An iron fist to keep NATO expansion at bay
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
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ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
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Email: [email protected]
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NATO can survive for a fairly long time in its present condition because it is to the benefit of its participants, especially the Europeans. Being members of the Alliance means they don’t have to do anything, they are free to spend nothing on defense and able to pretend that they are sitting pretty. In reality, Europe is becoming a defenseless continent. If for the Europeans NATO means they get to keep the United States as an ally, it is becoming less of an asset for Washington. Without America the Europeans will be left naked. Chairman of the Valdai Club and dean of the State University – Higher School of Economics, Sergei Karaganov, speaks with Valdai discussion club moderator, Yevgeny Shestakov, about what NATO ought to avoid if it wants to maintain partner-like relations with Russia.

Yevgeny Shestakov: How relevant today is the talk about a “reset” of relations between Russia and NATO?

Sergey Karaganov: The Russian president came to the NATO Lisbon summit in an entirely new capacity. Not as a pauper or weakling, but as a donor of legitimacy. This fact could not but increase interest in the Alliance in Russia. The fact that the bloc purported to be developing a new strategic concept only served to add to this interest. In reality there is nothing new in this strategic concept. It is a well-written document in which fine words hide a gaping void and lack of any concept.

Shestakov: You used the term “donor of legitimacy.” What exactly did you have in mind by that?

Karaganov: Imagine what would have happened at the Lisbon session if the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had not attended it? Everyone would have noticed that the NATO concept is a well-written, but absolutely meaningless, document. So, the only actual innovation was the so-called project to create a European or NATO missile defense shield. And yet European or NATO missile defense is an absurd concept, there can never be and never will be a European or NATO missile defense system. It is an absolutely artificial concept which the Americans and Europeans use in order to lend the Alliance some sense of purpose.

By definition the bloc cannot have a missile defense system because tactical missile defense, the topic that is being mooted today, has to be developed and still more so controlled by a single player. Second, no NATO country is known to have an effective missile interception system. Since all the European countries are rapidly reducing their military spending nothing will transpire. But for the Russian president, everyone would have focused on the fact that missile defense is a totally hollow notion and that this new NATO concept actually contains nothing new.

As it happened, the Russian leader’s presence turned the Lisbon summit into something positive. In that sense, wittingly or unwittingly, president Medvedev conferred legitimacy on NATO.

Shestakov: A large group of wise men worked on developing the NATO concept. Taking the words “wise men” literally, the authors were competent experts, to say the least.  

Karaganov: I regard this “group of wise men” with genuine friendship and deference. But I have to say that the document they came up with is appallingly hollow.

Shestakov: How do you account for this?

Karaganov: First, by the fact that at a certain point NATO decided to go out of zone, only to become embroiled in the Afghan fiasco. Second, there is no consensus within NATO as to the Alliance’s future role. The new NATO members still want it to be spearheaded against Russia. Third, NATO has long ago outlived its usefulness and it has failed to find a new mission. It could have found a mission if from the very outset it had become a bulwark of international security. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the communist regime was toppled NATO faced the stark choice between expanding its zone of responsibility or withering away: expand or die. Instead of becoming a new bulwark of international security together with Russia and other countries, they opted for expansion, only to find that expansion does nothing to solve their legitimacy problem, let alone the genuine problem of security. They decided to move outside their traditional area of responsibility. This immediately sparked problems, which have become so deep and so serious that NATO simply cannot cope with them.

Afghanistan is a problem to which there is no solution. That is why, I repeat, the Alliance has suffered a crushing defeat there. Russia has no reason to rejoice over this because in the long run that defeat will have a negative impact on Russia. NATO is a slowly weakening alliance, which is experiencing all the ailments of an aging organism.

Shestakov: How much longer will NATO exist? 

Karaganov: One good thing about today’s world is that nothing can be predicted. Unpredictable events might happen that make NATO a much more powerful and vibrant organization. If Russia joined NATO I would say that it would exist for many more years to come. It would become a bulwark of genuine security. Even in its present condition NATO can survive a fairly long time because it remains beneficial for its participants, especially those in Europe. As members of the Alliance they are free to do nothing, to spend nothing on defense and all the while to pretend that they are sitting pretty. In reality, Europe is becoming a defenseless continent. If for the Europeans NATO means they get to keep the United States as an ally, it is becoming less of an asset for Washington. That was already noticeable before and simply became more obvious under President Barack Obama. I think it is the Europeans who want to keep NATO going because they want to hold on to America. Without America the Europeans will be left naked and defenseless, because except for Britain, they have no armed forces to speak of. As a friend of mine said, Europe has achieved a startling result: it has armed forces that are not intended for combat. Meanwhile security problems in the world persist and may even grow.

Shestakov: But as conventional wisdom has it, it is the Americans who need NATO most of all.

Karaganov:  We used to say that it was the Americans who needed NATO, but then we also said that we would have a communist paradise in 20 or 30 or 40 years’ time. We are often mistaken. The Europeans needed the alliance much more than the Americans did. NATO meant the Europeans could spend less money on defense, to live happily, to build the most peaceful and prosperous society in the world. If one considers all the historical evidence, of course it was the Europeans who benefited most from NATO.

Shestakov: Why would Russia want to join NATO, even hypothetically speaking? Why should Russia want to prolong the life of that organization?

Karaganov: There are two scenarios open to us in guaranteeing our security. One is to create something similar to an alliance with Europe, to forge an alliance between the European Union and Russia. The other is to join NATO. It should be noted that NATO has no binding commitments to shore up mutual security. If, for example, somebody attacks Malta, it does not mean that Russian soldiers would have to fight to defend it. Article 5 of the Treaty, dictated by isolationist-minded American senators, does not contain any binding obligations on security. One important reason Europe may not look all that attractive to us is that we are not involved. And we should settle the problem of NATO expansion once and for all. It is now settled de facto, but not de jure. The process of NATO expansion will resume if, for example, a reactionary government, to use an old term, were to come to power in the United States or if a crisis were to break out in Europe and people in Europe were to beg the White House for help.

NATO expansion mainly concerns Ukraine. But most strategists believe that NATO expansion into Ukraine is something Russia would view as absolutely unacceptable because it then becomes a vital threat. In political jargon, this kind of threat means war.

I exerted considerable efforts to prevent NATO expansion and to prevent Russia from signing the Russia-NATO Founding Act, which legitimized further NATO expansion. This was not about depriving Lithuania, Latvia, let alone Poland, Romania and other countries of the right to join NATO. We said that expansion was inadmissible when it came to bringing Ukraine into the bosom of the Alliance. Eventually we had to confront the issue.

© RIA Novosti. Sergey Subbotin
S. Karaganov

Why do we believe that Ukraine joining NATO is something we simply cannot countenance? The reasons are many. To begin with, Russia would have 2000 kilometers of unprotected and indefensible borders. We do not know how the Alliance will change in the future. When Russia was very weak, and barely existed as a state, NATO, which had been a defensive alliance throughout the Cold War, transformed itself into an offensive alliance. It attacked Yugoslavia in 1995 and again in 1999. The organization’s leader, the United States, attacked Iraq. So, it would help to deny the Alliance any such opportunity.

The second reason why NATO expansion into Ukraine is inadmissible is that any such expansion would inevitably sharpen the confrontation between western and eastern Ukraine and even trigger civil conflicts into which Russia would automatically be drawn.

And last but not least, it is impossible to imagine a situation where there is no normal border between NATO and Russia, that is, a border that is not merely a line on the map. Border demarcation would cause tens, hundreds and perhaps thousands of conflicts because every mound, every tree in this situation would be treated as a historical question and we would be back, wrangling over every 10-20 or 30 meters of land. That problem alone, I mean here demarcation, could provoke hundreds of conflicts and the broader deterioration of our relations with Ukraine. Therefore the main threat posed to us by NATO is not military. The main threat is its expansion. One can cooperate with NATO. Today it is a militarily weak alliance with which we share many interests.

Shestakov: But if NATO is so weak, why is it still so attractive?

Karaganov: First, the Alliance has lost much of its attractiveness and indeed it has never been as attractive as it was made out to be. Most people in Ukraine oppose their country entering NATO. In some countries that joined NATO, the majority was also against membership, but nobody bothered to ask their opinion. NATO is very well aware of this.

The fact that NATO membership enables a country to save on defense is another matter. And there is the additional guarantee that NATO members will not attack one another. However, there have been instances where members of the bloc have fought each other. Nevertheless NATO is a stabilizing factor in European politics. In that sense I am not against NATO. But I am worried about a trend that is manifest in European politics. Arguments are again bubbling up over who owned what in the past. In that respect the Alliance may become a restraining factor.

Shestakov:  Is the current level of relations between Russia and NATO sufficient to prevent the bloc from expanding into Ukraine?

Karaganov: There was a time when we were told that if we had excellent relations with NATO and agreed to its expansion, then the security situation would improve. However, in a number of cases the situation deteriorated. Poland became more anti-Russian. Ditto the Baltic states. Some Baltic states today feel that they can show much greater disregard for Russia’s interests than they could afford before they joined the Alliance.

Shestakov: You haven’t mentioned the prospects of Georgia joining NATO.

Karaganov: Georgia has no chance because NATO is a “fair weather” organization. It never admits countries that have real problems. It does not matter who rules Georgia in the future so long as that country is calm and is not a thorn in the Caucasus’ side as it is now.

Shestakov: Can you envisage some other regional or global organization capable of replacing NATO?

Karaganov: The chances of this happening today are zero. And this is a fact I lament. Because the world is becoming less governable, including in security terms. Only Russia and the United States have a fighting chance of doing anything about this. Some kind of soft security system may spring up in the Pacific region because the Chinese are finally growing to understand that they are too strong to be simply members of some organization. A security vacuum is developing in eastern Asia and in Asia generally around China, which is coming to be feared by its neighbors. A security system, even if only a soft one, is needed there. The greater Middle East zone is quite frankly a disaster zone. It is a political abyss, which is growing deeper and more explosive as the years go by.

Shestakov: What should NATO categorically avoid doing if it wants to maintain partner-like, if not friendly, relations with Russia?

Karaganov: Of course it must not expand. Some kind of solution must be found to that problem. If not through Russia joining NATO perhaps through a treaty between Russia and Europe. Today that problem is being kept at bay not through arguments or reason, but by an iron fist. As late as August 2008 almost all NATO leaders, including the heads of states that are on friendly terms with Russia, at some point said that the bloc would expand and that it was only a matter of time. The expansion question was only shelved when the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia broke out and Russian tanks neared Tbilisi. But, I repeat, such expansion was possible.

Shestakov: So conflict is hardwired into NATO’s strategy?

Karaganov:  Conflict is inherent in the system. It must be resolved. I repeat, today it is being kept at bay. But, to my great regret, only by an iron fist.

| Rossiyskaya Gazeta