Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.
First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.
But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.
The previous instance was Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In seeking to differentiate the Ukraine invasion from the Georgia invasion–which elicited outrage mostly from the right, as the American left’s anti-Bush hysteria got the better of them and extended to pro-Bush foreign leaders–even some knowledgeable observers have taken refuge in the notion that Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili was goaded “into firing the first shot.”
This is preposterous, and it’s worth reviewing why in order to understand how Putin’s Russia treats its non-NATO neighbors. A good summary of the preceding events is contained in Andrei Illarionov’s essay in a book on the 2008 war, in which Illarionov reviews the Russian preparation for eventual war.
Russia began supplying one breakaway region, South Ossetia, with military equipment–including tanks and ammunition–before Saakashvili became part of the Georgian government. In fact, almost as soon as Putin joined Yeltsin’s government Russia began taking hostile measures against Georgia, which only increased as Putin became president and consolidated power. With tensions rising in 2002, Russia bombed Georgian territory. Soon after that, Putin claimed the right to take military action against Georgia under the guise of anti-terror missions.
Russia then staffed up South Ossetia’s government with Russian defense officials and sent more military equipment. Russia’s defense minister then echoed Putin’s threats to attack Georgia. More military goods along with Russian advisors would follow. The next year, Russia distributed Russian passports to South Ossetians with the declaration that it had an obligation to defend its citizens. More shelling of Georgian territory took place as well as a well-publicized attack on Georgian peacekeepers. Later that year, Georgian power lines were successfully attacked. The following year, a bombing traced to Russia at a Georgian police headquarters killed three.
Russia increased its construction of military bases and its transfer of arms and ammunition to breakaway Georgian territory. The following years had more of the same, with 2007 bringing major shelling of Georgian civilian territory and sustained military attacks. In the days before the war broke out in 2008, South Ossetian forces had begun sustained attacks on Georgian targets and territory. Georgia responded to South Ossetia, and Russia invaded Georgia.
To those who weren’t paying attention, the Russian attack on Ukraine came as something of a surprise. But this is how Russia behaves toward non-NATO states. So Joe Biden’s assurances to NATO states that the U.S. will stand by them is not a show of strength in the face of Russian expansionism. It’s a show of weakness, because it’s an implicit, but unmistakable, declaration that nothing has changed. If you’re not in NATO, you’re on your own. And by the way, the Obama administration doesn’t want you in NATO, whoever you are.
It’s nice to promise protection to states like Poland, which we have a record of betraying and whose leaders probably don’t find it so inspiring when Obama’s fans compare him to FDR. But the question is what to do about non-NATO states. George W. Bush’s preference was to put states like Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership and fuller democratization. The weak states in the region should ask Biden what he and his boss think they should do since they’re specifically excluded from the White House’s guarantees.