Think Tank Review: U.S. think tanks are still attempting to figure out how to deal with Russian president Vladimir Putin, especially given the return of “Novorossiya” to the conversation. Some call for greater NATO involvement, while other caution against provoking Russia further. So who’s right?

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to the opening comments during a round table meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO summit. Photo: AP / Virginia Mayo

Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) noted that this summer’s “confluence of global crises” ranging from Ebola to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza reminds us of the “fragility of the existing global system.” Similarly, this summer’s Ukrainian crisis confirmed the fragility of Western-Russian relations.

From the West’s perspective, Ukraine is Russia’s linchpin, the “cradle” of Russian civilization, and the “principal object of Russian neuralgia about Western encroachment into post-Soviet space.” Such a conclusion helps U.S. think tanks to explain why Putin allowed the Ukrainian crisis to go “from proxy war to war,” why he is championing “Novorossiya,” and why Russia can’t afford to retreat.

But it does not explain what to do in Ukraine. Some experts say that NATO should flex its muscles and deter Russian aggression (or else Putin won’t stop), while others say NATO should retreat (or else Putin won’t stop), and still others find themselves straddling the middle ground. Someone is wrong and the recent NATO summit may yield clues.

NATO’s next move

NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, declared in 1949 that the original intent of NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In 1950, on the heels of the shock of Communist victory in China and the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test in 1949, the National Security Council drafted NSC-68, the “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” And from NSC-68 on, NATO was used as a bold deterrent – especially as a collective defense apparatus tasked with “rolling back” Communism during the Soviet era. Later, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO began expanding its reach to various states from the old Soviet orbit. The problem for Russians was (and is) that the post-Cold War NATO expansions never ended.

Russians cite the unchecked eastward expansion of NATO as reason enough to act in Ukraine. Russia does not want to see Ukraine become a part of NATO nor, apparently, the EU. Russia needs insulation from NATO expansion and Ukraine is the cushion. Even a prominent Ukrainian scholar and former presidential hopeful said that, “NATO hasn’t played any constructive role so far; It’s only been creating additional problems for Russia and Ukraine.”

Therefore one must look no further than the Western discussion surrounding NATO to understand how think tanks wish to respond to Russian aggression. And the U.S. think tank ideological camps can be placed on a continuum – those who want NATO to double down, those who want NATO to retreat, and those who are somewhere in the middle.

On the far left are the U.S. experts – the so-called “hawks” – advocating that NATO should bolster its eastern periphery to counter Putin. Strobe Talbott of the Brookings Institution, for example, believes that “Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which says each member must defend the others with boots on the ground in the event of a threat,” acts as a clear “deterrent” and that NATO’s eastern flank “has already been bolstered.” Fellow hawks, like Andrew Weiss of CEIP, say that it is “only a matter of time before the United States supplies lethal military assistance to the Ukrainians and NATO expands its presence along Russia’s borders.” So when the current Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, recently promised "a more visible NATO presence in the east,” hawkish U.S. scholars likely thought him speaking directly to their concerns.

But U.S. experts on the far right of the continuum – the so-called “doves” – believe that bolstering NATO would act as a provocation to Putin. For Steven Pifer of Brookings, “Pursuing NATO would only complicate Kiev’s effort to bridge differences with eastern Ukraine.” Rather, a “sensible policy” would be one that steers well clear of NATO involvement.

Still others – the “owls” – dart between hawks and doves and land somewhere in the middle. These experts make it known that – according to history – Putin does not give up but “ups the ante” when cornered. At the same time, they acknowledge that sanctions and more sanctions are not enough of a deterrent. Could there be a compromise solution that is more robust than sanctions but less aggressive than NATO involvement?

Perhaps not, since Russia has stepped over the brink “from proxy war to war” in the eyes of one scholar from CEIP. Experts lament that, when given the choice between relenting and “ending the pretense of Russian non-involvement,” Putin “chose the latter.”

Ulrich Speck from CEIP says Putin “chose,” of course, because he thinks Putin has now invaded Eastern Ukraine. He is not alone.

Olga Oliker from Rand Corporation can’t shake the feeling that the Russian humanitarian aid convoy – that was sent across the Ukrainian border in mid-August – was nothing more than a “cover for a military incursion.” So much emphasis was placed on Russian humanitarian aid convoy trucks being given access to Donetsk that some are wondering whether it may have been a diversion to allow Russia to form a land bridge to Crimea over eastern Ukraine. For sure, other experts fear the “fog [has lifted] to show Russia at war.”

But why? Experts think that the answer to that question may be simpler than it sounds: “Novorossiya.”

The unexpected return of Novorossiya

Back in May, “Novorossiya” was a topic of great discussion within the U.S. think tank world when the word was thrown around after the annexation of Crimea. But this nostalgic “New Russia” soon petered out of the Western dialogue.

Then, on August 28, Putin used the word in an official presidential statement, referring to the Eastern Ukrainian (pro-Russian) rebels as “the militia of Novorossiya.” Now that the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) will publish a “history of Novorossiya,” various maps of this “Novorossiya” are “circulating in Moscow,” and Russian troops invading Ukraine – “bearing the flag of Novorossiya,” the idea is back with a vengeance. And this new, updated version of “Novorossiya” could be reason for concern.

One hopes that “Novorossiya Redux” does not confirm CEIP Andrew Weiss’ opinion that “Cold War Redux thinking” is on the rise in Washington. To those once hopeful for rapprochement, Cold War Redux would be but a bad dream.

Turmoil in a snow globe

Scholars from U.S. think tanks have sent out repeated alerts of the quickly approaching chill of winter. Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow fears Ukraine will be tested if it tries to weather the winter without Russian gas, and CEIP colleague Andrew Weiss seconds the sentiment. Also, “fall and winter will slow the fighting,” says renowned geo-strategist Robert Kaplan, as frigid temperatures, snow and mud have long been impediments to warfare within Europe.

Ultimately, the NATO summit may provide insights into the current Western thinking about Ukraine and give a glimpse of the Western response should a turmoil-in-a-snow-globe Ukraine become the new reality. But only time will tell if the “fragile” label of Western-Russian relations will encourage policymakers to ‘handle with care’ or later pick up the pieces.