NATO erred in not immediately granting Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan in April 2008, according to the former head of the alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This failure sent the wrong signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and may have contributed to the decision to attack Georgia in August of the same year and in Ukraine less than six years later.

This was a strategic mistake by NATO that was carefully engineered by Putin as he successfully entrapping some of the NATO countries’ leaders. This mistake became a sort of “Bucharest Spell”, which repeatedly boomerangs back to NATO as a significant and constant Russian challenge in the Black Sea. The recent aggressive act of capturing Ukrainian ships in Azov Sea is yet another example of Russian mischief in this ongoing row.

If not addressed properly, this challenge will continue to reoccur and dramatically damage NATO’s reputation and its strategic interests in the Black Sea region. The importance of this region, as well as the overall geopolitical context of Euro-Atlantic security, has changed significantly since 2008. Russia is not perceived as a potential partner any more, but rather as the major geopolitical foe – even more so after the failure of the US’ reset policy and Russia’s aggressive behaviour in the Middle East, Europe, and attempted interference in the US’ domestic politics.

What is Russia trying to achieve in the greater Black Sea region? To summarise, Russia is attempting to create a military and, more importantly, political Anti Access/Access Denial (AA/AD) zone, that allows Russia to have unchallenged access to the south – especially if Georgia breaks under Russia’s hybrid pressure and denounces its pro-Western choice.

What would be the proper response? Only condemnation. Even the strongest one means accommodation of Russian ambitions and this is a defeat. Being in a reactive mode might give temporary solutions, but it will generate a greater appetite from Russia for further aggression and would thus aggravate the problem. What is needed is sharp, consistent and proactive strategy for not only containment and deterrence but also push back.

This strategy should be built on recognition that Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, interference in the domestic political affairs of other sovereign and democratic countries, fueling polarisation, supporting terrorism, support for autocratic leaders, invasions, occupations, annexations, attacking shipping, fueling hate, trolling, and propagating lies are all interconnected weapons of Russia’s hybrid war strategy against the values of peace, freedom, and democracy; against the rules-based world order. Therefore, it would require a long-term strategic solution driven by political will and leadership rather than technical or bureaucratic temporary fixes.

There has been many proper opinions on the ways of escalating simultaneously, in several interconnected directions (military, economic, financial etc.), a countermeasure that is exactly the same way as Russia views this confrontation. This is necessary for immediate deterrence as well as for incurring a long-term price for Moscow for its aggression. But additionally, in a strategic context, proactive decisions should be made to boost the political presence of the West, and particularly NATO, in the Black Sea region to make it the most relevant security organisation in the region.

A key component should be Ukraine and Georgia’s accelerated NATO membership, with a clear roadmap and modalities. This would be one of the strongest proactive pushbacks to end Russia’s aggressive revisionism in the region. Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership is of vital interest for both the US and Europe’. This will put the freedom and democracy agenda on the offensive again in making Europe whole, free, and at peace.

A clear US leadership role and consistent policies in this process are essential for success.

Expanding NATO to all of the Black Sea littoral countries that surround Russia will demonstrate the political will needed to thwart Russia’s political and military AA/AD policy ambitions in the wider region.

This decision will reinforce security in the wider region, including the South Caucasus and the Middle East, while emboldening NATO and its member countries’ strategic interest in the region and beyond.

An accelerated NATO membership process would allow NATO and its member countries to implement more efficient military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia, as well as strengthen soft power leverage of the West to engage and stimulate domestic democratic political, economic, and military reforms as the necessary measures for increasing the resilience against the Russian hybrid challenges.

Additional investments in military and dual use, multi modal logistical infrastructure development in the region around the Black Sea coast would allow NATO to have a rapidly expandable and interoperable infrastructure in case of any possible contingency.

These firm actions would embolden the strategic outreach beyond the Black Sea and further to the east to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The positive effect this would have on European Energy security prospects, while also blocking the Nord Stream-2 project, should not be underestimated.

Acknowledging the mistake of 2008, as the former Secretary General did, might help NATO to break its 10-year-old “Bucharest Spell” by enlarging further into the Black Sea with Ukraine and Georgia and bringing more security and stability to the region and beyond.