The most important turn in new relations between Russia and NATO came exactly one week before the Warsaw summit of the alliance July 8-9. During his short visit to Finland, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press that he accepted a proposal by his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö, to discuss the use of transponders by Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea as a confidence-building measure with NATO.
Accusations from the U.S. about not using transponders, and therefore creating the risk of collisions between fighter jets, became a routine salvo from the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis two-and-a-half years ago but escalated this year. The U.S. also claimed that Russian fighters made fake attacks to provoke the U.S.S. Donald Cook in the Black Sea and then in the Baltic area. Also routinely, the Russian side flatly denied any wrongdoing and criticized NATO for provocative activities close to Russian borders instead. Repeated incidents created a growing feeling of uncertainty and lack of professional “mil to mil” communication.
Putin’s move in Finland, followed by immediate orders to the defense minister and a discussion in the Russian Security Council, thus marked a significant turn. But it was not a gesture towards reconciliation. Rather, it is the opposite: the acceptance of continued confrontation and a desire to put it in the framework of manageable risks. Since the standoff will resume anyway — the thinking is that it is useful to restore old rules of the game to increase predictability.
Clearly, the spirit of the Cold War is back, full scale. The results of the Warsaw summit — the deployment of four battalions in the front line states on Russia’s borders — confirm it once again. After a long quest for a new mission, when NATO tested different roles from global world policemen and expeditionary super-unit to soft security provider and democracy promoter, the organization is back to its habitual business: to contain Russia. What a relief after years of wandering!
All this is reminiscent of the Cold War days, except that there is actually nothing now to justify such a conflict. The confrontation from the 1940s through the 1980s was heavily underpinned by ideology. Naturally, large-scale rivalry cannot but be multilayered and include underlying geopolitical motives. But if the Soviet Union and the United States had not represented two mutually exclusive sociopolitical models, it would not have been so acute.
There is no existential contradiction now, and a reproduction of the old matrix looks like a farce, albeit frightening. The problem is not the emergence of new insurmountable contradictions but rather that the previous collision never really ended. The absence of a lasting settlement a quarter of a century ago has caused the current outbreak of hostility.
The Cold War fortunately never turned into a real war, but its end did not bring real peace either. There was no mutually accepted agreement on a new hierarchy and rules of conduct — no clearly articulated understanding of who had won and who had lost. The Paris Charter for a New Europe, to which many refer to as the guiding document for the new era, was adopted in 1990 — before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is no surprise, then, that it could not properly regulate circumstances and realities generated by the end of USSR.
It was the Ukrainian conflict that powerfully catalyzed a return to the quasi-Cold War pattern. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the potential of problems stemming from “the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,” as President Putin characterized the collapse of the USSR, has been exhausted by the Ukrainian crisis. Other painful transformations in this area are to follow.
At the level of common sense, it was obvious that the Soviet Union had fallen out of the race. But disagreements emerged (not formal, but actual) over whether the Russian Federation, which had made a decisive contribution to the self-dismantling of the Soviet Union, should be considered the loser. Doubts were particularly strong among Russians, whose feelings ranged from confidence that they had won a historic victory over communism and put an end to an obsolete system and senseless confrontation to deep disappointment at their catastrophically diminished standing in the world.
The West has never officially said Russia was defeated. In his State of the Union speech in 1992, President George H.W. Bush announced that the U.S. had done away with “imperial communism.“ But in real life, no one doubted that Russia was a de-facto loser. Its geopolitical, military and economic might had imploded, and it should be treated accordingly, not to be taken seriously as an opponent.
Tensions in the Baltic area, for example, have stemmed from the fact that over the past 25 years, NATO has become accustomed to being the sole master in what used to be an area of confrontation — primarily Europe — and acting there as it sees fit. The Baltic region is a major source of acrimony.
But suddenly, the “defeated” Russia re-emerged. Having failed to get treatment as an equal through admonition, Moscow began to remind the world that it was an unavoidable factor. This was a shock for NATO. Seeking to impose its new identity, Moscow is flexing its muscles and occasionally playing rough, scaring its neighbors and unnerving the leading NATO powers.
Those powers do not actually want to get involved in a fight or take risks. NATO’s enlargement has always been mainly political. . Beyond rhetorical solidarity, not many expected that Article 5 would really be invoked to defend new allies. Yet NATO’s leadership at the same time understands that the lack of their junior members’ faith in the alliance will ruin it, and therefore doubts about its guarantees must be dispelled.
The paradox of today is striking. NATO presents as a huge achievement — its strong military assurances to Baltic states and Poland through stationing four battalions in respective countries on a rotating basis — what should be by default position that members of the alliance are automatically covered by full-fledged security guarantees. But, as noted, enlargement during 1990s and 2000s was never perceived as fully serious in military terms. Moreover, from the military point of view, the Baltics are hardly defendable by NATO if we assume the impossible — that Russia decides to attack. In case of real war, those four battalions will be crashed immediately as a prelude to a major escalation up to highest, God forbid, nuclear level.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter is probably not that wrong when he agrees with the assessment of the Rand Corporation think tank that the Russian army could seize the Baltic republics within 60 hours. He has pledged to increase combat capability, but the measures announced in Warsaw can hardly be seen as a serious response.
NATO is apparently trying a combination of rhetoric, gestures and practical steps in an attempt to cut Russia down to size while not provoking an overpowering response. This is a fatal path. In the absence of systemic reasons for confrontation, the situation may become the hostage of the subjective views of decision-makers in Moscow, Washington and Brussels. We should not forget that, in a world of ubiquitous and immediate communications, words sometimes weigh more than deeds. Virtual imitation of a Cold War can turn into a real hot skirmish.
When there is no trust, it becomes vitally important for all sides to stick to protocols and technical security arrangements. Russia, sometimes overlooking the rules of courtesy, invites NATO to discuss such arrangements. But, for the alliance, returning to “pre-victory” relations is inconceivable. And yet it must, because the only alternative is the senseless militarization of Europe with unpredictable consequences.
After very vocal statements at the Warsaw Summit, results of the NATO-Russia Council meeting on Wednesday look surprisingly calm. Both sides predictably disagreed on Ukraine but decided to work on a new system to minimize risks. What is encouraging is that military representatives participated in the session for the first time. It offers some hope that important technical procedures can be established that guarantee that rhetorical confrontation will not turn into an armed one.