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Ukraine Must Reform to Save Itself

Will NATO Save Ukraine from Russia? I’m surprised by how many people, especially in Ukraine, believe the answer is yes. And I’m no less surprised by how many Western analysts and Russian policymakers claim that that’s exactly what NATO hopes to do—and, by implication, will do. Naturally, Russians describe NATO’s presumed intentions as offensive and not defensive.

It’s time to wake up and smell the espresso in Brussels.

First, NATO has no army. As an institution, as a bureaucracy located in two complexes in and near the capital of Belgium, the alliance does not have troops. It can cajole, persuade, bluster, and the like, but the troop-sending is done—if it is done at all—by NATO member states on behalf of NATO member states or, more problematically, in out-of-area missions. Second, most Europeans have slashed their defense budgets way below the limits they have publicly agreed to sustain. The United States is the only significant exception to this general rule. To put it mildly, Europe has passed the military buck to America, while insisting on the right to kvetch about Washington’s occasionally unwise use of armed force.

When Europeans say that war has become unthinkable on the European continent, what they really mean is that they don’t want to think about it. Unsurprisingly, most Europeans have been, and still are, extremely reluctant to commit large numbers of soldiers to battle. It took genocide to move them to action (sort of) in Bosnia. And even genocide failed to mobilize them, or the United States, in Rwanda. Would a Putin-directed genocide of Ukrainians incline Europeans to intervene? With their mouths, yes. With their weapons, less likely. Same goes for the case of further military aggression.

But what if Ukraine became a member of NATO? Then, surely, NATO member states would rush to its aid, right? Don’t bet on that either. The famed Article 5 is the nub of the matter. Here’s the relevant text:

The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Most commentators cite the first few lines, which appear to promise a determined response to aggression. But keep on reading and you’ll come to that cop-out clause: “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” First of all, that line means that a member state’s response is made individually, by itself, and not collectively, by NATO, and that the response should accord with the state’s estimation of what it “deems necessary.” In theory, a state would be perfectly entitled to conclude that doing nothing is what it deems necessary. Second, “armed force” is only one possible permissible response. A state could conclude that convening an international peace conference would be the better way to go.

Being a NATO member is, thus, no guarantee against aggression—especially if the target of Russian aggression is a geopolitically “insignificant” state, such as any of the Balts. Back in 2008, I wrote an article asking whether NATO would defend the Estonian city of Narva. My conclusion then, as now, is no. Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia might send troops, and it’s possible that President Obama was serious when he said, “If you mess with the NATO country, then there will be a military confrontation,” but Germany and France are another matter. The Balts know this, of course—as do, I suggest, the Russians.

It’s preposterous to think the Kremlin is unaware of the fact that NATO is riddled with the above weaknesses. (Think of all the Russian spies in Brussels.) It’s just as preposterous to take Putin at face value when he insists that NATO is a threat to Russia. (He once justified the Crimean invasion as an attempt to forestall Ukraine’s turning Sevastopol into a NATO base; that’s either crude pandering to the peanut gallery in Russia, complete ignorance of how NATO functions, or a deep paranoia.) How could an alliance that wouldn’t defend its own members from Russia be a threat to Russia? Western analysts who repeat the myth of Russian sensitivity to NATO expansion are just naively buying into the Kremlin’s conscious or subconscious myth-making.

Forbes columnist Paul Roderick Gregory exposes this myth by imagining a scenario in which Russia launches a “hybrid war” against Latvia in order to destroy NATO. Russia takes control, the Europeans and Americans huff and puff, and Putin wins the day: “Putin has called NATO’s bluff, and the world has seen that NATO is an empty shell. There is no more NATO. Putin is king of the roost. It is he who decides who will be spared and who will punished.” Gregory is right to imply that, contrary to his public statements, Putin knows that NATO is bluffing.

What, then, should Ukraine do? Obviously, closer ties to NATO can’t hurt—especially as a bargaining chip with delusional Russians. But far, far more important is the condition of Ukraine’s own army. Only Ukraine can defend itself. To do that it needs, as the military analyst Yuri Butusov rightly says, to develop a complex, long-term strategy, modernize its armed forces, develop an adequate force structure, procure the requisite armaments, and raise its level of organizational competence. And for all that to become possible, Ukraine has to grow economically. Ukraine’s security and survival are thus ultimately, and intimately, dependent on economic reform.

During the Maidan Revolution, demonstrators chanted “freedom or death.” Today’s Ukraine should be chanting: “Radical economic reform or death.” 

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