NATO SUMMIT: UKRAINE/RUSSIA, ISIS – WHAT NOW?

NATO Summit leaders discussing security challenged during a working dinner.
NATO Summit leaders discussing security challenged during a working dinner.

By Harry C. Blaney III

Dateline Oslo, Norway

The NATO Summit is now over but its ramifications remain uncertain.  Its impact is still unknown and depends in large part on the continued cohesion and steadfastness of the alliance and the EU which in the best of times is hard to obtain. But the solution to the crisis clearly also depends on Putin’s own present actions and willingness to use force, as well as his short-term and long-term intentions. At this time the direction of this conflict remains highly undetermined.  As of Monday night in Europe, despite the cease-fire, some conflict continues, especially in the South East with Russian tanks and forces moving towards the key port Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainians have said they will defend this city. But the hope is that the Russians will move back and not instigate anymore fights with the Ukrainian forces, but that hope remains just that.

One range of possible outcomes would be for both sides to find a proper and mutually acceptable accommodation. On one side of the range we could see Russia pulling out of Ukraine and ordering its proxy separatists to stand down. Ukraine could then make accommodations for greater autonomy for the East. On the other side, and the worst case outcome, is Putin deciding that the West is weak and makes maximum use of his military to either occupy more of that nation or have enough leverage to make it little more than a puppet state.  Needless to say, the preferred outcome is the former, while the latter leads towards the edge of disaster for both sides. 

President Putin’s actions so far have been mixed with some efforts to create a cease-fire favorable to his “terms” which would lead towards the continued occupation of major parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine by the Russian led separatists. The West has already made promises to provide Ukraine with economic help, training, and provision of non-lethal military supplies. But there are indications that individual nations might also supply lethal defensive weapons. The problem is, if the aid is not delivered soon, it may be too late. Already 3,000 have been estimated killed in this conflict due to Putin’s actions. If the wrong decisions are made, the next stage could be a direct military confrontation, an unwanted outcome by either side.

President Obama wisely led a major effort to keep the alliance together on acting with increased sanctions, which given Russian aggression and blatant use of its troops, was a necessity in the present context. Thus the allied countries agreed on added but not yet well specified sanctions. The sanctions are planned to start in a “few days.” One additional development is the news that Russia will ban the overflight of Western commercial airplanes over Russia. This will cost airlines much in extra time and fuel but Russia will lose a large amount of money they received in fees from these flights. Further, Moscow is seeking now to prevent Europe from re-exporting Russian gas to Ukraine in order to hurt them during the winter months. 

Many people in Europe are still talking about a political solution. Proponents of these views seem to insist on only weak actions. It is reported that the Italians want to almost at all costs dampen down new major sanctions. The EU Council President Jose Barroso also seems willing to move towards a deal and not move towards new actions that will bite at Russia anymore than current actions already have. But there were hints that if Russia backed down those actions might be modified. There was no explicit indication by him of an immediate new EU energy effort. What is key here is how long the West can keep together and work toward an end-game that preserves Ukrainian independence and security. 

Yet Obama and some other leaders realized it is important to stand strong and hopefully have some impact on Putin’s actions in Ukraine. But the Wales meeting did not produce a true long-term strategy towards dealing with the crisis in a comprehensive way. There is talk of short- term “sticks,” but so far not a look into reasonable “carrots.” At some key point we need to make it clear that hope remains for a cooperative relationship.    

As revealed during the NATO Summit, the creation of a small Rapid Reaction Force and the pre-placement of military supplies in frontline Eastern NATO member states was announced. NATO came up with tough words and a promise of added economic and non-lethal military assistance which will not be available immediately if past promises are to be the modal. All of these promises may not be helpful in the immediate days if the ceasefire falters and the battlefield reignites between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists and Russian troops. Ukraine’s fate could potentially be determined before that assistance can come of any use.

The other most critical issue discussed at the meeting was the response to ISIS. There were already, with Obama leading the way, strong statements before the summit began in Wales. There was also the joint Obama-Cameron op-ed in the London Times which took a hard stand. The administration clearly had a full court press on getting other states to sign on to a strategy of containing and in time destroying ISIS. There were dozens of nations at the summit, both NATO members and non-members, that attended based on an American initiative. 

After the NATO meeting the Arab League made clear its opposition to ISIS, and interestingly, Saudi Arabia not only said it would increase its oil output, but one of its highest Islamic clerics recently denounced the actions of the Islamic State. Actions were also taken to stop the flow of money to ISIS from Saudi Arabia. The same signals were heard from some of the Gulf States as well. Allies as far away as Australia also signed on to participate in potential operations against ISIS. To Obama’s benefit, one of his key requirements that this be a broad international coalition was achieved. 

Furthermore, just this Monday the Iraqi parliament signed on to agree on an inclusive, but likely still shaky, cabinet which included Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias.  A plus for the Obama strategy to make sure this is a fight by all Iraqis and not just the Shias. In the coming weeks we will see if this effort can cut through sectarian strife and unite the country against ISIS. The U.S. also intensified its bombing of ISIS forces in Iraq, focusing on protecting a critical dam in Haditha which if destroyed could create mass deaths and destruction.

The President will be making a key speech on all of this on Wednesday and will be consulting Congress. I hope he will make it clear that this will be no easy task and that our participation will be limited but still key and that it is with others who are willing to share the burden and risks. He will also have to make clear the end game. But the facts on the ground make quick action critical if we wish to return the region to a safer place. The question now is whether our Congress will help or hinder efforts to stop the brutality of ISIS, although early signs point to a broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans who at minimum support a limited aerial campaign so long as Obama sets forth a realistic strategy.

The stakes of confronting ISIS and bringing stability to Iraq are as high as ever. Add to this the current crisis in Ukraine and you have to ask yourself whether the 21st century will be one of security and peace or of more intense conflict and instability. We need to develop, not a war strategy, but a preventive strategy against the causes of strife and despair.

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