Standing Up to Putin

WARSAW – The accumulation of conflicts and crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East poses new challenges for NATO and the European Union. If these challenges are to be met, both institutions – bastions of Western values and security – will have to clarify their objectives and adjust the way they operate. Should they fail to do so, the West’s two greatest political achievements of the postwar era may begin to unravel.

That NATO and the EU may lack the will to change is indicated by the fact that, even after Russian troops invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, only part of the West was ready to admit that President Vladimir Putin was intent on restoring Russia as an aggressive global power. It took others months to accept the reality that Putin’s willingness to use force to change national borders in Europe could not go unchallenged.

Of course, there still has been no direct Russian attack on a NATO member state. But the state of turmoil just beyond the Alliance’s eastern border has created a reasonable fear in NATO’s Baltic member countries, as well as in Romania and Poland, about whether or not the Alliance would actually stand with them should they be threatened.

Putin’s revanchism is an attempt to undermine the entire model of international security – one based on cooperation and dialogue, not military force – that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War, and has long been the animating vision behind European unification. His aggression has dispelled whatever doubts had existed as to whether the transatlantic bond still mattered. The question now is whether the West retains the will, and the means, to chart a path through a crisis on its very doorstep.