by Maia Otarashvili
President Putin’s government’s actions over the past few years have left Russia largely isolated from majority of the rest of the world; certainly from Europe and the U.S. Annexing Crimea in 2014, starting a war in Ukraine’s East, supporting the Assad Regime in Syria, and continuously violating NATO airspace are just some of the major factors that have led to this isolation. The West has therefore distanced itself from Russia and has imposed economic and other sanctions on it, in hope of taming the aggression of Putin’s government. Russia’s 2014 ousting from the G8 was the final nail in the proverbial coffin of amicable Russia-West relations. These events have officially transformed Russia from an ally to an aggressor in the eyes of E.U. and U.S. officials.
Since that initial imposition of the sanctions, the Russia-West separation has only become colder. However, Russia is showing no signs of backing down: Crimea remains annexed, the war in Ukraine’s east continues despite multiple ceasefire agreements, and the Russian propaganda machine is creating chaos and distrust in nations across the globe, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia’s steady support of far-right nationalistic movements within the EU member states has helped destabilize the European consensus, boosting up the existing anti-Russia sanctions, anti-immigration, and generally xenophobic narratives in Germany, France, Holland, and elsewhere. Earlier this summer the European unity experienced another major blow as the British citizens voted in a referendum for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union (a phenomenon otherwise known as “Brexit”).
Thus against this backdrop the July 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, was a highly anticipated event, particularly after the bad news of “Brexit”. The summit was seen as an opportunity for Western leaders to show strength in unity, but in the wake of the recent turmoil in Europe, and perceived weakness of American foreign policy as the country prepares for presidential elections, the expectations of many observers were not so high.
Russian Threat Takes Priority Next to ISIS
The July 8-9 NATO Warsaw summit, however, reminded the world of just how isolated Russia has become, and even consolidated its reputation of an aggressor. Russia held such a high spot on the summit’s priority list that alongside ISIS it was one of the two major challenges to NATO security outlined in the Warsaw Summit Communique. Paragraph five of that document outlined a handful of major security challenges to the Alliance, listing Russia (first) and ISIS (after Russia) as the two most concrete threats among the many broader ones like state and non-state actors, terrorist, cyber, and hybrid attacks.
“Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Our security is also deeply affected by the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa, which has deteriorated significantly across the whole region. Terrorism, particularly as perpetrated by ISIS, has risen to an unprecedented level of intensity, reaches into all of Allied territory, and now represents an immediate and direct threat to our nations and the international community. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa also contributes to the refugee and migrant crisis.”
Russia taking a place alongside ISIS — a terrorist organization that has been wreaking havoc on a global scale — comes as a shock to many, yet is not surprising. Many of the discussions during the summit evolved around the threats emanating from Russia, and its testing of EU and NATO borders. The list of Russia’s indiscretions as seen by NATO is long and damning:
“Russia’s destabilizing actions and policies include: the ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognize and which we call on Russia to reverse; the violation of sovereign borders by force; the deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine; large-scale snap exercises contrary to the spirit of the Vienna Document, and provocative military activities near NATO borders, including in the Baltic and Black Sea regions and the Eastern Mediterranean; its irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture; and its repeated violations of NATO Allied airspace. In addition, Russia’s military intervention, significant military presence and support for the regime in Syria, and its use of its military presence in the Black Sea to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean have posed further risks and challenges for the security of Allies and others.”
It appears that NATO officials have heard the concerns of their eastern members; after the summit, NATO announced that it will send military reinforcements eastwards in order to support Poland and the Baltics. The goal of this “enhanced forward presence” in the east is to demonstrate the “Allies’ solidarity, determination, and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression.” This statement comes just in time to deter any doubts on whether or not NATO is willing to protect its Baltic members from Russian aggression – a concern frequently expressed by Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians after recent experiences of continuous airspace violations by Russian fighter jets.
The decisive NATO statements were met by a great deal of Russian outrage. “Acting contrary to the objective interests of maintaining peace and stability in Europe and the need to combine the capabilities of all responsible international parties against very real modern challenges, the alliance has focused its efforts on containing an illusory ‘threat from the East,’” stated the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova after the NATO summit.
“Exaggerated attempts are being made to demonize Russia in order to justify the military measures taken by the bloc and to draw public attention away from the destructive role of the bloc and some of its allies in provoking crises and fanning tensions around the world.”
The Russian side’s interpretation of the NATO statements trickled down into the Russian media. “NATO ignores terror threat coming from south, demonizes Russia instead” read Russian media headlines. “Don’t you think it’s illogical that NATO pays great attention to unreal Russian threat instead of for example dealing with real danger like ISIS?” asked a Channel 1 Russia correspondent at a press briefing with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General.
To be sure, the Warsaw summit dedicated a great deal of time and effort to discussing the terrorist threats emanating from the south. “NATO must respond to many different challenges at the same time” stated Mr. Stoltenberg at the press briefing, justifying Russia’s appearance on the Communique next to ISIS, “at our summit we made important decisions to continue to play a key role in fight against international terrorism.”
No Meeting of Minds
Another important event, following the NATO summit in Warsaw was the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) in Brussels on July 13th. The NRC was created in 2002 as a “mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action” where the “individual NATO member states and Russia have worked as equal partners on a wide spectrum of security issues of common interest.”
Since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, however, NATO and the NRC have suspended their work with Russia. Thus the July 13th meeting held some promise that while the NATO officials were unwilling to back down, they were also open to resolving the differences with Russia.
The meeting, however, seemed only partially successful. According to Mr. Stoltenberg when it came to Ukraine there was “no meeting of minds”.
“Ukraine was the first item on our agenda and this is important because Russian actions in Ukraine have undermined euro-Atlantic security. [NATO] Allies and Russia have profound and persistent disagreements on the crisis. There was not a meeting of minds today.”
Military activities, transparency, and risk reduction were other topics of discussion at the NRC meeting. Here Russian and NATO sides were able to find some common ground on which to keep the communication lines open beyond the meeting. “Transparency and risk reduction is particularly important if we are to avoid incidents, accidents, and misunderstandings” said Mr. Stoltenberg. Avoiding accident and incidents is going to be an important priority as the NATO Communique clearly stated that there will be major buildup of NATO forces close to Russia’s borders.
Finally at the NRC meeting Mr. Stoltenberg stressed the importance of NATO’s decision to sustain their military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 with approximately the current troop levels, and their intentions to continue to fund Afghan security forces until 2020. According to Mr. Stoltenberg Afghanistan’s president Ghani made new commitments to carry out major reforms in Afghanistan.
Although Mr. Stoltenberg stressed that the NATO-Russia dialogue would continue in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council and beyond, it is difficult to envision a thawing of Russia-West relations in the near future. This appears particularly impossible after the impactful NATO summit in Warsaw, and the apparently ineffective NRC meeting in Brussels. These events have led the Eurasia region into a new phase of severe polarization of powers. As NATO builds up its forces on the Russian border, and both sides continue to conduct their military exercises on opposite sides of the same borders and waterways, accidents and incidents become more likely.
Russia’s major grievance with NATO is about the latter’s expansion. Scholars and experts continuously engage in heated debates on whether or not the West promised Russia that NATO would not expand into former Soviet member and satellite states during the negotiations for Germany’s reunification. As James Goldgeier recently wrote:
“When politically convenient, many Russian elites have dredged up the notion of such a promise to argue that they were betrayed in the settlement that ended the Cold War in Europe, thereby justifying Russian pushback, including the invasion of Ukraine, against the U.S.-led security order.”
However, NATO has since extended memberships to ten post-Soviet states and satellite states. In 1999 Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO. Moreover, Georgia and Ukraine have established partnerships with NATO and are undergoing major reforms to meet the requirements for membership. This major NATO expansion into Europe’s east has come up as an important issue of disagreement between NATO and Russia.
“While it is true that nothing in NATO policy or strategy can reasonably be seen as threatening Russia, this does not mean that NATO enlargement is not threatening to Russia” wrote Dr. Bob Hamilton in his recent article on Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations. Possible NATO expansion is threatening to Russia in that while NATO has no intentions of physically endangering Russia, it does threaten Russia’s aspirations for establishing itself as a hegemon in the Eurasia region and beyond. While NATO offers the eastern European states freedom to practice self-determination in secure conditions and through mutual cooperation, Russia aims to reestablish the Soviet-style dominance over these countries.
Despite this major conflict of ideologies, it appears that the US expects Russia to act professionally and compartmentalize its foreign policy issues. As US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Russia on July 14th, he hoped to achieve an agreement for coordinated US-Russia actions in Syria. Will President Putin’s government be able to behave in such a mature way? If not so distant history tells us anything about Russia’s foreign policy decision-making, it is that quite the contrary should be expected: Mr. Putin is more likely to challenge Western hegemony far from home and let Syria become the battlefield between Russia and the West. The experiences consistently revanchist foreign policies carried out by Mr. Putin’s government dictate that Syria presents a convenient opportunity for Russia to seek revenge against the West over NATO’s ambitions to establish the “enhanced forward presence.”