NATO’s Uncertain Future

– By Jeff Lukens

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August marked a return to their historic pattern of imperial conquest. Without confronting NATO directly, Vladimir Putin signaled he intends to keep Georgia and Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence, and keep them from joining NATO. Putin can now bully other Eastern European countries as well to sway their policies away from the West and toward Russia. If any of these countries fail to comply, the implied message is they can expect a fate similar to Georgia.

The European Union gets more that a quarter of its oil from Russia, and the pipeline through Georgia is the only oil from the Caspian oil fields not controlled by Russia or Iran. Putin now is able to shut it down anytime he wants to.

The attack on Georgia also exposed a dangerous overextension of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and United States forces around the world. Power abhors a vacuum, and when there is any uncertainty about it in the Kremlin, instability follows. Putin has proven Russia will brutally fill any power void around them. NATO needs to reexamine its long-term strategic purpose, and determine what it should do about a newly aggressive and revitalized Russia.

There are two compelling sides to the debate over what to do. One line of reasoning says we should promote democracies everywhere, and holds that Russia must face the consequences for its actions. Naked aggression will happen again if unanswered. If Russia wants to act like the USSR, then NATO should treat it as it treated the USSR. For the alliance to cave now would only heighten the possibility of armed conflict later. Promoting democracy would ultimately mean supporting NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. If we offer them membership, however, we must be prepared to defend them. And this we are not able to do.

The other line of thinking says we should recognize the Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and not tread on their turf. NATO has already committed more to the region than it is prepared to support. No one wants to go to war over Georgia or Ukraine, and the US cannot confront the Russians alone.

While Russia’s neighbors worry about the renewed threat, Western Europe, and Germany especially, care more about their oil. Eastern Europe has been under the Russian domination before and has no intention on going back to it again. This makes for a divide in NATO that is quite literally big enough to drive a tank through — which of course Putin is not above doing. This political fissure could ultimately unravel the alliance.

NATO served its purpose well until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But unlike the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia is currently flush with cash. With a declining population and a single source economy, Putin apparently believes he needs to act now because time is not on his side. He knows the US is overextended in the Middle East, and now is the time to reassert Russian dominance in Eastern Europe before the US can capably respond.

Besides attacking Georgia, Putin has threatened to dismember large portions of Ukraine if it joins NATO. Even if Georgia had been a member of NATO, it is questionable whether any ally in Western Europe would have been willing to fight for them. As NATO has expanded its boundaries toward the Russian border, the military power that backs the alliance has become more diluted and less likely to honor its commitments. The alliance has written checks it is not able to cash.

The Baltic States present a special problem. These former Soviet republics all have large Russian populations within their borders. If Russia brings its armies to the borders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, would anyone in NATO send troops there to honor the alliance’s guarantees? Possibly not. And definitely it would not in the numbers necessary to turn back an invasion.

In 1914, a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations that started in the Balkans lead to World War One. A similar set of misunderstandings and miscalculations may be awaiting us in the Baltics. With these countries already members of NATO, such uncertainty before a confrontive Russia could escalate into a larger war with the West.

Another piece on Putin’s chessboard is Iran. He knows the US wants out of Iraq, and to do so completely we will need to contain Iran. The US needs Russian support for economic sanctions to work against Teheran, which sets the stage for Putin to offer up a deal: The US gets its way with Iran in exchange for Russian domination of Georgia and Ukraine. It may be an offer we find hard to refuse.

The only diplomatic leverage we can exact on Russia now is to exclude them from the WTO, the G-8, and other international economic organizations, and such actions take time to work. And while the threat of exclusion is of no major concern to Putin, the flight of capital from the West is already exacting a toll in Russian financial markets as nervous investors pull back.

Global financial markets have punished Russia much more quickly than any diplomatic sanctions ever could. And the economic toll served on Russia has been severe. The RTS stock index in Moscow has fallen by more than half since May. The exodus of foreign capitol and the collapse of domestic credit have transformed the mood in Moscow from boldness to dismay. Putin is unlikely to reverse course, however, unless he is forced to by a collapse in the price of oil.

From any rational standpoint, the need for the US to more fully develop its petroleum resources has never been clearer. More immediately, some vital decisions need to be made about NATO’s future. By drawing clear lines between Russia and NATO, we can help stabilize the region. NATO must be firm with Russia about its respect for rules in dealing with other countries, or accept the position that Russian aggression is the price it must pay to keep oil flowing to Europe.

Russia’s attack on Georgia was not an isolated event. Their historic pattern of conquest will not go away because we wish it away. The events in August marked the return of geopolitics as it has been played since the dawn of civilization.

We cannot just say that NATO must adjust to new realities or fade away into irrelevancy. We may soon discover a greater danger lies in security promises made to Eastern European states that we cannot militarily support, which Putin misreads, and then becomes a major war. NATO must show commitment and clarity of purpose to prevent such a catastrophe.
Jeff Lukens is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets. He can be contacted at

Copyright Publius Forum 2001