NATO Must Stop Putin – and Stop Worrying About Trump

By Ambassador Kurt Volker

Ambassador Kurt Volker is a leading expert in U.S. foreign and national security policy with over 35 years of experience in a variety of government, academic, and private sector capacities.  He served as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017 to 2019, and as U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.

OPINION — As the leaders of NATO gather in Washington for a three-day celebration of the alliance’s 75th anniversary, they also face short- and longer-term challenges that will determine the unity and effectiveness of NATO in the years to come. 

That’s the view of and Cipher Brief expert and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, who served in that post from 2008-2009 and later as the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine. Ambassador Volker believes that while the alliance has shown unity in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, its response should have been far stronger – both in terms of military aid to Kyiv and more robust offers of partnership with NATO going forward. 

Volker spoke with Managing Editor Tom Nagorski as part of a series of pre-summit interviews conducted by The Cipher Brief.

Watch the full conversation and others by subscribing to The Cipher Brief’s Digital Channel

The Cipher Brief: We have heard for a long time – well before February 2022 – about the prospects of Ukraine having some greater relationship with NATO. What do you think the alliance will offer Ukraine at the DC summit?

Volker: What is likely to happen is a repeat of the language from (the 2023 NATO Summit at) Vilnius, although dressed up in some way, which is in itself a version of the language from Bucharest in 2008. 

For 16 years, we’ve been saying to Ukraine, you will be a member of NATO someday, but we’re not taking any steps to get you there. And that is likely to be the upshot of what the membership conversation is. 

Now, there will be a few other things for Ukraine. Up until now, there has been no NATO role in helping Ukraine whatsoever. Everything has been done by individual allies, individual countries, even the assistance coordination that has been done to coordinate military aid to Ukraine has been done outside of NATO, in this so-called Ramstein process that the U.S. has led. This will be the first time that NATO is being given a role in helping Ukraine, likely taking over this Ramstein process, giving it a new NATO label, looking roughly the same as it did until now, but giving it a NATO label.

(The alliance will) also be looking a little bit longer term at helping Ukraine develop its defense industrial production, access to defense industry, defense procurement assistance, and building the future Ukrainian force. How is Ukraine’s military going to look five years, ten years from now? That sort of thing will be done for Ukraine as well. 

But what’s really striking is we are in the midst of the biggest war in Europe since World War II. NATO’s job is peace and security in Europe. And here we are, in my view, kind of minimizing what we do for Ukraine and minimizing the way we talk about this war as a NATO issue. And instead taking these marginal steps that don’t really address the elephant in the room.

The Cipher Brief: What do you think would be the more robust response or answer to the Ukrainian question?

Volker: I think the way to answer that question is to ask, What is the message that we want the NATO summit to convey to Vladimir Putin? Do we want Putin to understand that his war in Europe, his ideology of fascism, genocide, imperialism is a relic of the past? We will never allow this to succeed in Europe. And the more he tries, the more he will only hurt Russia.

Ukraine will be a successful European democracy, a member of the EU, a member of NATO, and his efforts to disrupt that will never succeed. That is the message we want him to get. To convey that message, we should be joining what the EU is doing. The EU has recently opened accession negotiations with Ukraine, and they are sending this long-term message to Putin. NATO should be doing the same thing. NATO should be opening accession talks with Ukraine.

Volker: True, we’ve never done this before. We’ve always just said, You’re in or you’re out. But we can create a process if we want to. We can say, We’re starting the talks now. We’re going to move you in as quickly as we can. We’re going to start talking about how to go about your defense in the NATO-Ukraine Council. Or you can join us at the North Atlantic Council. You can be with us there. But we should be sending signals to Putin that this train is moving, and he will never win. 

Instead, by ducking the issue yet again, we’re sending a signal that we lack the resolve. And that is just an invitation to Putin to continue the war.

The Cipher Brief: You cast this as a message for Vladimir Putin. In your view, is that almost more important than the message to Zelensky himself?

Volker: I would say yes, because Putin is the one who has launched this war, is attacking Ukraine, has vowed to change the government in Kyiv, has said publicly many times that Ukraine is not a legitimate country. He said that these are Russian lands and that he has a right to take them over and that Ukrainian people, culture, nationality, identity don’t really exist.

So that is the danger that we face in Europe, this ideology very similar to the ideology Hitler had about a master race and about the right to take over other countries like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland. So we’ve got to disabuse Putin of that. The message has got to be to him. Ultimately, if you think about NATO, NATO’s job number one, of course, is to protect its current members. But if we are facing the prospect of a wider war, based on Putin’s ideology, we’re not doing enough to protect our members if we let this war keep going. We’ve got to see this stopped in Ukraine so it doesn’t spread elsewhere. 

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The Cipher Brief: We hear regularly – we heard it from Joe Biden recently, but we hear from NATO members in Europe in particular – the point you just made, that other countries in Europe are at risk if Putin is not stopped. There are some who feel that’s overblown and it’s a way to make the case for more aid. Do you think that Vladimir Putin has his sights set on other nations in Europe?

Volker: Well, back in 1938 and ‘39, people thought it was overblown to suggest that Hitler was going to take over Austria or that he was going to take the Sudetenland or if he took the Sudetenland, that he would be happy to stop there and not try to take all of Czechoslovakia, or that once he took Czechoslovakia, that would be it. They certainly wouldn’t attack Poland. And he did all of those things because he faced no resistance. And that is the kind of situation we face with Putin now. 

He is not facing sufficient resistance in Ukraine. And if he succeeds in Ukraine, consolidates his gains, topples the government, you can be sure that he will be looking at other territories that used to be part of the Soviet Union and used to be part of the Russian Empire that he believes should rightfully belong to Russia, and he’ll be angling to take them back again. 

Take the Baltic States, for example. They were occupied by the Soviet Union from the period of World War II until 1991. They got their independence back 23 years ago, and they are rightfully terrified that a Putin unchecked will want to bring them back under Russian tutelage. Finland was also called a Baltic state before the 1920s. It was also part of the Russian Empire, and Putin could make the same argument. 

I have no doubt that Putin is serious when he makes these kinds of claims. Remember, before he launched his full-scale invasion, he gave NATO an ultimatum that included withdrawing NATO membership from the Baltic States and from Poland, surely with an eye toward taking these lands at some point in the future.

The Cipher Brief: I’m assuming that the U.S. presidential election is not a formal agenda item at the summit, but it’s certainly in the conversation. I imagine your phone is lighting up with questions about what’s going on here. How concerned are your friends in Europe about what’s happening here and what may happen on November 5th? And what do you tell them?

Volker: Yes, everybody is concerned, but not all in the same way. I spent most of May and June traveling in Europe. I was in Berlin and London. I was at several international conferences that had other West Europeans present. I was also in Ukraine. I was in Poland. I was in Estonia and Georgia. And you get very different vibes depending on who you talk to.

The West Europeans freak out about Donald Trump. They don’t like him as a person. They don’t like his personality. They don’t like his vulgarity. They don’t like the threats that he makes about not supporting NATO allies. They didn’t like his tariffs. They didn’t like his threats against the automobile industry in Germany. You name it, they have anxieties about Donald Trump and they express them constantly. And my advice to my West European friends is always, Don’t make any assumptions. You don’t know what the policies are going to be. Do your own homework. Spend 2 % of GDP on defense. Prepare your forces. Build your defense industry. Do your own homework. And then be proactive. Do suggest to the U.S. and to NATO what we should be doing together. Don’t wait for something to happen and then complain about it. So that’s the West Europe side. 

Ukrainians are very different. The Ukrainians look at the last two years and say that this was incredibly frustrating. Never enough support, always too little, always too late, always too much lecturing, even now still facing restrictions on the use of U.S. weapons that we provide as we tell them, Don’t hit deep inside Russia, even though Russia’s hitting you. This is something Ukrainians are incredibly frustrated with.

And so they look at the prospect of a new Biden administration with a great deal of trepidation because they say it’s going to be four more years of slow death (for Ukraine) in that case, never enough, never full support. And they remember that it was Trump who wanted to shut down the Nord Stream II (gas pipeline), who provided the first security assistance to Ukraine, the Javelin (anti-tank weapons) back in 2017. And so they’re happy to roll the dice with Trump because they imagine the U.S. wants to be in a stronger position and they see a weak position right now, and Putin taking advantage of that. 

Central and East Europeans, Poles, Balts, they’re somewhat closer to the Ukrainian point of view, but they’re also worried on both ends. They’re worried about what if we have four more years of weakness? What if that then also engenders weakness from France and Germany? So they worry about weakness all around. 

But then they also worry about Trump, because what they read into Trump’s statements about ending the war in 24 hours is just pulling the rug out from under Ukraine, telling them to give up territory, telling them that we’re not gonna support them anymore. And they would be very afraid of that because that would give Putin just the kind of encouragement that they don’t want him to feel because it could lead to attacks against their own states. 

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The Cipher Brief: I’m going to push you on your earlier points about Ukraine. We don’t know much, but the one thing we hear from candidate Trump’s lips regularly is, I’ll end the war before I’m even inaugurated again. So just to press you on that a little bit, it’s hard to see how that happens in a way that would give any comfort to the Ukrainians.

Volker: Yes, I take your point. But let’s remember the only reason there is a war is because Putin feels free to attack. He has launched these attacks starting in February 2022, he has kept them up, and the war would end in a day if Putin were convinced to stop the war. So it’s not as if we pull aid to Ukraine and the war is over. It just makes it easier for Putin to keep going. 

The only way to end it is to convince Putin that it would be a failing effort and it would be damaging for Russia if he continues. That would argue for taking off the gloves, basically, and lifting restrictions on any aid to Ukraine.

What I anticipate a future president Trump would do – nobody knows, but what I imagine he would do is ramp up U.S. oil and gas production with a view towards pushing prices down as much as possible. This will hurt Russia’s economy. I can imagine him closing loopholes and sanctions. Right now, we have loopholes that allow Russian banks to get paid if the payments are for energy. That’s a loophole that needs to be closed. And I imagine him not giving Ukraine more aid, but giving them a very big loan through a lend-lease program, saying, OK, here’s a few hundred billion dollars on the table. You take what you need. You can borrow it, pay us back later. But you can buy equipment and you can fight the war.

And we’re not going to put any restrictions on what you do, except I’m going to tell Putin he has to stop the war. There’s no restrictions on Ukraine. Putin, you stop the war. And if he stops, you stop. But otherwise, we’ve got to convince Putin that we’re back in a position of strength again. 

The Cipher Brief: I wonder if you can reflect a little bit on NATO, (which was) set up as a bulwark against Soviet communism. What are the most fundamental ways you think it has changed? What’s different now from 1949?

Volker: In some ways the nature of the threat, of course, has changed dramatically. We went through the Cold War, and then a period where we were worried about regional instability, wars in the Balkans, and we went through a period where we were worried about terrorism.

And now we’re going through a period where we’re worried about very unconventional threats – cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, undermining our electoral democracies and so forth. So I think in that respect, we have to actually look at the alliance as the right venue for dealing with an aggressor in Europe, particularly Russia, that is using new tactics, but still for the old purposes of defeating our society. So in that respect, I think NATO is right on, maybe it even needs to do more. I would argue that we are facing significant enough hybrid attacks in NATO territory already today, that it warrants some Article 4 consultations among allies about what’s happening and what we should do about it. Targeted assassinations on our own territory, sabotage, arson, vandalism of national symbols, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, bribery and funding of political parties in order to undermine political institutions. This is all serious and it’s all happening. So we should be talking about that. 

Then there is China, and people say, Well, maybe that is a little bit farther afield for NATO. China is interested mainly in territorial gains in the South China Sea, not really territorial gains against Europe. On the other hand, we see China much more active in Europe, doing things like trying to scoop up digital information, influence societies, and fundamentally advantage China economically, even in Europe, by doing things like buying up significant percentages of all the major European ports, and then providing a network that pipes in cheap Chinese goods to undermine European goods. So we do have to talk about this, but I think the Chinese threat is somewhat different still than the nature of the threat that we face from Russia. And I think NATO should be looking at the threat from Russia in all its dimensions.

The Cipher Brief: Last question: What would be a good outcome, a good headline at the close of the NATO summit in Washington? 

Volker: Clearly the issue and the word that everybody is looking for is unity. We need to show that the NATO allies, despite everything, despite our differences, despite our political upheavals, the elections in the U.S., France, UK, next year in Germany, despite all of that, we are committed to a core principle of collective defense. And that is unshakable, even with all the challenges, so that a potential aggressor will know that if they dare to attack NATO, they’re going to meet the full force of the alliance. That’s the most important thing to convey, and I think that will be conveyed.

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