The North Atlantic Alliance was created with two basic purposes: prevent a major war in Europe, and, should this fail, manage escalation. Sadly, with the war in Ukraine, it has failed on both counts. Would it not be for the fortitude of the Ukrainian people and the support of some allies, Russian troops would be massed by now at the NATO border with missiles angrily pointed at its cities. NATO leaders meeting next week have the opportunity to redeem the alliance and help Ukrainians end the war on favorable terms. They can do that without direct involvement in the fight. But they will have to break free from two self-defeating dogmas: the alliance’s collective defense starts and ends with its territory and any action would be escalatory and lead to World War III.
Crucially this must start with NATO leaders correcting a strategic blunder: letting Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling go unchecked. A lonely Putin sitting 10 meters away from his defense minister and chief of general staff instructing them to put Russian nuclear forces on high combat readiness will be one of the defining, if macabre, images of this war. If the message was loud and clear, NATO’s response was worryingly muted. Apart from a curt reply from French Foreign Minister Le Drian reminding Putin that “NATO, too, is a nuclear power.” The thinking, especially in Washington DC, seems to be that the best answer is to ignore Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. Yet the reckless raid of Russian forces against Ukraine’s (and Europe’s) largest nuclear power plant shows that Putin’s nuclear signaling should be taken seriously.
Not pushing back and re-establishing some strategic balance in the nuclear rhetoric is letting Putin set a very dangerous precedent. What will stop him from brandishing and potentially using nuclear weapons the next time he sets his mind on another piece of European territory? This is not only concerning for Europe. Some allies in the Indo-Pacific must wonder what will be the US response if China were to use Putin’s nuclear playbook to grab some islets. In response, NATO leaders need to use their collective voice to say three things: NATO is a nuclear alliance. It has no intention of using nuclear weapons in this conflict. However, the use of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict with devastating consequences for all. This simple but unequivocal language should help NATO re-draw a red line. The same applies to chemical weapons or any other Weapons of Mass Destruction for that matter.
Second, NATO allies must amplify the quantity and quality of the arms shipped to the Ukrainian forces. The war is reaching its zenith. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy needs to resist and increase the cost of Putin’s campaign. This must start with the big Allies, especially the Western European ones, to significantly increase their arms shipments. If Northern and Central European Allies are in their third or even fourth wave of arms shipment, Western European Allies are laggards. This imbalance poses a double risk of sowing divisions among the allies – Eastern allies increasingly feeling they are taking on a disproportionate burden – but also of weakening critical arms supply at a time when Zelenskiy needs to strengthen his position both militarily and diplomatically.
Related to that, the quality of those shipments must also evolve as the tactics in the war have changed: the Russians are increasingly using their air force and missiles to cause indiscriminate destruction and death. After having failed to decapitate the government, Putin’s military campaign now seeks to bring the Ukrainian population to its knees. Against that, the Ukrainian forces need more means to shoot down Russian fighter jets and missiles and protect key population centers and infrastructures, especially in Western Ukraine. They need medium-range air defense capabilities such as the Russian-made S-300, which Greece, Bulgaria and Slovakia use. The US with its Patriots system and others like France, Italy and the UK, which have equivalent medium-range systems, could back-fill those frontline allies. Providing those defensive capabilities to the Ukrainian forces will give them a fair chance against Putin’s war machine and help them create a sanctuary in Western Ukraine’s airspace. It will be less controversial and logistically complicated to operate than providing fighter jets but could make a real punitive dent on Russian air and rocket forces.
What is the value of a collective defense if an ever-larger part of the European continent is under occupation and in open conflict with Russia?
Waiting and making grand statements without increasing the military pressure on Putin would also reduce the chance of success on the diplomatic front. Now that Zelenskiy has signaled his willingness to not seek NATO membership, this has also made NATO’s involvement less of a red flag. NATO leaders should ask the alliance’s commanders to update plans for assuring continuous access to the Black and Baltic seas as well as for cyber plans to actively protect NATO infrastructures. In coded words, these steps will send a clear message to Moscow: we are ready to increase the pressure in critical domains for Russia.
Those decisions are not risk-free, but they all stay below the threshold of direct military involvement. NATO has both a moral and strategic obligation to act. Doing too little, as is the case now, presents the unacceptable risk of a subjugated Ukraine, and a Vladimir Putin ready for his next revanchist move. Failure will also have long-lasting consequences for the credibility and the very purpose of the alliance. Indeed, what is the value of rock solid collective defense if an ever-larger part of the European continent is under occupation and in open conflict with Russia?
Putin has never been closer to failure. What started as an attempt at blitz regime change in Ukraine could well end up triggering a long-drawn out regime change in Russia itself. Even if NATO is not directly in the fight, it is a war that can be won or lost based on our decisions.