Russia and NATO: A Paradoxical Crisis
Valdai Papers
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Ivan N. Timofeev

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Department of Political Theory
Associate Professor;
Russian International Affairs Council
Director General;
Valdai Discussion Club
Program Director


SPIN-RSCI: 3517-3084
ORCID: 0000-0003-1676-2221
ResearcherID (WoS): ABF-5625-2021
Scopus AuthorID: 35293701300


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: 76 Vernadskogo Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

Valdai Discussion Club

The Euro-Atlantic security system is a highly complex equation with many unknowns. Three years ago, it seemed that it was up to narrow specialists to solve the equation, which was of secondary importance for 21st-century Europe. Today, however, it is a crucial political factor fraught with serious risks of intentional or unintentional confrontation between Russia and the West. 

Future historians analyzing the collapse of our relations after the Ukrainian revolution will certainly find it paradoxical. This is one of those rare and unpredictable cases where a crisis occurred under conditions that were entirely conducive to constructive dialogue and cooperation. Usually, such crises are preceded by the mutual buildup of military capabilities and fierce rivalry. This time, nothing of the kind happened. Of course, there were problems in relations. But no one could have predicted that they would grow to such dimensions within so short a period. The Euro-Atlantic security system was plunged into a real disaster – sudden, brief and all-embracing. 

After the Cold War, Russia and NATO largely demilitarized and significantly curtailed their military capacity. The likelihood of a military conflict in Europe was reduced to a minimum. Moscow was aggrieved by NATO enlargement, but its formal expansion was accompanied by reductions in the military capacity of member states. The new members’ material and financial contributions were symbolic, most of them becoming consumers, not suppliers, of security. Several years before the Ukrainian crisis, the trend towards reducing military capacity only grew stronger. With the Afghan campaign winding down, the allies were consistently cutting their defense spending. The United States also curtailed its military presence in Europe. Russia was engaged in military reforms that were badly needed after 15 years of decline in its armed forces. But the reforms were aimed largely at optimizing the army and adapting it to deal with local crises. No open confrontation with NATO was even contemplated. 

The collapse of the conventional arms control regime was a bad sign for security in Europe. Many also criticized the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act as outmoded and out of tune with the new realities. But in fact both Russia and NATO conformed to the adjusted CFE Treaty ceilings. Their military activities could hardly be called excessive. Before the Ukrainian crisis, none of the new NATO members were building up capacity, while Russia’s military activity in the contact zone with NATO remains moderate to this day. Speculation about far-reaching imperial designs of the West and Russia on each other could be safely left to armchair strategists on both sides. 

If that is the case, what triggered the new cold war? As I see it, there are three main causes. First, Russia and the West have fundamentally different and increasingly divergent perceptions of security. We often believe that foreign policy decision-making is rational. But decisions are taken by people, not all-knowing and dispassionate computers. People have different experiences and perceptions of the world. Occasionally the latter are diametrically opposed. Their strategic cultures and identities (friend or foe) differ as well. Everyone has a rationality of his own and reads a subjective meaning into developments. Both Russia and the West have evolved distorted perceptions of each other, which over time became increasingly divorced from reality. But foreign policy establishments can also have diametrically opposed perceptions of this sort. In such cases, official and unofficial contacts that offer insight into each other’s perceptions was of vital importance. Unfortunately, since the early 2000s, such contacts have become increasingly ritualistic, degenerating into the banal, irritated exchange of points of protocol. Hawks and even some open radicals confidently dominate foreign policy, something that makes polarization only worse. 

The second cause is the weakness of post-Soviet states, their immature and imbalanced sovereignty, and the resistance of great powers to engaging in equitable cooperation to “extinguish fires” in transit states. The Ukrainian crisis emerged as an internal problem that caught everyone off guard. The revolution was superimposed on the latent Russia-West competition for influence in the post-Soviet space. Both parties were unable to effectively cooperate to address problems and fell into a security trap where each move by the opposite side was regarded as hostile and a preemptive strategy seemed the best option. Thus, the West “preempted” Russia in supporting the Ukrainian revolution, while Russia preempted the West in solving the Crimea problem. As a result, everyone lost. To quote Wolfgang Ischinger, “Ukraine has lost Crimea and Donbass, Russia has lost Ukraine, Europe has lost Russia, and the world has lost stability.” The problem of states in crisis clearly goes far beyond the Ukrainian disaster, and includes Libya, Syria and generally all Arab Spring countries. The European Union’s new global concept and Russia’s strategic documents quite rightly define the weakness of statehood as a priority threat. 

The third cause is the series of interventions that followed the Cold War – the “humanitarian intervention” in Yugoslavia in 1999, the intervention in Iraq in 2003, Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in 2008 and the Russian “peace enforcement” operation in response, Western intervention in the Libyan conflict in 2010, Russian intervention in the Ukrainian revolution, and the overlapping interventions in Syria. All these actions could be endlessly justified by citing circumstances and strategic interests, but taken together they have undermined trust, international law and the UN’s role as the key institution for global governance. In addition to the erosion of conventional arms control, INF and START are now under threat. The lack of agreement on antimissile defense is eroding strategic stability. Cyberspace interventions no longer seem fantastical. We have come to a highly dangerous red line: differences and uncertainties may pile up and produce a cumulative effect, triggering a snowballing crisis, escalation and full-scale war. 

What is to be done? We have clearly passed the point of no return in many areas and it is futile to hope that the world will go back to what it was in 2013. It is necessary to stabilize the situation and prevent it from getting out of control. “Stable containment” might be the optimal option under the circumstances. As is clear, no one now can afford to retreat even one step or show weakness in rhetoric or position. But profound political differences can be accompanied by restraint in efforts to expand military capacity. The biggest threat today is an uncontrolled and rapid arms race that matches or outpaces the political rhetoric. 

In terms of military capacity, the moves undertaken by Russia and NATO after the Ukrainian crisis, despite the severity of its consequences, have been quite moderate. We can hardly expect Moscow to welcome the deployment of new military units in the Baltic states and on the Black Sea coast, or the strengthening of NRF, or the development of VJTF. It is also true that the Western capitals are unlikely to welcome Russia’s greater capacity in its western part or large-scale military exercises. And yet, these actions do not go beyond the commitments the parties assumed under the Founding Act in 1997. 

The short-term challenge for today is to avoid new crises, refrain from a new race to expand military capacity, retain the INF Treaty and, if possible, launch a discussion on new arms control and conflict resolution principles.  

Valdai Discussion Club