June 14, 2021

Diane Francis


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meets today (June 14) and is a military alliance of 30 nations created in 1949 to provide collective defense against the Soviet Union. But since the Soviet empire fell apart in 1992, and Vladimir Putin took over Russia in 1999, NATO members have been outmaneuvered, attacked, and demoralized – militarily, politically, and digitally. Putin’s “hybrid warfare” has damaged democracies and has been slowly clawing back its old communist empire. 


NATO now faces a crisis and must pivot in order to rescue Europe’s two most threatened and vulnerable nations — Ukraine and Georgia. Both should immediately be granted Major Non-NATO Ally Status, as has been done with 17 countries including Australia, Israel, and South Korea. This will provide access to equipment and loans, collaboration, and training, and President Joe Biden can agree to this without Senate approval. Next, a pathway must be created to fast-track their full membership.


Notably, the NATO member pushing hardest for this is Turkey, upset about Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the fact its naval forces are amassing on the Black Sea to harass and possibly invade Ukraine. The two countries recently signed a mutual defense treaty and trade deals. In retaliation, Putin immediately struck back and banned all Russian tourism and much of its trade with Turkey.


“Turkey can balance Russia,” said Ben Hodges, former Commanding General over the United States Army Europe at a recent Atlantic Council event. “We don’t have a strategy for the Black Sea region. We have no strategy that underpins a commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and worse when comes to Turkey, which has been a US ally since 1952. This is not only critical for protecting the Black Sea but also for containing Iran and Islamic extremism.”


Significantly, President Biden is meeting on the sidelines today with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presumably to discuss Ukraine’s membership and to try and iron out various conflicts between Washington and Ankara. Turkey also controls any access to the Black Sea — through the Bosphorus Strait — under long-standing treaty arrangements.


This NATO summit will consist of the usual star-studded list of leaders from 30 democracies in North America and Europe and a room full of military brass dripping with epaulets, medals, and excuses. Despite good intentions and more military firepower collectively than the world has ever known, the reality is that NATO has been unable to prevent Putin from getting away with literally tens of thousands of audacious acts of war against them for years.


Not only has Putin “invaded” four European countries – Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova and Eurasia’s Azerbaijan – but he’s also unleashed “hybrid war” weapons against the rest. These include cyberattacks, information warfare, assassinations, bombings, bioweapon attacks, terrorist acts, social media sabotage, disinformation campaigns, influence peddling, espionage, election meddling, and bribery. His clear-cut intention is to destroy democracy, free enterprise, the European Union, and the United States.


Putin has become the maestro of the “frozen conflict” – which are nothing more than illegal land grabs but which are euphemistically referred to by diplomats as “situations” where official armed conflict has ended but no peace treaty or political framework has resolved the conflict. In plain language, Russia gets away with conquering territories, making them Russian, then turning them into staging grounds for further onslaughts, crime, murder, and mayhem.


For example, Ukraine’s Donbas region (including cities Donetsk and Luhansk) was conquered in 2014 and is run by gangs, mercenaries, and the Russian military. Large sections were reduced to rubble and housing was confiscated by Russians, driving out two million Ukrainians. Once the country’s industrial heartland, Donbas’s factories and facilities were looted. Estimates are that since Moscow’s incursion in 2014, damages total $32 billion and casualties total 14,000.


Frankly, NATO should be ashamed of itself that Ukraine – Europe’s biggest and poorest country – is the only European nation spending 7 percent of its GDP, at a cost of thousands of lives, preventing Putin from overrunning the country all the way to the Polish and Baltic borders. This sacrifice of blood and treasure cannot continue indefinitely and if NATO does not include Ukraine and Georgia this week as members, both could suffer the same fate as Belarus.


In fact, Belarus is an instructive example. Beginning in 2019, Belarusians began peacefully protesting for democracy and freedoms as Ukrainians did for years before. This led Putin to pressure the country to merge with Russia, but Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko balked and refused to let Russia put military bases on its border with NATO countries. He then extended feelers tentatively to NATO and the EU but it was too late. Putin cut off the country’s fuel supplies and sent in Russian operatives to help subjugate the populace. Now the country is run by Putin and is a de facto province of Russia.


NATO’s counterattacks are either non-existent or timid. A few years ago, four multinational “battle groups” were deployed along its eastern “frontier” – Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — but that only expedited Putin’s decision to place troops in Belarus, then eventually to gobble it up. Another example is NATO’s recent and unprecedented “war game” exercises this spring in Europe involving air, sea, and 28,000 troops, designed to be a show of force for Putin. This was met with Putin’s own muscle-flexing in April — the mobilization of 100,000 troops, missiles, and now warships surrounding Ukraine.

Also under NATO’s nose, members themselves have placed security threats on their own soil in the form of Russian gas pipeline projects – two Nord Stream pipelines to Germany under the Baltic Sea and another to Bulgaria and Central Europe under the Black Sea. Once completed, these pipelines will give Putin leverage over energy supplies and prices throughout Europe and will allow him to bypass Ukraine’s pipeline system leaving the country without energy — or others — and ripe for a possible invasion.


Militarily these pipelines will prove catastrophic. Biden, in deference to German industrialists, pulled his punches by refusing to impose sanctions to halt the German-Russian pipeline or to do anything to stop the TurkStream, or Balkan line, which runs through Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member. Already, Bulgaria’s economy and politics have been deeply infiltrated by Russian interests, raising security concerns. In December 2020, Russian aircraft repeatedly used the airspace of NATO’s Bulgaria to deliver military equipment to Serbia, according to a joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian and Balkan services.


The Russians have already begun to fly over and deploy ships in the Baltic Sea near Nord Stream 2. Such incursions should be prohibited and, frankly, these pipeline projects should be banned. In addition, Russia has also launched a similar approach involving infrastructure projects on the Bering Sea region north of Europe, and its submarines, warships and jets now prowl the region and its NATO members.


General Hodges summed up the situation: “The Russians will only stop when they are stopped. They will never say we have enough.”


Joe Biden’s willingness to take blows from Putin recently is cause for worry, or, alternatively, is a rope-a-dope strategy that will lead up to a knock-out punch at the Biden-Putin summit this week (June 16).


General Hodges said, “my hope is he tells Putin: you’ve done this, violated international law, killed people and it’s going to stop now or else we will inflict so much pain on you that you won’t know what hit you.”


From his lips to God’s ear.