A Task of Generations Russia and the West

A Polish Air Force MIG-29 and two Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons from Zokniai Air Base in Lithuania patrol over the Baltics in February 2015 as part of the NATO air policing mission. NATO ramped up Baltic air patrols in response to provocative Russian military activity in the region. REUTERS

By Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference

Western leaders have been more than willing to point out that there can be no military solution to the crisis in Ukraine. This is true, albeit from their own perspective. Moscow has successfully used military force, causing significant injury to the vision of a Euro-Atlantic security community. The current European security system could not prevent either the annexation of Crimea or the destabilization of eastern Ukraine. And despite the Minsk agreements, people continued to die through acts of war in 2015 in the country that hosted the 2012 European football championship.

Today, it is not only Ukraine that feels under threat but also other countries, such as Moldova, Georgia and the Baltic states. It is not impossible to imagine that a gray area might emerge between EU/NATO and Russia. From Moscow’s standpoint, these countries form a cordon sanitaire, even though we have always wanted to avoid allowing differing levels of security across Europe. So far, NATO and the EU have demonstrated a considerable degree of solidarity and have responded with economic sanctions alongside a program of military reassurance within NATO. But the unity of the West is likely to be tested, again and again.

The current crisis does not represent a short-term worsening of conditions; rather, we are watching a fundamental shift in East-West relations unfolding before our eyes. The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

As Russia sees it, the EU wanted to bring Ukraine closer and convince it to sever ties with Russia. But it is not correct that Kiev was forced to choose between the EU and Russia. What is true is that the EU was not prepared to accept Russia’s droit de regard in the negotiations with Kiev regarding an association agreement. Who are we to demand that Kiev accept that a third party will have a say in negotiations about the future direction of the Ukraine?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined this point in the Bundestag at the end of November 2014, quoting her own speech from the previous year: “The EU has repeatedly offered to speak with Russia to work out the mutual benefits of cooperation. It is my deep conviction that we must continue with these efforts to ensure that there is no either/or for countries in the Eastern Partnership between moving closer to the EU and Russian efforts to establish a closer partnership with these countries.” Even if Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement had led to challenges for Russia’s trade relations with Ukraine, the chancellor emphasized, it could not serve as legitimization for annexing Crimea or as justification for Russia’s involvement in the fighting around Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moreover, Russia’s opposition to the EU is a relatively recent phenomenon. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared at a 2004 press conference: “If Ukraine wants to join the EU and if the EU accepts Ukraine as a member, Russia, I think, would welcome this because we have a special relationship with Ukraine.” Ten years later, Russia is not even willing to accept an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine.

Which of Russia’s complaints deserve serious consideration? The most significant is the suggestion that the West has built a common European home, but without giving Russia its own room, as American historian Mary Elise Sarotte phrased it, utilizing a metaphor previously employed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. During debates surrounding NATO expansion in the 1990s, the German government insisted on a two-pillar strategy: Yes to NATO expansion, accompanied by a more intensive partnership with Russia. We insisted that the two aspects needed to be balanced and complement each other. Without NATO expansion, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe would have continued to feel unsafe. And yet without a strong NATO-Russia partnership, Russia would be locked out of the “common home.” The outcome was the development and implementation of a dual strategy.

Regrettably, this dual strategy was abandoned during the George W. Bush administration. His government chose to discontinue the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission that had been such a key bilateral channel under Bill Clinton. More important, the Bush administration withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and began to plan for a missile defense shield.

Then Washington pursued further NATO expansion, supporting Kiev and Tbilisi in their efforts to obtain membership even though there was no consensus on the issue in either Ukraine or Georgia. Tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated a short time later, with Russian troops occupying a number of Georgian territories. From Russia’s perspective, the West had continued to ignore Moscow’s security interests; only a clear message would put a stop to that.

This sentiment is widely felt throughout Russia. In the summer of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Gorbachev wrote in The New York Times: “Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?” Given the widespread belief that the West has steadily exploited Russia’s weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s policy of restoring Russia’s status as a world power is exceedingly popular. If the West has made one error, it is that of abandoning the original NATO dual strategy.

None of the above should be taken as an excuse for Russia’s use of force or the revisionism that shapes Putin’s current foreign policy. But if we want to deal productively with Moscow, then we need to understand the perceptions and emotions that form the backdrop to Russia’s actions. This sense of being unfairly treated by the West makes it extremely difficult to rebuild a constructive relationship with Moscow.

Today the problem is that Russia is a superpower only in the military sense (above all because of its nuclear arsenal) and in terms of its energy resources. In the 21st century, superpower status not only depends on military capabilities, but also on the ability to persuade and acquire partners, to get involved and get others involved to shape alliances. According to this definition, the Russia of today is definitely no superpower.

When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, his administration decided to rebuild the country’s relationship with Russia from the ground up. Obama reworked the missile defense plans, turned them into a NATO project and invited Russia to collaborate. This strategy produced positive results, including a new START agreement and greater cooperation in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, both sides remained dubious about the others’ intentions. Instead of becoming a game-changer and serving as the roof of the “common home,” the missile defense system emerged as a form of “game-breaker.”

What also changed, however, was Russia itself, as observed by Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow: “Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies; it changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics. The shift began when Putin and his regime came under attack for the first time ever.” In a 2014 essay, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott analyzed it like this: “Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. For years, that has meant repudiating the transformational policies of his immediate predecessors and reinstating key attributes of the Soviet system within the borders of the Russian Federation.”

How should the West respond to Putin’s revisionism? What might a strategy look like that would neither discard the fundamental norms shared by large parts of the Euro-Atlantic area nor add fuel to the fire? I propose a new dual strategy.

We need strategic patience, and we must attempt to negotiate from a position of strength, not one of weakness and indecisiveness. In his first speech upon assuming office, NATO’s new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that better ties with Russia are more likely to be achieved if the Alliance is strong. It is vitally important to constantly reiterate our obligation to provide mutual assistance, as outlined in Article 5, as well as the indivisibility of security among NATO members. However, we should also avoid getting caught up in new discussions about Ukraine’s NATO membership. There is a simple three-step test to measure whether a country should be invited to become a member: Is there consensus within the respective country regarding the application for NATO membership? Do all NATO partners agree to invite the country? Would this NATO membership enhance European security? Only if the answer to all three questions is affirmative should the country in question be invited. Today and tomorrow, Ukraine would not pass this test.

We also need to expand on the second pillar in the dual strategy. Our goal cannot be to play the role of the enemy against whom all Russians must unite. Sadly, Russians today rarely hear the voice of dissent. When the conflicting parties so obviously live in different worlds, it becomes difficult to find a solution. But we should try to make clear that it is not the West that is attempting to avoid a collaborative relationship.

In my opinion, we should launch a diplomatic process under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This would bring Russia back to the table and allow us to consider new ways of approaching the idea of a common European home or comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security community. This is, of course, a long-term goal, but it is important to keep the idea active.

One shorter-term goal could be to improve military transparency. The past few months have seen a series of close calls between Russian combat aircraft and planes from the West. Neither Russia nor NATO has an interest in an accidental escalation with potentially far-reaching consequences. Even at the peak of the Cold War, both sides endeavored to mitigate the risk of misunderstandings and to avoid this route to a possible nuclear war.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative recently published its report “Building Mutual Security” containing several important proposals. Key questions include: Why are intercontinental ballistic missiles still kept on high alert? Why can longer advance warning periods not be agreed upon? And in a similar vein, would it not be possible to create more transparency on military exercises? The size of Russian exercises held in the last few years has frequently been kept barely under the threshold that would require NATO observers to be present. Finally, negotiations on conventional arms control could be ramped up again to improve security and reinforce mutual trust.

Recent developments, unfortunately, are not heading in this direction. For example, Russia has ended its cooperative work with the U.S. to secure nuclear material on Russian soil. This program will now end in 2015. On the other hand, Russia’s involvement in the Iranian nuclear issue points to the possibility of increasing Western-Russian cooperation in areas where common interests prevail. We could also offer Russia an economic partnership. Chancellor Merkel recently talked about the possibility of establishing a common economic area including Russia. As a first step, the EU could work with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This new dual strategy centers on the idea of “congagement” ― a blend of containment and engagement proposed by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

Sanctions are not an end in themselves. Their purpose is to give Russia incentives to cooperate in efforts to stabilize Ukraine. It is not about punishing Moscow or making the Russian people suffer. Destabilizing Russia is not an option. All of us want and need a stable and prosperous Russian Federation. But we also want a Russia that abides by the rules and works with us to strengthen the architecture, institutions and rules of European security.

In the early 1970s, hardly anyone believed that it was a good idea to start the negotiations that eventually led to the Helsinki Accords. In the 1980s, hardly anyone could imagine that most Central and Eastern European states would soon become democracies. Today, hardly anyone might believe that it makes sense to restart negotiations with Russia.
To be clear, the task at hand is hard and may take a generation: further building an effective and legitimate regional system of governance in times when demand for it is high and supply low. In the past few decades, our societies, in Germany in particular, have taken peace and security in Europe very much for granted. But we must hang on to the fading dream of a comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security community rather than let it descend into a long nightmare.

An earlier version of this article was published in German in the magazine Internationale Politik, January/February 2015.

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