Russia’s deployment of an estimated 100,000 troops on its western borders since last December, has heightened tensions simmering in Eastern Europe since 2014. The continuing friction has prompted the U.S. to engage in direct discussions with Russia at the highest levels – the Summit between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin, as also at the level of Deputy Ministers. NATO and Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe had separate discussions with Russia. [i]
Though this was portrayed in the international media as a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in reality this impinges on the larger questions of European and global security. By having discussions on issues that impinge on transatlantic security, the U.S. and Russia were reviving a significant Cold war practice: of the Big Two talking on issues that have implications for other countries, without their presence at the table.
Following Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014, contacts between Russia and NATO come to a standstill. The Minsk Agreement, signed in 2015 to enable a ceasefire, has remained largely unimplemented. Though the Ukraine situation was discussed during the Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva last June, Russia felt its broader security concerns were not being taken seriously. The deployment of 100,000 troops had a mind-clarifying effect in Washington and in various European capitals. Meetings followed in quick succession.
Russia has sought written assurances from NATO that it will not expand eastwards, in particular to Ukraine, refrain from deploying offensive weapons in NATO territory on its borders and agree to a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles on European territory, which Russia had earlier proposed. There was little progress in the recent meetings. A written response from U.S. and NATO countries is awaited but Russia has already achieved its first objective: of getting NATO to talk.
For their part, the U.S. and NATO say they will not allow Russia to dictate the foreign or security policy choices of countries on its borders, including on the question of NATO membership. NATO countries are more serious about the assertion of legalistic rights rather than on practical geopolitical assessments. Now the U.S. has threatened unprecedented sanctions on Russia should there be a military invasion of Ukraine – sanctions that could have far-reaching collateral damage to the international economic, energy and financial systems if there was Russian retaliation.
Russia has been complaining persistently about NATO expansion. For two decades, its concerns were brushed aside. Quite apart from the perceived security threat posed by the ever-increasing proximity of NATO forces to its borders, there were also deep feelings of humiliation in Moscow over the loss of its spheres of influence. Moscow felt cheated that the U.S. and NATO countries made false promises and exploited Russian weakness in the 1990s. No thought was given to adapting NATO to a post-Cold War framework that accommodated Russia as a partner, rather than push it away as an opponent. Even such programs as the ‘Partnership for Peace’ were seen as a ruse to trick Russia into believing that NATO expansion eastwards was not directed against it.
NATO has its own narrative – no promises were made and hence no promises were broken. There is also widespread perception in NATO that aggressive Russian policies engendered feelings of insecurity among its European neighbours. Through NATO, some members seek the continued dominance of the U.S. in European security.
This wide gap in outlook has only grown with time, explains Mary Sarotte Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in her book Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War stalemate. The 1990s could have been used as a window to create a positive dynamic of cooperation rather than confrontation but as Sarotte says, Washington and Moscow managed to ‘snatch stalemate from the jaws of victory.’ In July last year, Putin authored an article on the Kremlin’s website on the historic relations between Russia and Ukraine[ii]. He underlined that any future Ukrainian membership of NATO was a red line that Russia would not accept. The deployment of offensive weapons, in particular of intermediate-range missiles is of particular concern in Moscow. Putin has hinted that Russia will take unspecified actions including the deployment of Russian missiles close to the continental U.S.
The gravity of the current situation thus cannot be under-estimated, for Europe and beyond. It is also a lesson in the diplomatic costs of lost opportunities, of reforming NATO as a basis for constructing a new security architecture in Europe at a time when such reform was possible. Now perhaps it is too late.
In reality, NATO is an American alliance, its dominant military power. With five waves of NATO expansion, U.S. military responsibilities increased significantly but with American troop reductions in Europe, the gap between commitment and capability also increased. With the revival of Russian military power and Putin’s determination that Russia will no longer be pushed into a corner, matters have come to a head. ‘If you crush a spring to its limit, it will recoil’, Putin warned in a recent TV interview.
With the current standoff, it cannot be business as usual. Just as Russia cannot hope to revive its cordon-sanitaire in Eastern Europe of 1945, the U.S. cannot pretend to be the unipolar power it was in 1991. The implications of a Russia-NATO confrontation are relevant not just for Europe, but all the way in the Indo-Pacific region as well.
Tensions in Europe will have a spill-over effect globally, creating new pressures for the U.S. on dealing with challenges related to Russia, China, Iran and DPRK simultaneously.[iii] It is time for diplomacy to reduce tensions – rooted not in aggressive military moves or hubris derived from past victories, but on a realistic appreciation of the new geopolitical realties. There’s another chance for this in the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on January 21. Perhaps it will help all sides to pull back from the brink and chart a way forward for a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in the heart of Europe.
DB Venkatesh Varma is the former Indian ambassador to Russia.
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[i] President Biden and President Putin meet in Geneva -21 June 2021; Deputy Minister level Russia-US consultations were held on January 10 in Geneva, a session of the NATO-Russia Council was held on January 12 in Brussels and a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council took place on January 13 in Vienna.
[ii] Article by President Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“12 July 2021- http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
[iii] Hal Brands; “The Overstretched Superpower: Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle? Foreign Affairs; January 18, 2022 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2022-01-18/overstretched-superpower