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Assessing NATO-Russian relations on the eve of the Warsaw Summit

Since 2014 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has increasingly been focusing on the threat posed by Vladimir Putin. In response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Donbas region, the Alliance is deploying four new battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. On June 17th, NATO concluded one of its largest military exercises to date, the 10-day Anakonda 2016 involving some 31,000 Alliance troops in Poland. Meanwhile, the NATO-Russia Council has been largely moribund except for one meeting this spring that produced very little.  

June 29, 2016 - David J. Kramer - Articles and Commentary

In short, NATO has made serious strides to reassure member states along its eastern flank against a potential Russian threat, but all is not well in the lead-up to the Warsaw Summit.

The biggest problem, of course, lies in Moscow, with Russia’s leadership headed by Putin. But NATO also suffers from internal differences, as exemplified by recent comments made by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Let’s start with NATO’s Russian challenge.

In addition to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia also invaded Georgia in 2008, launched a cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007, staged large-scale military exercises in 2009 called Zapad and Ladoga which prepared for a conflict with Poland and the Baltic states, and cut off energy and trade to its neighbouring countries on numerous occasions. Russian political and military leaders have threatened the use of nuclear weapons against NATO and other neighbours, including countries that host – or might host – NATO’s missile defence system. Russian military planes engage in dangerous overflights (with transponders turned off) and buzzing of US and NATO warships, planes and territory.  

How much more do western officials and analysts need, or how many more countries does Putin need to invade and/or threaten, to conclude that Russia under Putin, with its stockpile of nuclear weapons, poses an existential threat?

That certainly has been the view of US military officials. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford told lawmakers last summer, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I would have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.” The day before Dunford’s testimony, Secretary of the US Air Force, Deborah James in an interview after a series of visits and meetings with US allies across Europe, said, “I do consider Russia to be the biggest threat.”

Not since the Second World War has Europe faced a graver crisis than the result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (for all its importance and consequences, Brexit simply does not rise to the same level). Should Russian aggression spread to neighbouring NATO member states, the United States would be confronted for the first time with Article 5 implications (that an attack on one NATO state is an attack on all – editor’s note) and the possibility of war with Russia. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on June 16th that Russia is seeking to create “a zone of influence through military means” and that Russia is undergoing “massive militarisation” along its borders with countries in the military alliance. All of this is why the recent Anakonda 2016 exercise and new battalions for Poland and the Baltic states are so important.

Putin, of course, believes that the problem is all NATO’s fault. In comments made at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17th, Putin said, “They [NATO] need an external adversary, an external enemy; otherwise, why is this organisation necessary in the first place? There is no Warsaw Pact, no Soviet Union; who is it directed against?”

It is worth recalling that NATO is a defensive alliance against any threats to its members. Through his actions, Putin has demonstrated that NATO remains relevant against a revanchist Russia.

“The Soviet Union is no more; the Warsaw Pact has ceased to exist,” Putin continued. “But for some reason, NATO continues to expand its infrastructure towards Russia’s borders… [O]ur position is totally being ignored.”

Putin went on to lament NATO’s missile defence system which he described as a “great danger.” The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he argued, made the missile defence system unnecessary. And yet the reality is that Putin and his generals know that the system being put in place in Europe is no threat to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. What they truly resent is the notion that Romania, Poland and other countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union are now co-operating militarily with the United States.

Putin also accused the West of “support[ing] the coup” in Ukraine, which he argued “unleash[ed] bloodshed, a civil war and fear [among] the Russian-speaking population” of south-eastern Ukraine and Crimea. All this was done, Putin claimed, “to escalate the situation, ratcheting up tensions. In [his] opinion, this is being done, among other things, to justify the existence of the North Atlantic bloc.”

Putin’s comments should eliminate any hope of repairing NATO-Russian relations as long as he remains in the Kremlin, since he perpetuates the myth of NATO as a threat to justify his actions.  Making matters worse, however, and displaying dissension within NATO’s ranks, were the comments made by Steinmeier, published a day after Putin’s remarks in St. Petersburg.   

Steinmeier complained that NATO was engaging in “warmongering” just as the Alliance concluded its 10-day Anakonda exercises. “What we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further through sabre-rattling and warmongering,”Steinmeier was quoted by the German tabloid Bild Am Sonntag on June 19th. “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the Alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”

What would Steinmeier suggest instead? It is worth recalling that he has been a leading advocate of easing Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. Coming weeks ahead of the NATO summit, his comments to Bild Am Sonntag undermine reassurances to NATO’s eastern allies, even as Germany has agreed to lead one of the new battalions in the east, and play into Putin’s narrative that NATO, not Russia, is at fault for the latest tensions. Indeed, Steinmeier’s comments were music to the ears of Russian officials. Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament (who is on the US sanctions list), tweeted that Steinmeier’s comments were a “voice of reason” from behind the “curtain of threats and hysterics” coming elsewhere from NATO. 

To be clear, the Putin regime is challenging European order and global stability, including many of the principles for which we stand. Left unchallenged, Putin will pose an even greater threat. We should stop seeing Putin as anything other than a paranoid, authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world; he is not going to change his stripes. Because our values and those of the Putin regime are so diametrically opposed, at the end of the day we share very few interests with Russia. Putin’s number one goal is to stay in power, and to justify his authoritarian ways he fabricates the notion that the United States, democracy, NATO, the European Union and more broadly the West are threats to Russia’s survival.

It is important to bear in mind that the West had no interest in picking a fight with Russia and turned to sanctions regarding Ukraine reluctantly and in response to Russia’s major aggression. The build-up of forces among NATO allies bordering Russia never would have happened had Putin not invaded Ukraine and threatened other countries. Putin’s actions, however, mean that NATO’s mission has returned to its roots: “to deter Russia,” as Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, said during his visit to the Anakonda exercise.

NATO needs to demonstrate seriousness of purpose at Warsaw vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia and the ongoing threats it poses. It needs to make clear that Article 5 guarantees are the same for every NATO member state, regardless of their geographic location. It also needs to reaffirm its decades-old Open Door policy for aspiring states, regardless of their geographic location. And it needs to rebuke absurd comments, whether they come from Putin, from whom we expect nothing less, or from the German foreign minister, from whom much more is expected.   

David Kramer is Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington, DC, and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.   

Funding for coverage of the NATO Summit is co-sponsored by NATO Public Diplomacy.

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