Answer to Putin's Invasion of Ukraine Could Be NATO Expansion

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Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg meets NATO troops.
Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg meets NATO troops at an airbase in Tallinn, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was not even a week old, and the lesson to many in the U.S. and the West was already crystal clear -- the NATO alliance must be strengthened even further after a major expansion over the past two decades failed to deter conflict.

"We have to lean in and get greater purpose and focus," Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan think tank, testified to a Senate panel on Tuesday. "Now Europe understands the stakes. Its own freedoms and security are at stake as well as ours."

NATO has admitted more than a dozen new members since 1999, including Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, which border Ukraine and Russia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been deterred by the alliance expansion east, and instead has spent that time destabilizing Ukraine and finally invading last week, in what he said is a bid to keep it from joining the alliance.

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Now, NATO could continue to expand in ways unthinkable before Putin's invasion, analysts say, such as granting membership to Sweden and Finland, which would put another NATO member along Putin's border.

The seismic shift in countries’ interest and commitment to NATO comes only a couple of years after commentators were questioning its survival during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Trump sought a close relationship with Putin, questioned the value of the alliance throughout his one-term presidency and accused other member nations of not pulling their weight in defense spending. He also, according to several aides, repeatedly toyed with withdrawing from the alliance altogether. He also delayed aid to Ukraine in actions that led to his first impeachment.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has kicked off a dramatic departure from any disinterest and doubt. Putin has "renewed the sense of purpose, which is that Russia is aggressive," James Goldgeier, professor in the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, D.C., said in an interview.

All indications point to the post-World War II alliance being re-energized by Ukraine after the long-running tensions with Putin's Russia finally exploded into the largest European war in generations and member states banded together on the sidelines over the past week to send security aid and condemnations.

"I feel like the West is having a moment here, and NATO is having a moment," Christopher Skaluba, the director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, told Military.com. "It feels like Ukraine has lit something that's reminding us why we have these organizations in the first place and how important they are."

With grievances dating back to the Cold War and a chip on his shoulder for the U.S. and Europe’s handling of the demise of the Soviet Union, Putin had set about elevating Russia to something resembling its Cold War glory in the 2000s.

The alliance continued to expand as Putin consolidated power and in 2008 began talking about adding Ukraine, a move vehemently opposed by the Kremlin.

In 2014, the Moscow-backed president of Ukraine was deposed in a coup, and Putin reacted by backing a separatist war in its ethnically Russia eastern Donbas region, while also annexing its Crimea peninsula, a strategic area on the Black Sea.

At the time, the alliance was growing but was also adrift, Goldgeier said.

"Absent Putin's actions since 2014, with the first invasion of Ukraine, NATO would have totally lost its sense of purpose. It would have been more divided," he said. "I think the United States would have probably lost a lot of interest in it."

The alliance called the Crimea annexation “illegal and illegitimate,” and allies reacted with a series of sanctions on Russia in 2014, including restrictions on access to Western financial institutions for its state-owned banking, defense and energy industry; on high-tech oil exploration and production equipment; and on exports of military and dual-use goods, according to NATO.

Dual-use goods are products and technology that can be used for both peaceful and military ends. One common example is rocket technology - utilized for both the launch of peaceful satellites as well as warheads.

The sanctions caused a drop in oil prices and a devaluation of Russia’s currency, according to a NATO analysis a year later, but had relatively negligible effects on Russia’s economy as a whole and seemingly did not dissuade Putin from future action.

But last month’s invasion has triggered a much more dramatic response from NATO, with some caveats. President Joe Biden and NATO members repeatedly made clear they would not send military forces into Ukraine, a non-member that is not part of the mutual defense Article 5 clause that deems an attack on any alliance member an attack on all.

Despite weeks of underscoring historic unity, NATO was unable to convince Putin to turn back before the invasion. The alliance has since activated the NATO Response Force, an elite multi-national military force that includes the U.S., for the first time in the wake of the invasion, and has continued to send security aid into Ukraine to help with its fight. Member Germany lifted a ban on sending arms to war zones and said it will contribute Stinger missiles and anti-tank weapons.

In an address to the nation at the start of Putin's invasion, Biden said that "the good news is NATO is more united and more determined than ever." The U.S. was a founding member of the alliance in 1949 in a move to counter the former Soviet Union, and has been a linchpin as the world's remaining superpower after the Cold War.

Public movements toward NATO membership have grown in both Finland, which shares a border with Russia, and Sweden in recent days, according to press reports from Europe. The two countries have been close allies of the alliance but had avoided seeking membership before the Ukraine crisis, appearing to be reversing course in a stunning development amid the Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

Kosovo also requested a fast track to NATO membership and a permanent U.S. military base following the invasion, according to Reuters.

"I actually think there's a very good chance we could see NATO expansion this year," Skaluba said.

Russia had pushed more than 80% of the 175,000 troops massed at Ukraine's borders into the country by Tuesday as intense fighting and bombing continued, according to a senior defense official. Russian forces had fired more than 400 ballistic missiles, with reports and videos emerging of indiscriminate bombing with cluster munitions and the presence of thermobaric vacuum weapons that could be dangerous to civilians.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky maintained control of the country’s capital city, Kyiv, while Ukraine’s military was fighting back and still had control of the airspace in some parts of the country. The Russian advance on Kyiv had stalled, at least temporarily, amid a shortage of fuel and food for its troops, the defense official said.

In 2018, Ukraine changed its constitution to include its hopes of joining the NATO alliance, according to Ambassador Oksana Markarova. The majority of Ukrainians -- 62% -- supported the move.

That government's future is now deeply in doubt, and it remains unclear what Putin may do if his invasion overcomes fierce resistance from the Ukrainians.

"Priority No. 1 is to defend the country," Markarova told reporters in Washington, D.C. "I hope that we soon will win, that peace will return to the country, and then we will return to the discussions of so many strategic issues and items on the agenda, including the NATO membership."

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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