Russian president Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea has made the region the center of tensions between Moscow and the West, causing the biggest rift between Russia and NATO since the Cold War. Crimea is a region of Ukraine with pervasive pro-Russian sentiments and populated with native Russian speakers, which made it a logical place for Putin to begin his aggression under a political and cultural veil. Crimea was under Russian jurisdiction until 1954, when it was symbolically given to Soviet-controlled Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the consequent liberation of Ukraine, Crimea fell under the authority of Kiev. Since 2014, Russian troops in all but name (despite denials from the Kremlin) have been occupying Crimea.
In early March of 2014, these troops annexed Crimea, invoking the outrage of the West. Now, there is a push for a referendum in which Crimeans will be able to vote on whether to remain with Ukraine or be incorporated into the Russian Federation. Because Crimea is heavily pro-Russian, a vote to leave Ukraine would easily pass, ostensibly granting legitimacy to an illegitimate action.
Although Crimea seems to be the center of the crisis, Putin’s amassing of troops near the border of the Baltic States is still more worrying, as it is a direct revelation of Putin’s extended, threatening reach. The threat of Putin’s imperialistic games is that they are strategic, cloaked in political rhetoric and defended as retaliation for European hegemony.
The North Atlantic Treaty that formed NATO was signed on April 4, 1949, binding the twelve original members, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The treaty was originally supported by the Soviet Union after World War II as a way to politically integrate Europe and squash German militarism. However, since the mid-1990s, there has been a push to increase NATO membership across Europe. The initial Soviet support of NATO devolved into worry in Moscow about the geopolitical threat posed by one of the most impressive treaty alliances in history. From the Clinton administration through the Bush administration, the push for NATO expansion was met with paranoid apprehension in Russia, even though the alliance has always been purely defensive. Expansion of NATO pushed on to former territories of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) joined NATO, pushing membership to Russia’s border. This large, multinational military pact, having now grown to the edge of Russia, clearly frightened Moscow.
However, Russian fears are misguided, as the entire history of NATO has affirmed its strictly defensive nature. The first time collective defense, stipulated in Section 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, was invoked was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that was to counter radical jihadist extremism, not Russian aggression. The principle of collective defense basically states that an attack against one is an attack against all, necessitating a military response from all members if one member is attacked. It is a bold and strong approach to achieving peace that has only been invoked once in the entire history of NATO.
Defenders of Putin point to the Orange Revolution, a Ukrainian political event that began in November of 2004. This term refers to a heated and contested presidential election between the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko, who favored stronger ties with Europe, the West, and (as was feared in Moscow) NATO. Yanukovych was declared the winner, but fierce protests began when it was determined up to a million fraudulent votes were cast. This led to a runoff election in which Yushchenko was elected and subsequently inaugurated. An irate Putin blamed the West for inciting the protests and interfering with Ukraine’s democratic process.
Perhaps Putin’s fears of a Western advance into his sphere of influence would be justified, had not his candidate, Yanukovych, won the election in 2010, four years before Russia invaded Crimea. With Yanukovych in power, Putin did not have to worry about Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. The encroachment upon Russia’s sphere of influence by Western states was less threatening with a pro-Russian president was at the helm of Ukraine. Moscow likely fears Western political, or territorial, sabotage within Russia. This expansion of NATO, an international military organization, seemingly threatens Putin. Even the idea of a democratic coup in Moscow may seem possible to Putin, who has, hypocritically, accused the United States of interfering in Russia’s regional interests by fomenting the Orange Revolution. Yet Putin’s political imperialism was not altogether effective in Ukraine. After another contested election, Yanukovych was sworn in and began a presidency marked by deep involvement and cooperation with Russia, showcased in the 20-million-dollar bailout Russia gave Ukraine in 2013. However, the Ukrainian public soon erupted in a violent, destructive outlash against the president’s relationship with Russia. Ukrainian citizens showed themselves to be totally opposed to Russian interests and the increasing totalitarianism of Moscow-supported leaders. Student protesters began rallying in the streets, outraged about the newfound friendship with Russia and the rejection of the democratic West. Quickly, the demonstrations of EU activists turned violent, erupting in Kiev in what became known as the Revolution of 2014. Police brutality and civilian riots kindled the turmoil. Weeks of unrest eventually led to Yanukovych’s resignation. But under the veil of this turmoil, Russian troops seized Crimea. Because his political interference had not worked, Putin turned to military means.
Putin’s tact and cleverness, the most frightening aspect of this crisis, is again on display in his recent diplomatic agreements with Turkey, a NATO member that has had an associate agreement with the EU since 1963. Turkey is not only an NATO member, but also has the second largest army in the alliance, behind only the United States. Putin struck a deal with Turkey over the conditions of the Egyptian bailout. Although seemingly insignificant, this handshake was a large and shocking step forward for Russian-Turkish relations just months after Turkey shot down a Russian plane that had encroached on its aerospace. If Putin can work diplomatically with a nation that shoots down one of his military jets, why would he take military action against a defensive military alliance? Far from a natural move, this deal looks more like a shrewd move to alienate Turkey, a nation quickly solidifying under an authoritarian president and losing its democratic, European inclinations, from the West. Losing a Turkish military presence in a NATO war effort would spell disaster, both geostrategically and numerically.
How has the West responded to Putin’s aggression and imperialism? NATO forces have responded by moving additional troops to bases throughout Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in addition to imposing sanctions against the Russian Federation. This is not enough. NATO cannot sit idly by while Putin steadily expands Russian influence into Europe. Although international economic sanctions have greatly crippled Russia’s economy, President Obama and allied leaders cannot simply ignore the blatant continuation of Putin’s militaristic foreign policy and must speak frankly to him. If the West continues this cautious policy wrongly believed to be prudence, it may find itself blind to aggression until belligerence is readily apparent.
Many pundits, scholars, and politicians in the West argue for a soft approach to Putin. But the fact remains that Putin violated Ukrainian sovereignty, delegitimizing his claims of geopolitical defense. The decision of autonomous states to join the NATO alliance is not a license to annex foreign territory. It is up to self-governing democracies to decide their course, not Putin. Russia cannot blame the West for the natural desire of Eastern European states to ally with fellow democracies instead of an overbearing autocracy. And because of the civil unrest in Kiev, Putin stole away Crimea, lashing out in a quest for territorial domination after his failure to reshape the political environment in his favor.
Moreover, Putin’s defense that Western intimidation and the encroachment of NATO to his doorstep forced his hand seems facile when considering his position as the sole military offender who has perpetrated any kind of hostile action. He has not acted in a manner that would induce Ukraine, Georgia, and other Eastern European countries to sympathize with him. Rather, his actions have made a good case as to why they should join NATO: to protect themselves against Russian imperialism. NATO must make it clear that military action is on the table if Putin continues his advances. Some might decry this as hawkish, invoking the absurdity of defending pitiable, small states such as Estonia; but why should we disregard the most successful military pact in history?
However, war is always a last resort. There are steps, short of war, that the West can take to prove that NATO is purely defensive and assuage the apprehension of the Russians. Both parties need to be honest about their intentions. NATO can attempt to demonstrate that its actions are purely defensive by taking several actions: never stationing foreign troops or artillery in border nations to Russia in peacetime and ending the expansion of NATO. However, by these stipulations, Putin must return Crimea to Ukraine. This can be the fruit of healthy diplomatic negotiations, yet never the appeasement of oppressive autocrat. NATO must make it clear to Putin that any further advance of military forces will be met with resistance. Both sides must be completely honest about concerns and goals, because only in the disparity of unknown intentions will a more serious conflict erupt. The United States must show its strength; it must not abandon its allies in fear of a dangerous precedent.
To allow Putin to disrupt our treaties and threaten our security is not an option. There was a reason for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and there still is a reason for it. NATO is more crucial than ever, and must be upheld and protected.
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