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As allies meet, splits emerge in NATO about how to deter Russia

Members of the Norwegian army participate in a military exercise on March 23. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
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As President Biden landed in Brussels on Wednesday for urgent talks about Russia’s war on Ukraine, splits were emerging within NATO and in Washington about how to deter the Kremlin from further escalation. Allied leaders are discussing whether it is best to keep Russia guessing about what will trigger a bigger military response or to outline precisely what would draw NATO into a conflict.

Some NATO policymakers in Europe worry that there has been too much public messaging about what the alliance won’t do — send its troops into Ukraine, nor, for the moment, send fighter jets for which Kyiv has been campaigning. With the threat of Russian nuclear and chemical weapons looming over the battlefields of Ukraine, a better approach, they say, would be not to rule out anything publicly.

The stakes could not be higher, with officials on both sides of the debate agreed that a mishandled response could draw NATO and Russia into a direct conflict, with potentially calamitous consequences for the world. The discussion extends both to what to do for Ukraine and how best to bolster NATO’s defenses within its own territory to deter Russia from attacking.

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“We are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine, but we have a responsibility to ensure that the war does not escalate beyond Ukraine, and become a conflict between NATO and Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday, summing up the dilemma.

When asked what NATO would do if Russia were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, Stoltenberg kept his answer vague — a traditional approach that was used to for decades to maintain strategic ambiguity about how nuclear weapons would be used as well.

“Any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict and have far-reaching consequences,” he said.

In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the West sanctioned some of his closest advisers. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Critics of the U.S. handling of deterrence say that by being so clear about what the United States won’t do for Ukraine, Washington is potentially emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin to act more aggressively than he otherwise would.

“I don’t think this is very productive when we say every so often, ‘We don’t want World War 3,’ or ‘We don’t want conflict with Russia,’ ” said Marko Mihkelson, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament, who was in Washington last week to lobby for additional troops and equipment for NATO’s eastern flank. “That’s a green light to the Russians that we’re afraid of them.”

Defenders of the Biden administration’s approach say that the White House has helped deliver unprecedented sanctions against the Russian economy and is in the middle of a large-scale effort to deliver defensive weaponry to Ukraine. And NATO leaders, meeting at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, are expected to announce new deployments to the alliance countries that border Ukraine.

“The president has the responsibility to make clear our goal is to make sure to bring this war to an end,” said a senior Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the dispute. “To that end, we have made clear, we’re not going to take steps that would expand this war, put more lives at risk and that could lead to a much larger conflict. That is a responsible approach and that is one centered on saving lives and bringing an end to this conflict as quickly as we can.”

Fundamentally, there is little difference between Europe and Washington’s appetite for war, said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

The United States is “pretty war weary and knows what it feels like to have thousands of soldiers dying in conflict, so it was important for the president to make clear what he’s going to do and what he’s not going to do,” Murphy said. “But I don’t think there’s much separation at all in our bottom lines.”

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And elements of NATO deterrence appear to be working. There have been no Russian strikes against the logistics centers on NATO territory that are helping to organize the delivery of military aid to Ukraine, even though destroying the weaponry could advance the Kremlin’s battlefield aims. Nor, at least for now, have there been significant cyberattacks against NATO nations that some policymakers had worried might follow the sanctions imposed on Russia. Alliance leaders say that cyberattacks could trigger NATO’s collective defense treaties, but they haven’t spelled out how.

But skeptics say that Biden has left some doors open for Putin from the outset, including in early December, just as Russian troops were starting to swell along Ukraine’s border, when he said that “the idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.”

More recently, the administration declined a Polish offer of MiG fighter jets for the Ukrainian military, as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declared that the U.S. assessment was that Russia would view it as an escalation. And some Eastern European officials say they are worried that there is foot-dragging about bolstering troops and equipment for vulnerable NATO nations.

The Biden administration “just cannot understand that there are times when you have to shut your mouth,” said François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a past adviser to the French defense ministry. “Overall, the crisis has been well-managed, the diplomacy has been superb, and they haven’t really done any stupid stuff. It’s shooting off their mouth about what they won’t do.”

By staying silent about issues such as troop deployments, “you are not signaling that you are going to deploy troops, you are leaving an uncertainty in the mind of your adversary that there is just this chance you are going to deploy troops, but it’s for him to take the chance in escalating,” Heisbourg said.

Ukraine’s Mykolaiv has held off Russian forces. Bodies are piling up anyway.

Republicans have echoed the criticism.

“It’s better for [Russians] to wonder what we’re going to do rather than telling them what we’re going to do, exactly,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. “Generally, strategic ambiguity is the best way.”

At NATO, European diplomats have also raised concerns about the U.S. handling of the public messaging, two senior officials said, though they have done so in the measured tones typical of the consensus-driven alliance. Britain in particular has been vocal, along with Eastern European countries, but other Western European countries share some of the worries, the diplomats said. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed deliberations.

“They’re saying we should stop saying openly, in advance, what NATO will not be doing,” one of the diplomats said.

Biden has not been the only NATO leader to try to be clear about limits.

“We will not give in to the demands for a no-fly zone,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told his country’s parliament on Wednesday. “NATO will not become a party to the war.”

And top Russian officials have admitted that no matter what Biden and other leaders might have outlined in the months leading up to the conflict, the Kremlin was still taken aback by the strength of the Western response.

“No one could have imagined that the West could impose these sanctions. It’s just theft,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Wednesday.

The debate about how to maintain pressure on Russia — while trying to avoid escalating the situation — will continue among leaders in Brussels on Thursday. The Eastern European nations that border Russia — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have been requesting additional troops and more advanced antiaircraft capabilities, which they say would make clear to the Kremlin that NATO is capable of backing up its warnings with military might. Since 2016, the alliance has maintained about 1,000 rotating troops in each of the four countries, enough to serve as a tripwire, but not enough to defend against a Russian invasion, and the Baltic states could easily be severed from the rest of NATO territory if Russian troops cut off the 40-mile corridor that connects Poland to Lithuania.

After Putin made some miscalculations about Ukraine, to leave NATO’s eastern flank lightly reinforced could risk that he would make the same mistake about alliance territory, said Jonatan Vseviov, the secretary general of the Estonian Foreign Ministry.

“These miscalculations make it at least plausible that he would miscalculate regarding the whole viable reinforcement part as well,” Vseviov said. “That’s end-of-the-world dangerous.”

In the short run, alliance leaders are expected to focus elsewhere, by deploying new troops to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia — NATO countries that ring Ukraine and the Black Sea and are close to the current fighting.

Biden backers in Washington say that this week’s discussions in Europe should help address whatever splits exist.

“This is exactly why a long, detailed in-person conversation with the heads of state and the chiefs of defense is critical, because we will succeed in deterring Putin only to the extent we are united,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).