Minimising the threat from the East
Russia would wish the security situation return to a pre-2014 status quo ante, but only in the sense of Allied troops leaving NATO’s eastern flank. That is impossible, as long as Russia continues to heavily militarise its western and southern rims from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea, and refuses to recognise its role in the conflict with Ukraine.
Relations between Russia and the West (meaning NATO, the European Union and their member states) have become increasingly complicated and strained. Crises spread and exacerbate, and problems accumulate, instead of being resolved. The Kremlin is keen to demonstrate its capability and willingness to escalate tensions. Russian military and hybrid threats are real and are directed against the entire West. It would be a capital mistake to think that only eastern flank nations – from Scandinavia through the Baltics to the Balkans – are subject to the impact of Russia’s aggressive anti-western policy.
Collective deterrence and defence in combination with dialogue were the West’s main political and military instruments in dealing with and containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The West is constrained to use the same inventory since 2014, albeit in totally new conditions. NATO’s enlargements in 1999 and 2004 were largely political. The Allies did not deploy any troops, equipment or command structures to the new member states – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria – until 2014, not even after Russia’s blatant aggression against Georgia in August 2008. The only Allied presence on their territories was the Baltic Air Policing mission that started on March 29th 2004 and consisted of rotating mini-squadrons with just four fighter aircraft based in Lithuania.
The security environment in Europe changed drastically in 2014. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia – i.e. changing of inter-state borders without consent or negotiations with Ukraine – was achieved by the use of force, although no shots were fired. In addition, the instigation of and continuous political and military support by Moscow to “separatism” in east Ukraine (the Donbas region) has brought Ukraine to the heart of Russia’s confrontation with the West. Since 2008 the Kremlin had already embarked on a massive military programme and made the armed forces, internal security and special services its uncontested top priority. Therefore, there is almost no ground in trusting the Kremlin’s rhetoric that it presents no threat to its neighbours or Europe.
Moscow’s words and deeds are in clear contradiction. NATO had to return to its core task of collective defence that was largely put aside in favour of partnerships (including with Russia) and out of area operations, particularly in the Balkans and Afghanistan. The Allies seek to minimise the Russian military threat by using the best possible tools – deterrence and defence. These policies and measures are by definition non-escalatory. The deployment of about 10,000 Allied personnel and a few squadrons of aircraft in NATO’s entire eastern flank – stretching 2,500 kilometres from Estonia to Romania – is clearly something that demonstrates solidarity, and could hardly be considered a force of invasion. Moscow nevertheless claims this is a “serious threat” to Russia, in spite of its own posture – in its western and southern military districts – being considerably larger.
On the other hand, Moscow argued that Russia’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops for “exercises” on Ukraine’s border and in Crimea, in April 2021, did not threaten anyone. The Kremlin’s spokesman stated that Russia is free to move its forces within its own territory as it wishes, and that it is nobody else’s business. In addition, Russia announced that it would virtually close more than a quarter of the Black Sea, including the Sea of Azov that Russia shares with Ukraine (from May to October) to all “foreign vessels”. One could wonder how Russia would react if NATO announced that it was preparing to deploy several divisions to the Baltic states and Poland, and that it would close for the months of the maritime traffic to non-NATO/EU countries through the Danish straits. That is, of course, a pure hypothetical scenario because the Alliance would never behave in such a provocative manner. However, Russia does it routinely.
Russia would wish for the security situation to return to a pre-2014 status quo ante, but only in the sense of Allied troops leaving NATO’s eastern flank. That is impossible as long as Russia continues to heavily militarise its western and southern rims from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea, and refuses to recognise its role in the conflict with Ukraine – it is a war waged by Russia against its neighbour and not Ukraine’s “civil war”, as the Kremlin likes to pretend. A “reset” in relations with Russia is not possible or even desirable in principle, because the pre-2014 situation is not worth restoring. Turning a blank page is also inconceivable considering the long list of problems and conflicts of interest accumulated since the end of the Cold War that cannot be simply ignored. Antagonism between Russia and the West is far wider and deeper than the context of Ukraine – it includes incompatible values and procedures in the realm of state governing, democracy and human rights, Russia’s efforts to attack and undermine western countries and organisations, conflicts of approach to NATO’s eastern (and Russia’s western) neighbourhood, and most importantly, the threat of potential Russian aggression against its NATO/EU neighbours.
The main question, of course, is how to minimise Russia’s threat without risking the chances of a conflict with potentially catastrophic consequences. The short answer is that NATO Allies can do very little to avoid escalation by Russia, as long as the Kremlin is willing to demonstrate it holds the keys of escalation and it believes it can benefit from escalation and de-escalation. Indeed, Russia plays this game routinely by conducting large-scale combat control (“snap”) exercises in sensitive border areas, provoking Allied (particularly American) aircraft and naval vessels in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, the Atlantic Ocean (even as far as Alaska), and by having simulated nuclear attacks against European countries.
A more elaborate answer would suggest that the best the Allies can do is not play along with Russia’s games. The Allies should remain focused on deterrence and defence, demonstrate political will and solidarity, military might and a readiness to act. The Kremlin understands strong language and powerful measures, but despises weakness, ambivalence and diplomatic niceties. Russia would continue to play its game of escalation as long as there would be questions asked in the West about whether it would or would not be better to appease the Kremlin. This is another fundamental mistake usually made by the so-called Russlandverstehers. They confuse purposefully understanding Russia with excusing and appeasing it.
Russia’s escalation is not the main risk of conflict, especially if it is addressed adequately by the West with defensive measures and a refusal to engage in Moscow’s provocations. The main risk is demonstrating political and military vulnerability that the Kremlin could readily exploit at the appropriate moment. Deterrence is the key to the security against Russia. If deterrence fails, the Allies would undoubtedly defend themselves collectively, but there probably would be a devastating conflict without winners. Deterrence has become much more complicated than during the Cold War because Russia employs (and doubles up on) its so-called hybrid warfare that includes disinformation and propaganda campaigns (particularly on social media), cyber-attacks, the political weaponisation of energy supplies, and the highest ever activity of its special services (GRU, SVR and FSB) against the West.
Sanctions remain the West’s most solid response to Russia’s aggressions and malign activities. These punitive steps have to be properly calibrated and targeted as proportional countermeasures. Proportionality and adequacy are key to inducing Russia to come back to the negotiating table. Russia is very much dependent economically and technologically on the West, particularly Europe, and not vice versa. In addition, Moscow’s venturing into Beijing’s arms could become very risky for Russia in the foreseeable future. Russia is not China’s equal partner, and the disparities of economic and political strength would certainly increase in the future.
The US President Joe Biden proposed to hold a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during Biden’s tour in Europe in June, but the Kremlin has not yet responded. It would be a great opportunity to start relieving tensions between Washington and Moscow and it would certainly have a positive impact on relations between NATO and Russia. Instead, the Kremlin has started preparations on a “list of unfriendly countries” that has the US on its top. It could be regarded as a symbolic step for Russia’s domestic consumption, as it prepares for the State Duma elections in September, and it is also clearly a propaganda operation aimed at stigmatising certain countries – that for main years were already labelled as “Russophobic” by the Kremlin – and to create further political fractures in the West.
Moscow’s escalatory mood is obviously and directly linked to its assessment that the West is in decline and has therefore no need to change its policy, seek solutions or make compromises. The West’s duty is to demonstrate strength, unity and determination and show that that Moscow’s assessment is actually wishful thinking.
Kalev Stoicescu is a research fellow with the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia.
This articles is part of a wider project called “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?” which is conducted by New Eastern Europe and supported by a grant from NATO Public Diplomacy.