In Other News – NATO is More Relevant Than Ever, & More – 3/3/2022

March 3, 2022

NATO is more relevant than ever, but its actions remain subject to Putin’s interpretation. The war in Ukraine has galvanized NATO, unifying members with an increased sense of purpose to actively defend European security, prompting an increase in domestic military spending, and reframing the benefit of NATO membership for would-be members including Finland and Sweden. NATO is directing significant humanitarian and military aid into Ukraine as well as deploying military equipment and troops into member states bordering Russia and Belarus. While NATO and its members have been clear to state that they will not fight in Ukraine, hoping to make a clear delineation that the group’s not in direct conflict with Russia, there are active concerns about how Russia, and most importantly Putin, will interpret NATO actions and whether such a clear demarcation of what constitutes an act of war by NATO exists from the Russian perspective. This assessment is even more critical given that Russia integrates the use of tactical nuclear weapons as part and parcel of its standard operating war procedures, as played out every year in its Zapad War Games. Further, if Putin feels increasingly isolated and under pressure for a sustained period of time, it’s possible that he could escalate the conflict regardless of NATO’s take.

Russian citizens’ reaction to Ukraine invasion being shaped by social media. Putin tried to assure the world that he had broad public support for his violent actions in Ukraine, but once the fighting began it was clear he had miscalculated. Thousands of Russians defied police threats and took to the streets in protest- risking their lives in the process. More than 7,000 Russians have been detained in hundreds of opposition protests across the country, and public celebrities, sports figures, and media personalities, in an unprecedented showing, have all spoken out in opposition to the invasion. Even Russia’s political elite have spoken out, if not in opposition to the war, in support of peace. Further fueling Russian opposition, social media continues publicize images of young Russian soldiers dying or being taken prisoner, and last weekend, Ukrainian authorities launched a website designed to help Russian families keep track of their family members fighting in Ukraine.

Russian lawmakers have now proposed a 15-year prison sentence for people who post “fakes” about the war. It is believed “fakes” will be defined as anything that runs counter to Putin’s narrative. Parliament, controlled by the Kremlin, will take up the measure on Friday. In addition, many anticipate the imposition of martial law to block open internet, ban all protests, and in a move that may already be too late, restrict Russians from leaving the country. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to control the narrative, the proliferation of social media and the willingness of both ordinary people and public figures to speak out may prove too much for Putin to control for long.

Continuum of international support for Russia underscores varied domestic security and economic concerns. The international community’s response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ranges from imposing unprecedented sanctions on Moscow to attempting to stay neutral in international efforts. Only a handful of nations: Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea, are 100% on Putin’s side. Most nations that are rallying behind Ukraine, however, are acting not only to support Kyiv but to demonstrate the full scale of repercussions for invading a sovereign state and upending the accepted modern conventions of international security. Several important East Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, and notably Singapore – not typically inclined to impose financial sanctions – have stepped up against Russia in part to deter China from any type of similar future move that would threaten their territorial integrity.

But a look at nations who abstained from the UN vote on Wednesday to support a resolution to condemn Russia’s actions and demand Moscow withdraw military forces from Ukraine demonstrates the extent of Russia’s reach into Africa. It also reflects the precarious positioning of states like Kazakhstan and Mongolia that sit between Russia and China, as well as highlights Russia’s inroads into a large swath of land that notably includes both India and Pakistan. While India’s longstanding military and security ties to Russia date back to the end of the Cold War, Islamabad is working to enhance energy and economic cooperation with Moscow.

Even nations like Israel and the United Arab Emirates, who voted to condemn Russia during Wednesday’s vote, will be hesitant to take stronger actions like sanctions. The UAE has been balancing its US-Russia relations for several years and recently cemented 1.3 billion worth of energy and technology deals with Moscow. Israel needs to maintain friendly relations with Russia to ensure its security vis a vis Syria and, by extension, Iran, but it’s also attempting to maintain open ties to Ukraine. Likewise, nations like Azerbaijan – who recently agreed to “allied cooperation” with Moscow right before the invasion – has also sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and several other nations are grappling with their desire to support Ukrainians without overtly angering Putin. Even China seems to be towing a fine line: securing a strategic alliance while also limiting financing for Russian commodities by its state banks. How and if these “neutral” nations shift to support the battle for principles of sovereignty over domestic concerns, however, will likely depend on their assessment of Putin’s gains and losses.

Read Jack Devine’s latest Op-Ed, Putin Has Ensured His Own Downfall, in the Wall Street Journal.