A crucial matter in the geopolitical agenda. This is what the relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and Russia have become throughout decades. Currently, the scenario is extremely controversial. On the one hand, Nato member states and Russia have been carrying out joint projects within the framework of international organizations and forums activities (for example, UN and G20). On the other hand, during these years military and political tension has been constantly growing, threatening the status quo.
To understand which strategies could be adopted to guarantee a new policy of détente, ytali had a conversation with Professor Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), Professor of RAS, Research associate visitor at Ruskin College and at St Antony’s College at Oxford University, President of the Russian Association of European Studies and Chairman of Andrei Gromyko Association of Foreign Policy Studies. Doctor of Sciences in Politics and Honorary Doctor of Plovdiv University and Free Varna University (Bulgaria) and Voronezh State University (Russia), he’s also the corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Member of the Research Council for the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Member of the Research Council at the Russian Security Council, Member of the Scientific Committee of the Institute for Political, Economic and Social Studies – EURISPES, member of the Diploma Council – Diplomatic Academy (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Institute of the US and Canada Studies (RAS), Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Contemporary Europe” and Executive Editor of the journal “Social Sciences and Contemporary World”.
“The relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War”. This is the main concern expressed by senior diplomats and military personnel in a letter to The Times published, as reported by Forbes, on December 8, 2020. To reduce the risks of any possible military conflict, in December 2020 the Institute of Europe and the Institute of the US and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences with the support of the European Leadership Network – ELN have published a paper called “Recommendations of the Participants of the Expert Dialogue on NATO – Russia Military Risk Reduction in Europe”, a document signed by 166 people from almost 20 countries, including nearly 50 ELN members. The Recommendations call on leaders in the US, Russia, and Europe to show the political will required to carry out urgent actions on this matter. What’s the rationale of this “project”?
Indeed, the current tensions between Russia and Nato beat the record since the end of the Cold War. The main problem is not only political escalating declarations, but steps on the ground to build additional military infrastructure and to allocate more finances for bilateral containment. Military planning has been changing fast consolidating the lines of confrontation between the sides. Serious specialists do not predict a deliberately launched military clash between Russia and Nato, but the risks of unintentional local conflict, which may then get out of control, are rising, especially in the Baltic and in the Black Sea regions. The impressive support of the Recommendations by Russian, European and American top experts, including numerous former ministers of foreign affairs and defense, retired generals and admirals, representatives of leading think tanks demonstrate that on all three sides there are a significant number of people who understand present dangers and believe in a potential to stop the further escalation. The Recommendations are not castles in the air, but very concrete and doable steps to achieve this aim. So, the rationale of the project is very simple – to prevent the war that nobody wants, to break wrong perceptions, which abound on both sides, and to restore first of all basic mechanisms of the military to military dialogue.
The paper outlined seven key proposals related to different goals: from “re-establishing practical dialogue between Russia and Nato” to “developing common rules”, from “enhancing stability by increasing transparency, avoiding dangerous military activities” to “preserving the Open Skies Treaty”, just to mention a few. In your advice, which of these measures will be more feasible in the short and medium-term?
All of the issues listed are feasible and technically are not difficult to implement. In the 2000s Russia and Nato as well as the Osce created a dense fabric of instruments to provide transparency, predictability, and confidence-building measures. Nowadays almost nothing needs to be invented; instead, dormant mechanisms of mil-to-mil interaction and military-political dialogue need to be restored. Moreover, most of the requirements of the 2011 Vienna Document are in place, there are quite regular contacts between the Chief of General Staff of Russia and the Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), representatives of each side are invited to observe different military exercises. So, there are many important tracks of dialogue, which are not blocked. There is a lot that can be used from the legacy of the previous period in history, for example, the Cooperative Airspace Initiative, the 1972 US-Soviet Agreement on prevention of incidents at sea and in the airspace above the sea, or the 1989 US-Soviet Agreement on preventing dangerous military activities. The Open Skies Treaty is a different matter. The US abandoned the treaty in November 2020, a decision that was not supported by any other state party neither by the winner in the presidential election Joseph Biden. At the beginning of 2021 Moscow decided to give the new administration a significant time, until summer, to make clear its position on the OST. Alas, having waited in vain for four months, in May Russia set in motion the procedure of withdrawal from the treaty. However, there is still some time for Washington to salvage it.
Arms control represents a strategic tool to maintain and enhance security and stability. Since December 2020 some proposals have become reality: for example, the New Start Treaty has been extended for five years. As reported by Steven Pifer, on February 3, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington would “pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and US allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons.” A process that will take time and require “a review of US programs and doctrine”. Is Russian Federation willing to rethink strategies and policies on this matter?
I appreciate the view of Steven Pifer, which is a prominent member of the Recommendations process. By the way, the project is going on and with luck, the Group will be able to work out a new document this year. Russia is not only willing to launch a new round of arms control consultations with the US but has been repeatedly calling for it. For example, in October 2020 Moscow handed over to Washington a set of proposals on how it can be done. It is based on the principle of a “new equation of security”, which reflects a new situation in the field of strategic stability both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Later, after the inauguration of Joe Biden, Moscow confirmed that its proposals are valid and pending the US reply. As we know, during the telephone call between Biden and Putin in February the question of a new round of talks on arms control was discussed.
After seven years Ukraine is still an open issue. In 2014, in response to the Ukraine crisis and after the annexation of Crimea, Nato decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia. However, political dialogue in the Nato-Russia Council has been maintained at the ambassadorial level and above, to allow the exchange of views on this matter. Even the Nato-Russia Council, as a platform for dialogue, has never been suspended. At the end of March, a significant movement of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders has been reported by different sources and on April 22 the Russian defense minister has announced the troops’ withdrawal from the area by May 1. In your advice, could the Ukraine crisis determine a major break up in the relations between Nato and Russia?
Of course, I should clarify that the expression “the annexation of Crimea” is unacceptable for Russians because, firstly, in March 2014 the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea in a free referendum decided to leave Ukraine and, secondly, after that Crimea joined Russia. Crucially, that was the consequence of the Ukrainian crisis, not its reason. The reason was the coup d’état in February 2014 by Ukrainian nationalistic forces, which killed off the agreement signed the day before by President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition forces. By the way, the agreement was officially supported by France, Germany, and Poland. Indeed, NRC was not suspended, but its workings have been paralyzed by the decisions of its western participants. On the topic of recent troops deployments: unfortunately, the western media completely neglects the real situation on the ground in Donbas. All that has been said is that Russia massed troops on its southern border. Nobody was saying that Ukraine had been amassing troops on the contact line in Donbas. The truth is that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was desperate to catch the attention of Washington after the election and, having waited for two months in vain, he decided that the best way to do that was to provoke Russia in any possible way to prove to J. Biden that Russia is at his throat. In parallel, Ukrainians intensified their efforts to derail the functioning of the Minsk contact group and to undermine the ceasefire on the contact line. I have not met in western media a single mentioning of the fact that Kyiv, unlike Lugansk and Donetsk, since summer last year, has failed to fulfill one of the central pillars of the ceasefire agreement – to prohibit local commanders along the contact line to give orders to open fire and to reserve this right exclusively for the central command in Kyiv. Lugansk and Donetsk issued such orders and published them, but not Kyiv. Why? In the structure of the Ukrainian army, there are units, which are known as volunteer battalions. Most of their members are representatives of ultra-nationalistic movements in Ukraine, which from time to time conduct torchlight marches reminiscent of the Nazi parades and vandalize Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office in Kyiv with lighted firecrackers, paint, and degrading writings. De facto these battalions answer not to V. Zelenskiy, but to A. Avakov who is a minister of interior and one of the key figures in the coup events in February 2014. This part of the Ukrainian political class is not interested in any rapprochement with Donbas and dreams about throwing Minsk agreements into the dustbin. The rating of Zelenskiy these days is around 20% and unlike it was two years ago now he is very vulnerable to the nationalistic part of the electorate. The recent situation was similar to what it was in Georgia before Mikheil Saakashvili decided to attack South Ossetia in August 2008. He intended to provoke a major military conflict between Russia and Nato. The difference is that Saakashvili was serious about it and Zelenskiy simulated it.
Let’s take a brief look at the past. As we all know, after the collapse of the USSR, in 1991, Russia lost control over 5,3 million square kilometers. According to different sources, Mikhail Gorbachev had been reassured that the United States wouldn’t have tried to extend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in those territories. However, during these years, Nato, in different ways, broadened its area of influence in many countries. In your advice, Professor, what’s the first factor that triggered the initial deterioration of the relations between the parties? The inclusion of former Soviet republics or other events such as, for example, the Nato intervention in Kosovo?
Let me at first make one small, but important remark. Under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, when it was still inside the USSR and was its backbone, the Russian leadership deliberately was working on toppling Mikhail Gorbachev as a President of the Soviet Union. They intentionally desired the USSR to disappear to proclaim Russia a sovereign state and therefore they supported other separatist movements in the Soviet Republics. So, from their point of view, Russia did not lose territories as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, but voluntary and wishfully got rid of them. Of course, for those who were in opposition to Yeltsin, this logic was deeply flawed. As to the rift between Russia and Nato, it all began in the middle of the 90s when Washington decided to proclaim Nato’s open-door policy, and the expansion of the Alliance started. Still, in Russia, there were illusions that the expansion of the military block, which Russia was not a member of and which was the creation of the Cold War to fight the USSR, would not bring problems to the country’s security. However, soon the bombing of Yugoslavia followed, and then the Kosovo case and the hopes were dashed. The last nail in the coffin of Russia’s allusions towards Nato was put by Nato’s declaratory support of Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008 and a new political regime in Kyiv in 2014.
During these years several agreements have been signed between Nato and Russia (the Partnership for Peace program, the 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act etc.), and the Russia-Nato Council has been established in 2002. Moreover, both sides succeeded in offering mutual assistance in different scenarios, from Afghanistan to the counterterrorism exercise “Vigilant Skies 2011”, just to mention a few. The idea of Russia joining NATO has been discussed at first, but then it has been dismissed. What was the main obstacle? The Russian post-imperial “vision” or the Western allies’ approach?
The idea of Russia becoming a Nato member has a long history. As far back as 1954, the USSR submitted an official proposal to join Nato. It was repeated in 1955 during the summit of the USSR, USA, France, and the UK in Geneva. The reply was negative. Then the idea surfaced a couple of times in the 90s and the first years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. But each time it was clear that that was a futile exercise as Nato would never admit Russia. Can you imagine a situation when the US gives Russia a right of veto inside Nato? And vice versa, can you imagine a situation when Russia enters into another organization where the US calls the shots? To some extent, the situation is similar to the issue of Turkey’s membership in the EU. No matter what the situation with democracy is in Turkey, in the eyes of many EU member states, at least unofficially, the main problem with it is that this is a big country with a population bigger than the population of Germany. If it became a member of the EU, it would drastically change the balance of power inside it.
Now let’s focus on the future. In 2019 French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that “Nato was becoming brain-dead”, warning European countries that they couldn’t rely on America to defend Nato allies. President Donald Trump considered the 30-member alliance outdated. However, after the 2020 election, the scenario has been changed. According to President Joe Biden, the United States commitment to Nato is “unshakeable” and “an attack on one is an attack on all”. What will be the evolution of Nato in the future and the Russian role in the new global order?
President Macron was right in a sense that the fundamentals of Nato’s existence have not changed since the end of the Cold War and its efficiency is low. It is a vehicle for promoting primarily the US security interests and the interests of its military-industrial complex. It is an organization, which perennial goal is to contain Russia under Vladimir Putin or any other Russian president. Sooner or later the US will involve Nato in confrontation with China and that is already happening. Nato has shown itself as a counterproductive mechanism for creating a Pan-European security architecture, which was one of the ideas behind the 1990 Paris Charter. Nato’s open doors policy provoked Mikheil Saakashvili to attack South Ossetia and now provokes Kyiv to behave irresponsibly. In the not-so-distant past, it was clever and pragmatic for Russia and Nato to set up certain rules of the game and mechanisms (the Russia-Nato Council, Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty etc.) handling their differences and even promoting their cooperation on certain issues of mutual concern. To ruin these mechanisms for Nato was a big mistake. The Recommendations on Nato-Russia military risk reduction in Europe, which we discussed earlier, show that many people in Nato countries understand this.