Europe), but on the ground, Moscow was reacting even more rapidly to secure its interests. The proposed unit would do little to counter Moscow’s use of asymmetrical warfare. The ceasefire terms also demonstrated that Russia is more willing than NATO to commit significant resources to secure its geopolitical goals in Ukraine.

Russia’s escalation of the conflict in Ukraine as the alliance met, therefore, made a mockery of the NATO summit. The alliance supported Ukraine rhetorically, but the organization avoided committing any significant aid.

Kiev has received so little Western assistance in large part because of NATO’s caution about provoking Moscow. Most participants at the Wales summit awkwardly tried to avoid using the word “invasion” to describe Moscow’s interference, since calling it such would imply the need to take stronger action. The scale of the Russian invasion in recent days was thus large enough to turn the tide, but small enough to allow NATO members reluctant to aid Ukraine to look the other way. Moreover, Crimea, illegally snatched by Moscow six months ago, was barely mentioned in Wales, as was the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in July in circumstances that appear to implicate Russia, if only indirectly. On September 5, the EU moved to increase sanctions on Russia, but they are still relatively mild—a spokesperson even said they would be “reversible.” They are thus unlikely to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin.

An excess of timidity has also marked the U.S. approach. President Barack Obama said that in view of the Russian invasion, the U.S. and Europe would go ahead with another round of sanctions against Russia’s energy, defense, and financial sectors, but the U.S. president then went on to state that sanctions could be rolled back if the ceasefire becomes permanent and Moscow pulls back its troops. Far greater countermeasures were threatened by the alliance in June if Russian invaded, which Moscow—correctly counting on weak Western resolve—did anyway. In Estonia, prior to the summit, Obama gave an eloquent speech promising that an attack on a fellow NATO member is an attack on the United States, but after a week of “tough talk but soft actions” in Wales, Putin is unlikely to believe it. U.S. officials publicly point to European reluctance to punish Russia as the reason for the mildness of Western sanctions so far, but the White House often gives the impression that it is relieved that its allies aren’t pressing for stronger action to help the Ukrainian government.

Russia has responded to the NATO summit as it has to every step in the Ukraine crisis: with escalation. Although the Kremlin appears committed to implementing the ceasefire, officials have discussed revising the country’s war doctrine and nuclear strategy and have taken steps to restructure its military industrial complex by putting it more directly under Putin’s control. Retired general Yury Yakubov, who serves as an advisor to the Russian defense ministry, said last week that the doctrine should not only list NATO as the primary threat to Russia, but should also detail the scenarios in which preemptive nuclear strikes against the alliance would be considered.

Less than forty-eight hours after President Obama delivered his speech in Estonia warning that any aggression by Moscow against Estonia would trigger war with the U.S. and NATO, Russian security forces kidnapped an officer of Estonia’s state security bureau at gunpoint and took him to Russia. Since a quarter of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian, concerns in the country are high that Putin might attempt some sort of aggression, as he did in Ukraine, to ostensibly “protect” the large population of ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers in those regions. NATO is rightly careful in the face of such talk, but its internal divisions and obvious reluctance to act have encouraged Moscow’s bullying.

In a recent provocative essay, the eminent commentator Walter Russell Mead called the West’s decisions on Ukraine “few” and “ugly,” and called for an end to the “half-hearted dithering” that has passed for policy up to now. Either the U.S. (and its allies) can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, or political will, or we can watch Russia devour as much of the country as it wants. (Prioritizing state-building in Ukraine is key.) Putin, he argues, has done an excellent job of demonstrating that NATO is a collection of “incompetent windbags” and that Obama is only as intimidating “as the teleprompter he reads from.” Mead’s personal criticism of Western leaders may be overly harsh, but he correctly highlights the link between a Putin victory in Ukraine and Russia’s more general challenge to the international order. These challenges can likely best be met not within the cumbersome NATO structures, but by relying on coalitions of the willing—including Poland, the Baltic States, the UK, and some Nordic countries within and outside of NATO. Economic sanctions have their place, he concludes, but they are more often tools to help politicians look busy and tough while they in fact do nothing. One hopes President Poroshenko will convey a forceful, though more polite, version of this message to Barack Obama when the two men meet at the White House on September 18.