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Is there a role for NATO in Ukraine?

President Obama met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier this month in Washington to discuss the situation in Ukraine and other issues ahead of the NATO Summit to be held in Wales in September. ( EPA/Michael Reynolds)

The following is a guest post from political scientist Heidi Hardt of the University of California, Irvine.


In Ukraine, separatists controlling the site of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 have not provided a safe corridor for an international investigation to take place. Despite the return of flight recorder boxes and some bodies, others are still missing and remains continue to decompose. Research shows that in crises speed of response matters. Yet the media has said little about the response of the world’s largest security organization whose member states border Ukraine. What options does NATO have to respond to the crisis?

With defenses already bolstered in eastern Europe, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has only called for ‘a full international investigation’. The 28-member-state transatlantic security organization represents one of the few international actors with the capabilities and potential political will to act. My recent study based on interviews with 30 NATO ambassadors and staff found that informal learning has improved NATO’s crisis response capacity. Other international organizations remain politically blocked. Russia retains veto power at the United Nations and OSCE and is also responsible for a significant supply of natural gas to European Union member states. NATO has new options given the urgency surrounding the Malaysian Airlines tragedy and states’ shared commitment to regional security (Article 4). The following sections review the costs and benefits of different possibilities.

Direct negotiations with Russia

The least costly but least effective route would be for NATO to reopen formal communications with Russia. As of May 1, NATO officially suspended all cooperation with Russia, including cooperation on terrorism, proliferation and other areas related to peace and security. As James Goldgeier writes, Russian President Vladimir Putin ultimately ‘wants instability, not stability, in Ukraine,’ suggesting that pressure for a negotiated solution may have some value. Putin, however, has shown resilience to both diplomacy and targeted sanctions in past crises, such as the 2008 Georgia conflict. This suggests that a return to dialogue or even offering Russia the benefit of reengaging in civilian cooperation would have limited value for convincing the government to stop arming and supporting the separatists. Even if Russia were to completely disavow itself of the separatists, there would be no guarantee that they would secure the corridor for the MH17 investigation.

Coordinated sanctions against Russia

Over the past few days, many U.S. policymakers have called for stronger sanctions against Russia. As sanctions have become more popular in the post-Cold War period, scholars have shown that multilateral sanctions have been, on average, more effective than unilateral sanctions. In theory, NATO member states could coordinate and escalate sanctions in order to affect Russian corporations and assets more broadly than the individuals currently under sanctions. Because sanctions also hurt the businesses of the sanctioning countries, however, joint EU action could backfire by hindering Europe’s economic recovery. In addition, Putin’s past defiance of U.S. and EU sanctions and Russian public support  suggest such efforts would have little effect on Russia’s support of the separatists. Sanctions are also a medium to long-term solution that could not address the immediate crisis at hand of establishing an investigation in the midst of shootings, shelling and other violence.

Coordination with Russia to secure a humanitarian corridor

Alternatively, NATO could recommend that Russia take responsibility for securing the territory for an investigation. Although official NATO-Russian cooperation concluded in May, the NATO-Russia Council still permits the exchange of minimal communication at the ambassadorial level. The benefits of such a stance would be a true regional solution to a regional problem, which the UN charter (Chapter VIII) and the UN Agenda for Peace have endorsed. Western member states would not have to bear the costs, and separatists controlling the territory would presumably welcome a Russian military presence. Nevertheless, this option would seem dead upon arrival. The Ukrainian government is unlikely to invite in Russian troops given that evidence suggests that unmarked Russian troops already invited themselves into Crimea in February. Moreover, the United States and the European Union would have difficulty accepting this option because they could not trust that Putin’s troops would leave when the job was done.

Coordination with Kiev to secure a humanitarian corridor

An final possibility would involve the establishment of a new NATO multidimensional operation with a narrow mandate to provide security for an unfettered investigation at the site of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy. The UN Security Council’s recent unanimous resolution calling for access to the site of the MH17 tragedy publicly acknowledges international demands. Such an operation would require the approval of and cooperation with the Ukrainian government — without it, NATO troops would be violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The establishment of such an operation, no matter how narrow, could risk inspiring new recruits to the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and risk further isolating and provoking Russia. Nevertheless, NATO member states have the capabilities, are in closest geographic proximity and have the chance to stop the deterioration and disappearance of more of the remains of the Malaysian Airlines flight. Relying on a joint military command center and the recently supplied extra deployments to the region, NATO could rapidly send ground troops into eastern Ukraine to secure the region. The 2011 operation in Libya confirmed its capacity for speed.

With the Ukrainian crisis at its doorstep, NATO faces a unique opportunity to resolve a crisis in its neighborhood while also countering Russia’s support of separatists movements along its borders, from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Crimea and Donetsk. Of the possibilities detailed above, the option of creating a new multidimensional operation to open a humanitarian corridor could, at a minimum, provide the urgent access necessary to conduct a proper investigation and, at most, create a peacekeeping presence. Ultimately, any and all NATO actions depend on the ability of 28 member states to find a consensus through formal or informal negotiations. In the meanwhile, each passing day prolongs the wait for victims and undermines the credibility of the international community to rapidly respond to crises.