Why NATO Should Hold No Illusions About Moscow’s Intentions

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin attends a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin, Moscow, March 10. NATO will hold a summit in Warsaw on July 8 and 9 to take steps to strengthen itself on the Eastern flank. PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday and Saturday, NATO leaders will gather in Warsaw to take new steps to strengthen the alliance’s capabilities and presence on the Eastern flank. This is part of the West's approach to deal with a revanchist Russia.

A successful outcome at the Warsaw summit would help to stabilize NATO allies and would give the West a boost of morale in a period where we are plagued by political uncertainty and retrenchment.

The new Western approach to Russia emerged at the Wales summit in 2014, as a response to its illegal annexation of Crimea and its ongoing military campaign in eastern Ukraine. It puts firmness and deterrence at the forefront when, before the events in 2014, dialogue and cooperation with Russia came first.

We should hold no illusions about Moscow’s intentions. Behind the bullying and disruption of pro-Western governments bordering Russia lies a clash of ideas. On the one side are the rule of law, an accountable bureaucracy and democratic elections kept in high regard; on the other you have an unconstrained state that can sacrifice its own citizens to preserve its rulers’ ambition.

But the clash is not only taking place in our shared neighborhood. Moscow clearly aims to undermine the liberal international order and Western unity that has served us well since the end of World War II. We see that in Europe, where Russia uses its energy resources as a weapon to divide allies from one another. Or when the state-funded TV station Russia Today spreads misinformation about the trade deal between the EU and the United States (TTIP), the Kremlin is trying to undermine a future source of creativity and prosperity. And when Russia is backing political parties in favoring a dissolution of the European Union. It should come as no surprise that President Putin is one of the few, if not the only world leader, who has welcomed Brexit.

In order to protect our way of life, European allies should come to terms with the fact that strong NATO deterrence, unity and defense of friends and principles are more important than the cost of economic sanctions against Russia or the potential prize of a rapprochement with Moscow. We should not aim to escalate a conflict fueled by the Kremlin for domestic purposes, but neither should we seek to accommodate bad behavior. I would put it like this: NATO allies should cooperate with Russia where we can, but confront Russia where we must.

Transatlantic allies should at the Warsaw summit reiterate their full support for the sanctions against Russia as long as the conditions for the Minsk II agreement are not met. Europe’s failure to keep the sanctions in place would weaken NATO’s military efforts to deter Russia’s bullying tactics. The economic sanctions and military deterrence are both sides of the same coin. It is clear that the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU is a blow to Western unity. In order to minimize the negative effects, the U.K. should stick to its 2 percent defense commitment and help uphold the sanctions against Russia.

At the summit, NATO allies should decide to shift a greater proportion of NATO forces and capabilities to its Eastern allies, including the permanent stationing of land, air, and maritime forces in the Baltic states of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, for as long as Russia maintains its aggressive posture. I also believe that the alliance should continue to develop, deploy, and integrate collective missile defense and improve cyber capabilities, shifting from passive defense to a more active role, and, when necessary, offensive.

European allies should build on their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense at the latest by 2024 by putting forward interim plans for the next five years. This will help to keep them more accountable and send a positive signal to the next U.S. administration; before the end of the new U.S. president’s mandate, Europe would have reduced the transatlantic defense gap.

The United States should continue to carry its share of the burden though. NATO preserves stability in the world’s most prosperous region, secures a strong network of allies and supports the U.S. politically and militarily around the world. That’s good value for U.S. defense dollars.

The Warsaw summit is a timely opportunity to display that the Western world won’t stand idly by when our friends and neighbors are bullied. Lack of resolve and unity vis á vis Russia will only strengthen Moscow’s wicked view that it can meddle in its neighbors’ affairs to preserve its self-perceived “sphere of interest.”

NATO will have to demonstrate resolve over a longer period of time before the approach initiated at the Wales summit will have a visible effect on Russia’s behavior. But a successful outcome at the Warsaw Summit would move us one step closer to a Europe Whole and Free.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the founder and chairman of Rasmussen Global. He is a former prime minister of Denmark and a former secretary general of NATO.