Why NATO must watch its back door

Putin still clings to Cold War doctrines which puts him on a collision course with the free world.

Ukrainian soldier stands next to a broken down vehicle outside Artemivsk
The threat of Putin to the stability of Europe's borders is a very real one, writes Fox [AP]

It is unsurprising that events in Syria and Iraq have dominated western foreign policy interest and activity in recent months. The civil war, coupled with the failure and incompetence of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq, which led to increased resentment and tensions in the region, are a tragedy of international proportions. In our media, we are repeatedly exposed to the latest barbaric and medieval atrocities of ISIL, leading to justifiable public and political outrage.

This is, of course, exactly what their communication strategy was intended to achieve. Yet, while all of this has been occurring, another international threat has increasingly loomed on the horizon, one which is much more potentially dangerous for those members of NATO.

The Russian annexation of Crimea, by force, has brought the prospect of military confrontation in continental Europe closer than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The continued involvement of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine adds to growing tension in the region and should act as a wake-up call to even the most craven of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apologists in the West.

Ukraine fighting rages despite efforts to revive truce

The current crisis in Ukraine is not a unique situation, but part of a continuum that has been evolving in recent years. Behind the actions of Russia lie attitudes to the accepted norms of international law and behaviour to which Putin adheres.

Cold War doctrines

The first of these is that Putin still clings to Cold War doctrines which puts him on a collision course with the free world. In particular, the insistence on the concept of a “near abroad”, in other words, a veto on the foreign and security policies of its immediate geographic neighbours, is a remnant of a bygone era. Or, at least, it should be.

Many of the former Soviet satellite states, such as Poland or those in the Baltic, gravitated towards the West precisely because they believed that sovereign nations should be able to exercise self-determination. It is this concept which Russia rejects and is his excuse for his actions in Ukraine. Ukraine considered a closer political and economic relationship with the EU, something Putin objected to and so he simply took control of Crimea, part of Ukrainian sovereign territory.

By the same token, the apparent belief in the Kremlin that ethnic Russians, wherever they live, are to be protected, not by the laws or constitutions of the countries in which they live, but by an external force, ie, Russia, is utterly incompatible with our concept of international law. It is this fundamental difference in outlook, which makes, and will continue to make, normalisation in relations with Russia so difficult.

Some of us have warned for years about the increasing size of the Russian military budget and the capabilities it was intended to provide.

This political outlook is now augmented with a much greater military capability than we have seen for many years.

Ever since the invasion of Georgia showed the shortcomings of Russian military capability, the Kremlin has been engaged in a programme of upgrading and retraining. Oil revenues have been translated into high-end electronic warfare and UAVs in particular. While NATO forces undertake traditional training exercises, Russia has used the Ukrainian conflict to test new weapon systems on the ground.

Greater military capability

The Russian backed separatists have a range of new defence capabilities, including the Buk system, which brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17, and the Strela system which is used for lower altitudes and shorter ranges. Of course, Russia denies providing these capabilities, despite the fact that NATO, as well as independent experts, have seen direct evidence of Russian military involvement.

All this, coupled with Russia’s programme of exercises and manoeuvres involving tens of thousands of personnel, should send a clear signal to the West. Some of us have warned for years about the increasing size of the Russian military budget and the capabilities it was intended to provide.

It would be wrong to pretend that this is simply about sovereignty and the well-being of the Ukrainian people themselves. Important though this undoubtedly is, the response to the Ukrainian crisis is largely about the international credibility of the West, and NATO in particular.

Russia is not the only country who will be watching our response. China, with its increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea will be looking to see if there are any red lines that the United States is genuinely committed to and our allies, especially in the Gulf, will be looking to see whether lessons have been learned from the Syrian chemical weapons debacle.

The threat of Putin to the stability of Europe’s borders is a very real one. From the Baltic to the Balkans to the South Caucuses, Russia is developing specific vantage points from which it can destabilise NATO. None of this is an accident, but part of a well thought out and, so far successfully executed, strategy. NATO needs to watch its back door first.

Liam Fox is a former UK secretary of state for defence and member of parliament for North Somerset.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.