27 12 2021

Has NATO decided to sacrifice Ukraine?

Donetsk, Ukraine. Civilians living in bomb shelter, January 2015. Donetsk, Ukraine. Civilians living in bomb shelter, January 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Donbas

To Russia’s demand for a stop for NATO’s eastward expansion, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has answered that Russia has no say in which countries are becoming members of NATO, a viewpoint that has been repeated by the G7 countries, warning that there will be “massive consequences” for Russia if it intervenes in Ukraine. So Russia’s “red lines” have been rejected, well knowing that this may mean military conflict. What is contradictory is that by defending Ukraine’s right to NATO membership, NATO actually risks throwing Ukraine under the bus. So has NATO decided to sacrifice Ukraine? Or are the Russians bluffing and NATO calling the bluff?

Russia has recently put forward its “red line” in Ukraine: Ukrainian membership of NATO and stationing of foreign troops and missiles on its soil. It is demanding legal and binding guarantees for its security, and has warned that if its demands are not taken seriously, it will have “military-technical” consequences. It is difficult to interpret that otherwise than military action of some sort. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has answered that Russia has no say in which countries are becoming members of NATO, and the US and EU have warned that there will be “massive consequences” for Russia if it intervenes in Ukraine. This is an extremely dangerous situation.

Before looking at the possible scenarios, let us take a look at the motives. It is clear that both Russia and NATO would prefer to avoid war. It is not a bad point of departure, but unfortunately it gives no guarantee that there will not be war.

As to the Russian motives, even Russia-critical analysts think that they have real and legitimate concerns regarding Russia’s security. The assurance that NATO is a defensive alliance and therefore constitutes no threat to Russia doesn’t convince the Russians. They don’t see NATO’s interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as defensive actions. It is often stated that the Russians, and in particular Vladimir Putin, are paranoid, but even if that were true, this is how they see it, and perhaps Russia’s long history of having to fend of invaders helps explain this view. Missiles and NATO troops in Ukraine, less than 700 km from Moscow, seem actually to constitute a red line. Even if it is often stated that Ukrainian membership of NATO is more than a decade away, they fear a creeping development that will slowly integrate Ukraine into NATO, ending with a fait accompli.

The NATO motives are less clear. It is often stated as a defence for democracy and human rights, but given the present questionable state of Ukraine in this respect it doesn’t sound convincing. There is also a sort of dubious domino-theory: if Russia gets away with undermining or subduing Ukraine, then the Baltic countries and Poland will follow. What is more likely in play is a strategic US/NATO consideration. Given that US and NATO consider Russia an adversary, if not an enemy, Ukrainian membership of NATO would make Russia much more vulnerable, and therefore give NATO the upper hand strategically. As Russia is considered a malign force, this would be desirable and good for mankind.

Let us take a look at the possible scenarios for how this crisis may evolve.

The first scenario is that Russia backs down as it calculates that the cost of the threatened massive consequences”,devastating sanctions etc. is too high. So they give up resistance to Ukrainian NATO membership as a lost cause. For face-saving they get some inconsequential assurances from NATO. Basically this scenario is based on the assumption that the Russians are bluffing and NATO calls the bluff. I don’t think this scenario is likely. Russia has built quite a lot of resilience to sanctions since 2014, and in particular it seems to have assured the solidarity from China to confront the economic consequences, probably establishing alternative mechanisms for financial transactions and redirecting trade flows. Russia’s economic relations with the US are insignificant, but EU is its main trading partner. EU and Russia thus depend on each other. Russia needs European industrial equipment and inputs, and EU will have a hard time doing without Russian gas and oil in the short to medium term. If trade were made completely impossible, Russian oil would still go to the world market, but the flow of natural gas from Russia to Europe would stop. The total value of Russian gas exports was in 2020 around 25 billion USD. That is a lot of money, and constitutes around 7-8 per cent of Russia’s total exports, around the same as its agricultural exports. However, it includes piped gas to China, Turkey and the Balkans and the rapidly increasing exports of LNG, mainly to Asia, all of which would continue unchanged. Even so, it would hurt Russia hard, and diverting the gas to e.g. China via the planned Power of Siberia 2 pipeline will take years. A stop for import of Russian gas would be disruptive for the EU, which would probably have to return to using coal (from Australia, USA, Colombia etc.). The Russian industries would be disrupted too, as they are heavily dependent on the import of inputs, particularly for the (many) industries owned by European and US companies. There would be a chaotic situation for some time, during which these would scramble to find new suppliers, locally or in other countries. However, even if Russia would be very keen to avoid this scenario, it is not doomsday, and taking into account the interdependence between Russia and the EU, a total trade embargo is unlikely. So I don’t think they are bluffing. It is more likely that they are digging in their heels, come what may. The US strategy of using punishments or threats of punishments to achieve changes in behaviour, a strategy that sometimes works against weaker countries, has up to now been ineffective against the Russians.

The second scenario is that NATO backs down and accepts that it will not continue expanding eastwards, independently of what the aspiring countries may want (particularly Ukraine and Georgia). In the view of many NATO strategists, after the humiliating and chaotic NATO defeat in Afghanistan, a back-down in Ukraine confronted with an economically and militarily much weaker Russia, risks questioning the trustworthiness of the alliance. Furthermore, even if there are no doubt NATO countries which think this would not be the end of the world, for NATO as an institution a back-down seems to be considered as an existential threat. This is despite that there are people in the Western security circles who think that NATO expansion is not a good idea (e.g. the late George F. Kennan, one of the main architects behind the US cold war strategy against the Soviet Union, who in 1997 stated that the eastward expansion of NATO was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era”). Anyway, this scenario is not very likely either, unless there is a radical reassessment of the expansion strategy in NATO, or serious internal division in the organisation. There are no signs of that at the moment.

The third scenario is a negotiated solution. However, the challenge is that a stop for the eastward expansion of NATO seems to be a non-negotiable point for Russia, and the very reason they are digging in their heels. On the other hand, NATO and major NATO countries have excluded this as absolutely unacceptable. It is difficult to see how they can meet halfway on this crucial point. I don’t think that e.g. a 10-year moratorium for expansion would fly. Now talks between the US and Russia are scheduled for January 2022, but unfortunately a negotiated solutions looks unlikely. There is a risk that both parties are entering the negotiations just to show that they are not the intransigent part.

So an armed conflict in some form is unfortunately a possible scenario. What is contradictory is that by defending Ukraine’s right to NATO membership, NATO actually risks throwing Ukraine under the bus. It could of course also be argued that sacrificing Ukraine would have some positive consequences for NATO. A war in Ukraine and all the political and economic problems that would bring would weaken Russia, NATO’s main adversary, and probably keep it too busy to cause problems for NATO elsewhere (Syria, Libya, the Balkans, Africa). If the majority Russian parts of Ukraine secede, say the whole or most of the Black Sea coast, rump-Ukraine would have more cohesion as an anti-Russian country and could more easily be admitted to NATO. We can only hope that it isn’t this sort of cynical power calculations that are behind the US and NATO positioning.

Why doesn’t then NATO simply state that despite Ukraine not being part of the alliance, it will defend it as if it were? NATO is militarily overwhelmingly stronger than Russia so what is holding it back? Their problem is that if they decide to intervene militarily against Russia in Ukraine, the conventional war would be very destructive and both the NATO forces and the Russians would suffer heavy losses. However, Ukraine is practically located in the middle of Russia, the Russians will consider it an existential war, while both the US and its major European NATO partners have very long supply lines and their populations would ask what they are doing in a far-away country, where they have no security interests. So to defeat the Russians they would have to use nuclear weapons. That would be completely insane, which may be the reason they seem to have backed off from this option (nonetheless an influential US Senator is arguing for it).

Missiles for me, not for ye. More than 100 US-built missiles having the capability to strike Moscow with nuclear warheads were deployed in Italy and Turkey in 1961. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Missile_Crisis

To avoid the war in Ukraine, we should learn from the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. After the failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban Government with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US launched "Operation Mongoose", an extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against civilians and covert operations carried out by the CIA. The ultimate goal of the operation was to thoroughly undermine, or even assassinate if necessary, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. At the same time, the US was installing nuclear missiles in Europe, which could reach Moscow. So both Cuba and the Soviet Union had serious grievances with US policy. In July 1962 the two countries reached a secret agreement to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future US invasion, and for the Soviet Union to have a counterweight to the US missiles in Europe. The then President J. F. Kennedy considered this an absolutely unacceptable security risk for the US and put in place a naval blockade of Cuba to impede the arrival of Soviet ships. This was of course a clear transgression against the principle of freedom of navigation and brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of an all-out nuclear war. This was finally avoided by an agreement which essentially meant that the Soviet Union backed down, implicitly accepting that US security concerns overrode the right of the sovereign countries Cuba and the Soviet Union to make the arrangements they deemed appropriate. The Soviet missiles and bombers were withdrawn and the US agreed not to invade Cuba (and to eliminate some outdated nuclear missiles in Turkey as a face-saving measure for the Soviet Union). 1)

To understand the relevance for the present Ukraine crisis, substitute US for the Soviet Union, Russia for the US and Ukraine for Cuba. The outrageous proposal that Russia should have a veto over whether an independent country (Ukraine) can join NATO, or the proposed restriction of troops and missiles in the border areas between Russia and NATO countries, is exactly what the United States demanded - and got - for defusing the missile crisis in 1962. Imagine a similar situation today, with the Chinese agreeing with Mexico to install missiles to defend the country against the US – that would never be accepted by the US.

For Ukraine, an agreement to stop further expansion of NATO eastwards could actually be a boon. It would force it to focus on more realistic options such as neutrality and cooperation with all its neighbours, including Russia, and free resources to address its many internal challenges, including the building of a multi-ethnic state. The idea that they can forcefully “Ukrainisate” the big ethnic minorities is right-out insane. 2)

If the planned talks between US/NATO and Russia in January produce no agreement, and unfortunately this looks possible, military conflict is a real risk. President Putin has said that in case an agreement with US and NATO is not achieved, there are various options and he would consider "proposals that our military experts submit to me." It would be a risky strategy to assume that the Russians are bluffing.



1) It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union took its decision without consulting the Cubans, and the Cuban leader was not happy. He had a list of five points, which he wanted the US to agree on, among these that the US should stop violating the Cuban territory with their military planes and ships, leave the Guantánamo military base and stop the economic blockade, which included (and still includes) punishing third parties dealing with Cuba. The US never took this list seriously. The economic blockade, including the intimidation of other countries dealing with Cuba, is still in place now 60 years later, and the infamous Guantánamo military base is still illegally installed on Cuban soil.

Counter-attack by Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces supported by T-34 tanks near Playa Girón during the Bay of Pigs invasion, 19 April 1961. https://web.archive.org/web/20161013045322/http://www.panoramio.com/photo/12885130

US Secretary of the State, Adlai Stevenson, shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations, October 25, 1962. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Missile_Crisis

2) Ethnic-linguistic map of Ukraine




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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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