14.12.2021
NATO’s Projectile Dysfunction: Deterring Russia and Ukrainian Bluffs
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Matthew Crosston

Institute of National Security Studies,
Tel Aviv, Israel
Senior Research Fellow

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Scopus ID: 25221210000

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The shrill lamentations over Ukraine are reaching fever pitch here in the United States:

  • The New York Times discusses how Ukrainian commanders say a Russian invasion would overwhelm them.
  • CNN reports that Biden promises withering sanctions if Russia invades.
  • com is devoting first page space on its site to how the US military could mobilize if Russia attacks.
  • CBS, NBC, and Vox all cover on a daily basis the imminent attack on Ukraine because of Russian troop mobilization.
  • The Hill tells us to expect shock and awe (from the West) if Russia invades.

To a non-Russian expert interested in global affairs, you would be hard-pressed not to think the world is quite literally on the verge of WWIII with tensions not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. Which is why this article might fall on deaf ears, given it is but a single piece in the West aiming to stand in the face of this propaganda hurricane. But the futility of the exercise doesn’t make it any less noble. The reality is that the West is walking, with open diplomatic eyes, right into another Russian haymaker where its relative over-promising/under-delivering talk leaves Russia with greater influence and credibility without ever needing to fire a real bullet or launch a real missile. Indeed, the continuing need to make NATO maintain its old bogeyman (the Soviet Union masked over with a cloak made of the Russian Federation flag) is doing nothing except showing how the non-adaptive defense organization is suffering from a very bad case of projectile dysfunction: happy to have to the world see Russia as the one true enemy, unhappy to ever be forced to actually fight that enemy. Perhaps worst of all, Putin knows this (which explains why he always has his famous smirk when talking directly with or indirectly about President Biden and US positions).

In the lead-up to conflict there are always two diametrically opposed perspectives being pushed against one another. The Ukraine case is no different.

The problem is how irresponsibly the West is pushing the American/NATO perspective without really spending much time investigating what the Russian perspective happens to be.

This is a fundamental error in statecraft and something highly respected journalist organizations like the ones named above should connect to but so far have not. Such errors are not made ignorantly, not by organizations like these. Rather, they are made when one side is not worried so much about real conflict as it is more interested in pushing public perception about just how dangerous the conflict could become. Why would the West want the public to be so worried? Simply put: self-preservation. Not self-preservation in the sense of the West facing potential nuclear apocalypse; but self-preservation of its greatest Cold War defense institution – NATO itself. Fears over Ukraine, real or imagined, give renewed relevance to NATO. They make NATO needed, something it has struggled to convince the world of since the end of the Cold War, thus constantly trying to repaint Russia as the same old Soviet wolf.

For those who are skeptical, let me ask you: why is Russia supposedly going to invade Ukraine? A simple Google news search will lead the curious to literally dozens of articles about the likelihood of invasion. But there is something odd with this overwhelming onslaught of news: the articles have seemingly skipped the set-up, the lead-up from the Russian side that ostensibly should be driving this conflict forward. As a result, I am barraged now by concerned citizens in the West, always asking me when is Russia going to invade Ukraine but never asking why? Indeed, this glaring and awkward intellectual absence in the Ukraine discussion is telling. I say awkward because Putin, ever the showman who has no reluctance to speak bluntly to Western media organizations, has said from the very beginning that if the West does not want to see a military conflict in Ukraine, then it should simply tell the Ukrainian government to stop trying to get the West to fight Russia. Putin also says NATO should stop filling the heads of Ukrainian leaders with false hope and empty promises, because he knows as well as Biden does that there is no situation in which American boots will be sent into Ukraine to defend Ukrainian territory. We have been here before, after all, haven’t we? Crimea, anyone?

One needs to remember that an entire generation has now passed where Russia has tried to fend off one initiative after another from NATO, where it is always portraying Russia as the great enemy that must be deterred and identifying itself as the only entity ideally capable for the purpose. The most controversial of these initiatives, for Russia, was the expansion of NATO membership eastward toward the physical borders of the Russian Federation. So, when the leaders of the Ukrainian government play up the threat of “Russian invasion” as a justification for inviting NATO troops into Ukraine, it is obvious why Putin sees that as a direct invitation to threaten Russia. While it seems absurd, I am sure to most Western minds, there is simply no doubt that Russia sees NATO “incursion” into Eastern Ukraine in exactly the same way as America would see a transnational terrorist group forming camps inside of Mexico on the southwestern border of the US. This is not to say Russia sees NATO as a terrorist organization. Rather, it is about the structural mission of NATO itself as anti-Russian and how it is has failed to evolve since the end of the Cold War. The analogy fits because as America would see such a group on the Mexican/American border as a dire threat because of it being wholly anti-American, so Russia sees NATO: its reason for being, its only way to maintain legitimacy, is to make sure Russia is viewed as a threat that must be deterred.

And this is why the current clamor across mainstream media is so dangerous: because NATO wants to matter but it does not really want to fight.

Its need for influence and relevance produces promises that will not be kept. NATO boots defending Ukraine, unfortunately for Kiev, are theoretical, not literal. And while it seems that news organizations in the West are conveniently ignoring these facts, there is one person who isn’t: Putin. As most of the finest deterrence strategists in the world have always acknowledged, a bluff isn’t much of a bluff if the other side of the table already knows you aren’t holding the fourth ace. When it comes to Ukraine, the West talks a good game, but it’s not the hill NATO wants to die on. Can we be so sure Russia feels the same way?

NATO’s Mistake Is That It Still Thinks It’s Dealing with the Weakened Russia of the 1990s
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Recent shockwaves in Russian-Ukrainian relations, and the increasing involvement of the US, could prove to be among the most significant milestones in the history of Europe since the end of the Cold War, over three decades ago.
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