Ronald Reagan Institute

NATO’s New Opportunity: US Commitments in Europe after Russia’s War in Ukraine

Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Europe and Eurasia
HIMARS air defense ukraine artillery aid military defense russia
A US Army M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires a rocket as part of Nordic Strike 22 at Vidsel Test Range, Sweden, on September 27, 2022. (US Army Photo by Spc. Devin Klecan)

This piece originally appeared in The Future of Conservative Internationalism Volume III.

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The administration of President Joe Biden likes to say that it got the war in Ukraine right. It not only anticipated the invasion but released highly specific intelligence that forestalled elements of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign—in the process restoring whatever credibility the intelligence community had squandered over the war in Iraq. This time it was Germany and France cleaning eggs off their faces—with French President Emmanuel Macron left to fire his head of military intelligence.1 Once the operation got underway, so the story goes, the Biden team galvanized the West against Putin in a triumph of multilateral diplomacy.

But this is only a selective telling of the administration’s performance. It obscures the truth that US blunders made the war in Ukraine possible in the first place. After taking office in January 2021, President Biden pursued cooperation with Russia while neglecting deterrence, signaling a basic discomfort with hard power which Putin interpreted as weakness. This, more than any other factor, laid the groundwork for the very war in which the Biden administration finds itself increasingly involved. Now that Putin has attacked, the United States should adopt the following seven principles in its policies toward North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO)and Europe.

Principle #1: Stop treating Russia as a partner.

Under the rubric of “stable and predictable” relations, the Biden team made concessions to Moscow on key energy and arms control policies2 while downgrading ties with those allies, from Poland to Turkey, most obviously in Russia’s crosshairs.3 Rather than meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden flew to Geneva to forge new ties with Putin. All along, the US partnered closely with Russia on the Iran negotiations in Vienna. This outreach was all the more baffling because Putin long ago dropped any pretense to cooperation. If Russia ever entertained its own version of China’s “hide and bide” stratagem, Putin ended it with a major speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he openly declared his hostility to the West for all the world to hear.4 In the intervening years, Putin undertook a variety of attacks on the international order, which the West countered with minor rebukes coupled to offers of cooperation. In the days before the invasion, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, captured the Kremlin’s assessment of Western policies. The West would stand down in the event of war, he argued, because it believes “Russia is more important than Ukraine.”1

Principle #2: Recognize the centrality of hard power and deterrence.

To make matters worse, the United States violated the basic precepts of deterrence. Instead of keeping Putin guessing, Biden took every opportunity to underscore that he would not defend Ukraine.6 At the same time, the administration provided Ukraine with security assistance that fell short of what it considered necessary for the country’s defense. So certain was the administration that Putin would steamroll into Kyiv that it offered to exfiltrate Zelensky just two days after the outbreak of war—an offer he rejected with the memorable phrase, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”7 By dropping ambiguity and neglecting the balance of power, the United States committed a basic error of international statecraft. By February 7, channeling the Athenians in Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, Putin felt sufficiently confident to tell Ukraine: “Like it or not, my beauty, you have to put up with it.”8

Principle #3: Aim to win rather than manage confrontation.

Since the start of the war, the West has sought to limit the conflict rather than win it. This same political timidity has characterized the West for years, emboldening Putin to take greater and greater risks over time. As the analyst Keir Giles has observed, in the past “Russia has repeatedly achieved its objectives by exploiting the fact that Western states have prioritized ending conflict over achieving a satisfactory outcome in it.”9

In Ukraine, the US is committing the same conceptual error again. To date, it has retained control over Ukrainian ISR, placing certain targets off-limits, and refrained from providing Ukraine with long-range strike systems or cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could destroy Russian supply lines. The Biden administration casts this reluctance as prudence—the sort of self-restraint that is essential when facing off against a nuclear-armed superpower. As seen from the Kremlin, however, the Biden team is prepared to sacrifice victory in Ukraine to avoid a broader war with NATO that Putin has no intent, or ability, to wage. The lesson for Putin is obvious: the United States, when pressed, is susceptible to blackmail.

Perhaps Ukraine will defeat Russia, recapture its territory, and rebuild its economy with present levels of Western support. As of this writing, however, Ukraine is a no-man’s land between Russia and the West—a killing field whose economic recovery is held hostage by Russian long-range fires and submarines. Unable to export through the Black Sea, its artery to the outside world, Ukraine has become a landlocked shell of its former self, wholly dependent on outside aid for survival.

Europe is now at war and in crisis—and locked in a test of endurance. It is foolish to assume that the West will provide large-scale support to Ukraine indefinitely. As the economic pain of recession grips both the United States and Europe, its determination to support Ukraine will flag. The Biden administration should aim for Ukrainian victory now, lest the window of opportunity closes.

Principle #4: Lead rather than coordinate the anti-Russia coalition.

In the high stakes setting of war, the leader of a coalition must define victory and assign missions and roles. By forging ahead, the United States gives purpose to the alliance and creates a slipstream for partners. Absent such leadership, its allies will compete over policy leadership, an environment ripe for exploitation by our adversaries. Worse, it may lead to the adoption of the lowest common denominator in a sort of weak multilateralism. To be sure, the United States’ European partners are broadly aligned in their rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beneath the veneer of allied unity, however, lie differences in outlook and strategy. In mid-May, for example, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks described the Baltic states’ trust in Germany as “close to zero” owing to Berlin’s reluctance to ratchet up pressure on Russia.1

These disputes cannot all be resolved through consultation alone. If the United States had taken the firm decision at the start of the war to sanction Russian energy and deliver heavy weapons, our NATO allies would have followed suit. As Henry Kissinger observed in May, “We are now living in a totally new era”11—a reality which NATO’s economic and military relationships should reflect. If the United States does not lead the alliance into this new era, no one will.

Most of all, American leadership depends on presidential engagement, which begins with building support at home. The president should regularly remind the American public of the stakes in Ukraine and why remaining committed to the country’s defense is in the American national interest. A regular rhythm of presidential speeches will also strengthen allied resolve and Ukrainian morale.

Principle #5: Press Europe to improve its own defense.

Not only is Europe changing, so is its place in the world. In the span of a few months, Hungary’s decision to hedge between Europe and Russia has damaged the unity of the Visegrad bloc while Polish-Ukrainian ties have blossomed into the closest partnership between any two states in the world. In northern Europe, the Nordic states are all members of the same alliance for the first time in modern history.

Meanwhile, the center of gravity in the international system is shifting from Europe to Asia-Pacific, with the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan looming larger every day. This makes it imperative that Europe takes more responsibility for its own defense. The continued imbalance in transatlantic defense capabilities only feeds American cynicism and poisons the alliance.

For years, Germany, the largest power in Europe, has behaved like a putative chess grandmaster who thinks he can win a match with only a third of the pieces on the board. The war in Ukraine has now rattled Berlin. Almost overnight, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, announced a 100-billion-euro special defense fund and promised to keep defense spending to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product indefinitely.

Germany’s anticipated remilitarization is the major prize in Europe today. France will seek to co-opt these funds for its goal of EU strategic autonomy; by contrast, Eastern Europe will attempt to channel them into transatlantic structures. Stuck between Paris and Warsaw, Germany will need to exercise leadership and vision. The United States should nurture the reconstitution of Germany’s strategic culture and military capabilities, including by offering it a greater leadership role at NATO.

Principle #6: Rethink NATO deployments and deterrence.

As it rebuilds its capabilities, Europe must also grapple with a transformed geography. Now is the time to shift the alliance eastward. By admitting Finland into the alliance, NATO will add 800 miles to its border with Russia. Meanwhile, Putin’s transformation of Belarus into a satellite state has upended the security prospects of Poland and the Baltic states.

NATO has begun to take countermeasures, deploying eight battlegroups into Eastern Europe on a rotational, but not permanent, basis. Now that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has freed the West from its obligations under the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which limited deployments to Eastern Europe, NATO should begin moving the alliance eastward.

In extremis, NATO might even consider countering Russia’s anti-access area denial (A2/AD) zone in Kaliningrad with similar measures in Lithuania or Gdansk, Poland. At minimum, its plans for the defense of the Baltics should be overhauled in light of the accession of Sweden, including its island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, and Finland, a mere 25-mile flight from Tallinn, Estonia.

NATO must also grapple with a revolution in nuclear weapons strategy. In Ukraine, Putin has inverted the longstanding understanding of nuclear weapons as a defensive deterrent by resorting to offensive threats. The attack on Ukraine is already a blow to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, given that Kyiv’s decision to surrender its nuclear weapons in 1994 has opened the door to its near destruction today.

Putin’s inversion of nuclear norms constitutes another strike against non-proliferation. NATO must develop a response to these challenges, beginning in nuclear weapons innovation. The alliance must also prepare its response in the event Russia detonates a bomb, either for demonstration purposes or in Ukraine itself.

Principle #7: Weaken the anti-American bloc.

As awful as the war in Ukraine has been, it also affords the United States an opportunity to take a major enemy off the board for the near term. Russian war crimes in places like Bucha have shocked Europeans into agreeing to export controls and exploring new energy suppliers. If implemented, such economic measures will shift the military balance of power dramatically. The United States should seize the momentum created by Putin’s newfound pariah status to isolate the Russian economy over the long run.

As Russia loses access to Western technologies, its intelligence services will double down on their efforts to steal tech components and intellectual property. Moscow will also seek to gain access to key technologies through commercial trade with third countries. The West must institute a plan to defend its industries against espionage and leakage. But it should also go on offense. For example, the woeful performance of Russia’s weapon systems12 in Ukraine imperils its defense trade.13 The United States should encourage Russia’s defense customers to consider new, more reliable suppliers for their militaries.

Of course, Putin’s ace in the hole is China, with which he has forged a “no limits” partnership. It is unclear to what extent Putin can blunt a concerted Western sanctions campaign by turning to Beijing, but the United States should ensure that every cubic meter of gas or barrel of oil sold to China also fuels European resentment of the Chinese Communist Party. More than any other event, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine has alerted Europe to the dangers of China. Across NATO, US allies are connecting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to Beijing’s designs against Taiwan.

The United States may have bungled the lead-up to the war as well as its early days and weeks, but thanks to the heroism, toughness, and skill of the Ukrainian people, it has been presented with strategic opportunities. It should seize the moment before it fades, and our adversaries adapt. These seven principles light the path forward.

This piece oroginally appeared in The Future of Conservative Internationalism Volume III.

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