Russia’s massive buildup of troops and weapons along its border with Ukraine creates a difficult puzzle for the West. For years, political and military leaders in the United States have focused mainly on the challenge from China, after Obama memorably declared a “pivot to Asia” in 2011. That pivot came after years—and trillions of dollars—spent fighting wars and counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Western European countries, meanwhile, were preoccupied with the flow of migrants to the continent and the threat of domestic terrorism. But Russia’s ominous actions in Eastern Europe are scrambling these priorities, as U.S. President Joe Biden called a meeting of NATO members on January 24, pledging to send American soldiers quickly to NATO member states in Eastern Europe. How is NATO looking at Russia now?

Anatol Lieven, the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and two other books on Russia. In his view, the Ukraine crisis is changing perceptions of Russia, even as it deepens longstanding animosity among political and security elites. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves might well resuscitate NATO, which has struggled to find a new identity since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. As Lieven sees it, NATO isn’t going to fight Russia—in Ukraine or elsewhere—but the current confrontation is likely to lead to increased budgets for NATO and the U.S. military. And many European countries will welcome the increased American attention to Moscow, as Washington’s engagement will ease their ongoing worries of being left to deal with Russia on their own.


Michael Bluhm: How is the standoff at the Ukraine border affecting NATO’s view of Russia?

Anatol Lieven: Our security elites have long been deeply hostile to Russia. This became overt after the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 but was apparent in private long before that. It’s something inherited from the Cold War. After all, these institutions largely grew up during the Cold War, with Russia as the enemy.

The shift in recent months is that this hostility was mixed with indifference. Russia was not taken seriously as a military force. Now it is.

Bluhm: How is NATO responding?

Lieven: It may be too early to tell. What NATO has been doing has been overwhelmingly symbolic. The Danes have sent two aircraft. The Dutch have sent one plane and maybe one frigate.

This leads to a question: Will European countries boost their militaries? Despite talk of the Russian threat in recent years, there’s been a consistent refusal to increase European military budgets, reform European armed forces, and coordinate European and NATO armed forces in a way that eliminates endless duplication.

There’s no chance of Ukraine being brought into NATO. The reason is that if Ukraine were brought into NATO, then you would have to provide armed forces that could defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. That means Cold-War style armed forces; that means the dispatch of a large part of the American army. In the 1980s, the U.S. had in excess of 150,000 ground troops in Europe. It would mean the reconstitution of the British army on the Rhine. Since it’s very difficult to get volunteers, it would mean a return to military conscription in West European countries, because you’d have to be prepared to fight Russia.

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These populations will not fight to defend Ukraine. Everyone’s made it clear that they won’t send troops to do that, because they might actually have to fight Russia. There is an awful lot of pure theatrics.

War with Russia in Ukraine wouldn’t be like some counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan. Germans lost about 1 million men in Ukraine in the Second World War. They don’t forget that.

Bluhm: Thinking about perceptions of Russia as a threat, whether to NATO or the leaders of Western countries: To what extent is Putin providing them with a new animating force to focus on?

Lieven: You’re absolutely right. Russia is the enemy for which NATO was created and which it confronted throughout the Cold War—and which it has been very anxious to confront again.

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