The security situation in Europe has dramatically deteriorated since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014. Russia and the West now find themselves locked in a dangerous spiral of security competition. In June 2016, NATO held its largest military maneuvers in Europe since the end of the Cold War, deploying over 30 thousand troops in a simulated defence against a Russian invasion. The looming “Russian threat” will be the main theme of the upcoming NATO summit in July.
The Alliance is expected to formally announce the rotational deployment of four multinational brigades to the Baltic republics and Poland – a move that the Russian side sees as a violation of earlier promises by NATO that the Alliance would not base its forces in these countries. Russia is responding by ramping up military exercises and deployments on NATO’s borders. Close encounters between NATO and Russian units are happening with increased frequency, presenting the danger of unplanned incidents that could spark a larger armed conflict between the two sides.
NATO and Russia have been unable to develop institutionalized relations that would integrate Russia into the larger European security architecture and prevent security competition from emerging. Liberal International Relations scholars argue that states can protect their security without threatening other states by forming binding institutional relationships. These relationships commit them to predictable patterns of behaviour, reducing the threat that they would normally pose to one another in an anarchical international environment. Institutional binding also helps solve the problem of relative gains, i.e. states’ concerns about how the gains from cooperation are distributed between them. Because they are secure about each other’s intentions, states locked into binding security arrangements are free to cooperate on security and other issues without having to worry about how the distribution of these gains affects the balance of power between them.
An examination of the two most contentious issues in their relationship – NATO enlargement and Missile Defence – demonstrates why binding failed to develop between Russia and NATO. Russia put forward proposals on both issues that would prevent NATO from taking actions that would threaten its security. Russia looked to develop an institutionalized voice within NATO that would force NATO to acknowledge its concerns about expansion. In order to guarantee that NATO’s missile defence system would not undermine its nuclear deterrent, Russia proposed the development of a joint NATO-Russia system and the adoption of a legally-binding international treaty that would forbid NATO countries form targeting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.
NATO refused to accept these proposals for fear that this would embolden Russian revisionism and compromise the integrity of the alliance. For its part, Russia was unwilling to accept restraints on its own behavior, such as greater transparency in its military and security affairs or ceding some control over security issues to joint Russia-NATO institutions, which would have addressed NATO’s concerns about Russia’s intentions.
Ultimately, neither side was able to make the concessions needed to make binding work because they feared that this would empower the other side and thereby threaten their security. NATO moved forward with enlargement and missile defence, despite Russia’s objections. Russia looked to counter these policies, by pursuing a more bellicose foreign policy towards Georgia and Ukraine and by developing aggressive countermeasures against missile defence. These moves have exacerbated tensions to the point where some observers believe that we are now in a new Cold War.
The problem is not that binding institutions have failed Russia and NATO, but rather that they have never had the chance to work. Russia and NATO find themselves facing a “Catch-22”: they need binding arrangements to overcome the relative gains problems that inhibit security cooperation, yet, their initial concerns about relative gains prevent them from establishing these arrangements in the first place. The real challenge is thus to find ways to assuage these initial concerns about relative gains so that functional binding arrangements can be established.
Up until now, the two sides have tried to establish binding arrangements through one-off solutions. While these solutions promise to put an immediate end to security competition, they also require both parties to submit to comprehensive constraints on their freedom of action – something that is unacceptable to them because of their concerns about relative gains.
Less formal and institutionalized binding arrangements may better serve the interest of peace and security in Europe. Both sides could commit themselves to the creation of a buffer zone of neutral states between Russia and NATO countries that would include Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Such an agreement could be structured so that it not only guarantees these states’ neutrality but also obligates Russia and the West to take joint responsibility for their economic development. In this way, these states could be a bridge, rather than an object of contention, between Russia and the West.
On missile defence, NATO could agree to share sensitive data with the Russian side about the technical parameters of the missile defence system and allow Russian monitors to have access to its missile defence sites. Both sides could also agree to limits on the number of missile interceptors that each can deploy. In this way, Russia would be assured that the system is not directed against it without compromising the system’s effectiveness against missile threats from third parties.
Such piecemeal arrangements will not put an immediate end to security competition. But they will help Russia and NATO to gradually build a higher level of trust, which will allow them to develop more comprehensive binding arrangements in the future. Previous efforts at institutional binding failed because both sides did not appreciate the continued significance of relative gains and overestimated the ability of formal institutions to overcome the initial impediments to binding. In order to make binding work in the future, NATO and Russian leaders must acknowledge these hard realities and find ways to craft binding arrangements that address them.