Russia is posing an essentially 19th century challenge to Europe — a threat to the sovereignty of nations by redrawing their national borders through conventional force. Moscow backs up that challenge — more or less implicitly — with 20th century nuclear capability. The European security system, with its transatlantic strategic guarantee, is built to counter the second response, but has largely shed the toolbox — military, political, intellectual — of responding to the first.
Paris and Berlin, Vienna and Rome are constrained by their constituencies, as well as by the rules of European good behavior, from undertaking cavalry charges, “shows of flag” and limited military escapades. But to respond to Moscow adequately, one might want to restore some of that 19th century “signaling” capacity fast. Nowhere it is more urgent than in the security field. The passage of HMS Defender near Crimea in June 2021 came very close to such “signaling” action from the age of dreadnoughts.
The Kremlin likes to present itself as a nuclear superpower, wishing to play on par with the US. The US often dismisses this stance, pointing at the economic and material inferiority of Russia as a state (its GDP the size of Italy’s is often mentioned). From Washington’s vantage point, such an attitude may be warranted, but for Russia’s neighbors, the constant military and security pressure is more than just a nuisance — it is a credible security threat.
The NATO alliance, built to respond to 20th century challenges and backed up by the US, cannot and should not respond blow-to-blow to Russia’s escapades — that would indeed be irresponsible. But what if Europe dropped its mantra of “no alternative to dialogue” and gave a proportional, regional response to the regional challenge that Russia is posing? Would that work, and what could such a response look like?
Turkey offers a recent example of Russia seeking accommodation with a regional, non-nuclear power once it showed its willingness to use security and military apparatus to the detriment of Russian interest. After Turkey shot down a Russian military jet in November 2015 near the Turkish-Syrian border, the Kremlin deescalated immediately. Moreover, the two countries soon rediscovered their 19th century “friendly foe” modus vivendi and have been — relatively successfully — managing relations across the old territories of the Ottoman empire. Russia even conceded to Turkey a role in allowing its military and security ally — Azerbaijan — to regain ground in the South Caucasus through military means, and with the direct involvement of Turkish personnel.
Eastern Europeans may look carefully and draw a lesson from this — Moscow understands the language of proportional regional military-security challenge and responds to it rationally. What might such a response entail in Russia’s European neighborhood?
Let’s give ourselves space to speculate — after all, purely tactical responses to the Russian challenge are bound to fail. Consider an alliance — let’s call it the Treaty Alliance of Russia’s Annoyed Neighbors (TARAN) — which would structure itself around the core of Poland and Ukraine, plus the Baltic states, Moldova and Georgia. These countries could agree to pool their intelligence, analytical and military-security capabilities, as well as to jointly develop resilience capabilities in cyber- and counter-disinformation fields. Importantly, TARAN should contain the standing military cooperation clause and a promise to come to each-others’ defense in case of an attack on one country’s territory and/or sovereignty. Of course, TARAN would get even more punch and influence if Nordic nations — Norway, Sweden, and Finland (and Canada?) — joined in, even as associated members.
Such an alliance would address several strategic, tactical, and practical problems. The US would not be bound by its nuclear arsenal to defend TARAN. At the same time, Poland and the Baltic states would continue to be covered by the Article 5 shield in case of an attack on their territory but could respond jointly and separately to any challenge under the threshold of that article (like Turkey did in Syria). NATO would be able to sidestep the thorny issue of Ukraine and Georgia’s accession, even as their security posture would, overall, improve. Nations that would be core members of TARAN would have to accept the cost of engaging their troops in military confrontation — but for many of them such confrontation has already taken place or is ongoing. For others, such engagement would be realistic if the current crises are not pro-actively defused.
Given that TARAN would draw on NATO standards when managing the military-security apparatus, and with the experience of the responsible military actors like Poland present, both US and Western European countries would be less reluctant to provide high-tech, including lethal military equipment, to TARAN. At the same time, even without direct arms transfers, support to the combined military industries of Poland and Ukraine could lend the alliance self-sufficiency in significant military-industrial areas, from small arms to attack helicopters and transport planes.
Are there risks? Certainly. The possibility of kinetic contact between Russian forces and TARAN forces would increase in the short term, as the Kremlin would be likely to test the resolve of this alliance. Russia would also continue to play Western European capitals against the more “reckless” Easterners, something that may resonate among the Western voters, too.
Yet, giving TARAN states the ability to defend themselves proactively against Russia’s military and strategic challenge may strengthen the Eastern frontier, provide the EU with more strategic flexibility and negotiating tools, and more time to shape its long-term engagement with Russia. Whatever the cost in the short term, it would be less damaging for European security in the long run than a potential failure of NATO’s Article 5 deterrent.