With Ukraine Crisis Worsening, NATO Ponders Future Relationship with Russia

By Valerie Insinna

Just four years ago at the Lisbon Summit, the pervasive view among NATO members was that Russia was no longer a significant threat and was willing to partner with the organization to achieve certain goals, NATO’s deputy secretary general said.

Now, after Russia has annexed Crimea and pro-Russian forces continue to poach territory from Ukraine, NATO must reevaluate its relationship with Russia — and possibly beef up its own defense capabilities, Alexander Vershbow told reporters in Washington, D.C., May 1.

When it comes to military action in Ukraine, NATO’s hands are tied. The country is not a member-nation, so it cannot benefit from Article 5, which stipulates that an attack against one ally can be interpreted as an attack against other NATO countries, Vershbow said. Because of that, the consensus of NATO leaders is that the organization cannot take military action inside Ukraine.

In the short term, NATO can try to deter further Russian aggression, he said. Long term steps include making “Ukraine a more viable state that can be less vulnerable to this sort of pressure and intimidation, specifically defense reform and modernization,” he said, although he noted that there are “no quick fixes there.”

"Beyond that, [the response] would be to impose heavy costs, punitive steps in tandem with the EU and the U.S. and individual nations that would likely ratchet up sanctions, and of course responding with further adjustments to our own self defense posture,” he said.

NATO cannot levy sanctions on Russia, but it can ostracize the country from discussions that could impact its economy, he said. "NATO will be a forum for consultations among nations on decisions such as whether to go forward with any major commercial or military contracts with Russia."

After tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated in March, organization officials suspended all cooperation within the NATO-Russian council, Vershbow said. Although informal channels of communication with the Russian ambassador remain open, foreign ministers from NATO countries will meet in June to evaluate its partnership with Russia.

“Clearly the Russians have declared NATO as an adversary, so we have to view Russia no longer as a partner,” he said.

But as the situation worsens in Ukraine, that action may not be enough. On April 30, the acting leader of Ukrainian security forces, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced that pro-Russian forces had taken control of the eastern portion of the country, the New York Times reported.

In order to fortify member nations that might be vulnerable to Russian interference, NATO has taken “reassurance measures,” such as deploying fighter jets to the Baltic states, Romania and Poland, Vershbow said. The United States also deployed troops in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania earlier this week for military exercises designed to ease fears of Russian aggression.

NATO may consider beefing up collective defense measures such as additional training and exercises and missile defense, he said.

Despite Russia’s longstanding objection to NATO’s ballistic missile capabilities, the focus of the organization’s missile defense program remains the Middle East, Vershbow said. "I don’t think there's going to be any fundamental change there.”

However, the organization will have to evaluate factors such as the capabilities of its forces, the mix of forces, readiness levels, the ability of troops and how quickly a force can be projected, he said. NATO will also consider additional forward presence — including further rotational deployments, permanent deployments and prepositioning of equipment — in response to the changing Ukrainian political climate.

As a whole, NATO has sufficient airpower through advanced aircraft provided by major powers, he said. However, the readiness of some nations’ fighter jet fleets and pilot training may be lacking.

“There may be a need for nations to invest more and spend more on training. We may need to step up the pace of air exercises so that we make sure we have the interoperability to be able to move quickly to a crisis.

Vershbow said he hoped the situation in Ukraine would spur NATO countries to increase defense spending and ramp up multi-national programs in areas such as heavy lift transport aircraft and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Such programs share the cost burden of acquiring and maintaining new platforms, which are used on a time share basis among partners.

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Policy, International

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