The rapid descent of Russia’s relations with the West seems to have only just started, but has already shown something of a silver lining. The standoff over NATO expansion could arguably be a blessing in disguise, as it very swiftly removed the layer of hypocrisy with which these relations have been thickly coated.
The varnish was a mix of two-facedness, double-talk and self-delusion, with a fair share of ideological dogma. The quantity of the ingredients in the recipe was a matter of taste, but the mix remained mostly the same.
When Moscow chose not to mince its words any longer, it produced quite a shock. Suddenly, it made little sense and served no purpose to continue weaving politically correct narratives with more meaningless statements. The cladding fell off the building, revealing its underlying structure – one where at least both sides can see the state of decay for what it is.
This deteriorating state of bilateral ties has produced a few curious findings. The most interesting of them is that NATO’s expansion over the past 25 years has done nothing to make the bloc stronger as a political or military power. In terms of military capacity, it has welcomed a number of countries that have very little to contribute to the joint force but, at the same time, enjoy equal privileges as to the assistance they can receive according to the charter. In political terms, the situation is even more complicated.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a threat that would be of equal concern to, let’s say, Canada and Portugal, Lithuania and Greece, or Turkey and Iceland. NATO’s long-term search for a unifying mission that could replace the Cold War agenda has remained fruitless due to such diversity of interests among its member states. As long as the situation on the global scene remained calm, the disagreements were addressed by way of discussions from summit to summit and a lot of red tape. When it came to the bloc’s involvement on the ground (in Yugoslavia and further afield), there was always a group of nations that took the lead while the rest provided symbolic support.
When post-Cold War geopolitics took a turn towards conflict with post-Soviet Russia, it seemed that this had finally provided the solution to NATO’s decade-long search for a mission. Things had come full circle, just gone back to the old track. However, it didn’t and couldn’t work that way anymore. The ‘new old’ adversaries depend on each other these days a lot more than they did during the Cold War era. The Moscow-NATO standoff concerns those same states that fall under the bloc’s enlargement policy, which aims to serve as a foundation for European security. It’s the very same policy that was an outcome of the Cold War and affected its losers, including the post-Soviet republics and Europe’s post-Socialist states. NATO’s security guarantees say the entire bloc is ready to oppose Russia if called on to do so by its Eastern Europe member states – or at least that’s the way it should be.
However, this is where the diversity of interests comes into play as a factor, as too many member states don’t consider such a situation an imminent threat to themselves, even when they choose to formally back the cause. For them, whatever happens in Eastern Europe is too far away and rooted too deep in a history they’re not a part of, so why take on the risk? This lack of alignment among member states is nothing to worry about in quiet times, but in times of trouble, NATO needs to take a stand – and all the more so now those states seeking protection from alleged Russian aggression are publicly demanding proof of the bloc’s promised solidarity. It can’t go back on its promises publicly without undermining its own foundations.
When it comes to a real crisis and the bloc’s leading powers start talking war, lots of allies stop seeing the fun in the entire affair and begin thinking along the lines of ‘do we really need this?’ If that happens when a NATO member state calls for help, what can be said of pleas for help from non-members, even when the massive propaganda had them thinking they were just a step away from being on board?
A recent incident in which the German navy chief had to resign over some remarks he didn’t word too carefully while on a visit to India reveals a lot about the situation. The doubts he expressed over the growing standoff made sense, which means he can’t possibly have been the only one to have had them. Rather, it was a question of priorities and national interests. Why add fuel to the conflict with Russia when the world is changing, and the change is no longer in favour of Europe or Germany, while China is rising as a new powerful and not necessarily friendly force on the global scene? It makes even less sense given the challenging social and economic situation, so why bother making it even worse by severing ties with a key energy supplier and an important economic partner?
Over the decades, NATO has undergone a peculiar transformation. During the Cold War, the bloc spoke very firmly of its readiness to engage the Communist threat while it never had to actually do so. As a result, it developed a very positive image. Later, it departed from its militaristic rhetoric and began promoting itself as a tool for stability and political transformation. The paradox was that it then had to finally do some military duty – in Yugoslavia, then in Iraq and Libya. Given that, all the talk about NATO policies being strictly defensive no longer had a leg to stand on. Now it has arrived at a point where some of its scared allies are asking it to use force and prove itself as a military organisation – however, it isn’t too keen to oblige, it seems.
Russia’s recent moves have forced NATO to give up rhetorical exercises and begin revisiting its objectives and interests, as well as to test the limits of how far it would be willing to go – in real terms, not as a PR stunt. And that’s already a breakthrough.