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Sat. May 25, 2024
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Still in the Face of Evil
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By Zac Knapp

With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, many called into question the true scope of NATO’s influence and how willing it was to stand in the face of Russian aggression. While Ukraine had not applied to become a NATO member until two months after the initial invasion, it is unlikely that it would have been accepted given the circumstances. This raises a very important question, why would NATO not accept Ukraine into its organization? Would that not allow NATO to do the very thing it was designed to do? NATO’s mission statement says that the organization is designed to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.”1 While Ukraine is not a member, would its current situation not warrant entrance into the organization? The answer to this question lies in a fundamental flaw with NATO, which is its seeming unwillingness to stand against Russian aggression, which is its raison d'être. This flaw has left Ukraine to fend for itself against one of the top powers in the global system.

Since NATO’s formation in 1949, it has been apparent that its creation was to stand against the Soviet’s sphere of influence. While it may have served as a deterrent force back then, the political environment has changed drastically. No longer can NATO stand purely as an entity reliant on deterrence, but as one that actively strives to push against the forces of evil. The organization has acted in supporting roles around the world in a multitude of conflicts as in Kosovo2 and Afghanistan, but it has yet to directly engage in a conflict. While this statistic is a great thing, the current circumstances make this fact less spectacular. Having a supporting role in conflicts like Ukraine or Afghanistan is vastly different than what is necessary in Ukraine, and its reluctance to directly engage will have dire global implications.

The war in Ukraine is categorically a regional conflict, but physiologically it is just one part to a bigger plan. In the mind of Putin and his Kremlin cronies, Ukraine is just one of the many pieces to the puzzle of rebuilding the Russian empire of old. It is unlikely that if Putin were successful in his planned short invasion that he would have been content with Ukraine. In all likelihood Putin would have made similar claims about other former Soviet satellite states that it made against Ukraine (evidence of neonazi’s, a desire to reunite ethnic Russians, etc.), warranting military engagement. However, this quick victory never happened and Russia is now engaged in a long war, bogged down in a stalemate, not too dissimilar from the battles of the first world war3. At first glance, this notion is preferable to the alternative, but in actuality it is far more complex than that. The expectation that Ukraine fight on its own while other nations send  stipends is neither a long-term strategy nor is it effective. Indeed, one could argue that it has had more of a negative impact on the Ukrainian people compared to that of the intended effect. Having the sole burden of fighting resting upon Ukrainians shoulders, with little hope of having other states lighten the load, is neither strategically effective nor psychologically benefiting. In the minds of the Russians, the West’s way of fighting wars through money results in, “waning attention from the West”4. There is some truth in this, and there needs to be direct intervention if NATO wants to have any sort of lasting effect in this conflict.

Taking Action

To make NATO the true force that it was designed to be, there needs to be more of a real threat of using force. Acting merely as a stationary entity with a reliance on deterring adversaries has obviously not worked, so why now, almost two years into the war, would their presence be any more threatening? Coercion at this point in the conflict is also futile as the threat of using force is not substantial enough in the minds of the Russians to withdraw. A new strategy needs to be adopted. It appears that Putin’s mindset with regards to pushback from the West is one of not stopping until total annihilation, meaning NATO’s deterrent capabilities have been rendered useless. What is more, is that NATO and its EU counterpart have become increasingly dependent on sanctions and engaging in trade warfare, so accepting Ukraine into NATO and thus taking direct action against the Russians seems to be out of the question. However, much like with its deterrence capabilities, the economic sanctions have not been as damaging as originally thought.

At the beginning of the War in Ukraine harsh trade restrictions were put on Russia by Western countries halting the flow of Russian goods that it was dependent on for trade. These included oil, natural gas, metals, agriculture and petrochemicals5. While these sanctions have without a doubt had a negative impact on the Russian economy, it hasn’t been as effective as originally hoped. For example, Starbucks, which had 130 locations throughout Russia6, closed shop following the invasion of Ukraine. However, this is hardly the real situation. Russian businessmen saw the closure of these locations as a prime business opportunity, and kept the locations running under different aliases. Stores once emblazoned with a Starbucks logo now dawned Stars Coffee logo while maintaining the same amount of business, with few hiccups. What makes this significant is that this brings in more money to Russia now that it does not have to pay royalties to Western-based companies. This increases the cash flow in the Russian economy, making the absence of Western companies more virtue signaling than effective coercion. This practice is not mutually exclusive and many other companies have also fallen victim.

The disappearance of franchises like Starbucks is by no means the epitome of economic deterrence, but it does make up a good portion of economic activity within city centers in Russia. As shown, the effect of these sanctions has been minimal, if not hurtful towards the West. For most nations, being isolated economically from the rest of the globe would cause irreversible damage, but Russia is an exception. Putin believes that he is the chosen savior of the Russian people, and will bring Russia back to its former glory. Being sanctioned from the outside world will hardly be an effective enough strategy to stop him from fulfilling his mission.

An Opportunity for China

NATO’s unwillingness to let Ukraine into the organization, and thus face Russia head-on, has had other unintended consequences as well. China and President Xi will look at the reaction from NATO in Ukraine and smile. The ineffectiveness of economic sanctions in Russia will only be further amplified in a conflict with China, and NATO will have no choice but to act if China invades Taiwan (i.e. Taiwan Relations Act). Seeing the response to the conflict in Ukraine, which has the possibility of spreading to Western Europe, China would assume that Taiwan would then be a non-entity for NATO due to its geographical distance between Europe and East Asia.

On top of that, there are a number of countries engaged economically with China via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) making economic sanctions on China equivalent to shooting themselves in the foot. China’s economy, while stagnating in its growth recently, is still a global economic super power with the ability to be self-sustaining amid economic isolation from the West. The only way to prevent this message from indirectly propelling China into a Taiwan-takeover is by showing that NATO is the true military force it claims to be.

A Path Forward

While at face value the proposition of this paper may seem as though it is pro-war, it is not. Rather, the position that NATO should take is one of being more assertive as to achieve its intended purpose. NATO has a very unique capability, that being the protection of smaller nations (especially along the former Soviet-Bloc), but NATO’s inability to act in the Ukrainian conflict, beyond implementing sanctions and providing weapons, will not fill these states with hope. What the war in Ukraine represents is an opportunity to show the forces of evil, like China, North Korea, and Iran that NATO and the collective West is not to be trifled with, and that it is a legitimate protector of good. Rather than to stand as a figurative force, NATO needs to show that it will not stand still in the face of evil.

As of now, the war in Ukraine is isolated, but it runs the risk of spreading if Russia succeeds in Ukraine. The Russian front has stagnated and resulted in a stalemate in certain areas, but the Russians are still making more progress than the Ukrainians have been able to counter7. Unless there is direct involvement in Ukraine, more innocent civilians will be killed, towns destroyed, and Ukrainians dispersed. Calls for negotiation with Russia over their occupied territory will inadvertently send a signal to China that as long as they are willing to be patient, they too could gain desired territory, like Taiwan. If NATO takes action, it could preemptively stop conflict in the east, becoming the true deterrent force that it was created to be.

Zac Knapp is currently a Sophomore at the University of Idaho majoring in International Relations and Political Science. His is also a Division 1 cross country and track athlete. 

Citations

(1) NATO. (2024). NATO / Otan. What is NATO? https://www.nato.int/nato-welcome/#:~:text=NATO's purpose is to guarantee,the long run, prevent conflict.

(2) NATO operations and Missions - European Parliament. (2014). https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/sede/dv/sede200312natooperationsmissions_/sede200312natooperationsmissions_en.pdf

(3) MacMillan, M. (2023, July 19). How wars don’t end. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/how-wars-dont-end

(4) Tavberidze, V. (2024, January 6). Russia bets it can “outlast the attention span of the west” to defeat Ukraine, says defense and security expert. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-war-western-attentin-span-tavberidze-interview-roberts/32762998.html

(5) Griffin, R., Perkins, R., Gordon, M., Holman, J., & Critchlow, A. (2023, December 18). Infographic: Sanctions on russian commodities tracker. S&P Global Commodity Insights. https://www.spglobal.com/commodityinsights/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/031722-infographic-russia-sanctions-ukraine-energy-commodities-explained

(6) Dean, G. (2022). An owner of Russia’s rebranded Starbucks says it’s a “totally different” brand - even though its logo and menu are eerily similar to the American chain’s. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/starbucks-russia-stars-coffee-rebrand-totally-different-similar-logo-name-2022-8

(7) Institute for the Study of War. (2024, January 20). Interactive map: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. ArcGIS StoryMaps. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/36a7f6a6f5a9448496de641cf64bd375

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