Medvedev and the new European security architecture

Bobo Lo
3 August 2009

Opinion remains strongly divided on the merits of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's call for a new European security architecture. Critics dismiss it as a transparent attempt to split the West. More sympathetic analysts view it as a genuine effort to articulate a security vision for the 21st century.

The general rationale behind the Medvedev security concept is to redefine Europe in ways that are more inclusive of Russia and its interests. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has felt excluded from the continental mainstream. In the 1990s political instability, socioeconomic crisis and sharply reduced influence abroad ensured that it would be regarded as a junior partner at best. Later, as Russia's fortunes improved under Putin, it would be seen as more influential, but also as increasingly awkward and sometimes confrontational. The brief Georgia war in August 2008 marked, simultaneously, the climax of a much-trumpeted resurgence and Russia's alienation from Europe.

All this has occurred against a backdrop in which the EU and NATO have become almost wholly identified with post-Cold War Europe. If Russia is part of Europe, then it belongs to an earlier age: on the one hand, a ‘common European Christian civilisation'; on the other, a loose gathering of great European powers - Russia, France, Germany and Great Britain. The acceleration of European integration over the past 20 years has left it behind, even more of an outsider than countries such as Turkey (a NATO member for more than half a century).

The original iteration of the Medvedev initiative in June 2008 predated the Georgia conflict. It was intended, in the first instance, to limit American influence on the continent. It emphasised that "Atlanticism as a sole historical principle has already had its day"; claimed that the existing European architecture bore "the stamp of an ideology inherited from the past"; and declared that NATO had "failed so far to give new purpose to its existence." Crucially, Moscow called for a European summit to start work on drafting a new Helsinki-type charter and, in case anyone should miss its meaning, noted that "absolutely all European countries should take part in this summit, but as individual countries, leaving aside any allegiances to blocs or other groups."

Divide and scatter

The Kremlin seeks to exploit divisions within the Western alliance - between the US and Europe, and amongst the Europeans themselves. Medvedev's original proposal followed on the heels of the Bucharest NATO summit in May 2008, which saw serious splits within the alliance over whether to grant Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plan (MAP) status. In the end, they were promised eventual membership, but with no timeline or road-map.

The Medvedev initiative was a natural response to European disarray. The Bucharest summit highlighted the fissures within the Western alliance on Russia policy. Some member-states, notably Germany and France, believed that the West had pushed Russia too far, and that NATO enlargement had reached its natural limits for the foreseeable future. The overt ‘European-ness' in the original Medvedev proposals was designed to appeal to this ‘pragmatic' constituency within the alliance. It tapped into anxieties over the Bush administration's policies towards Russia and the former Soviet Union; a more generalised, if latent, anti-Americanism in some European states; and eagerness to restore predictability to Europe's relations with Moscow.

Longer-term, Moscow aspires to an arrangement that would consolidate its position as the ‘regional superpower' in the former Soviet space; bring it into the European strategic mainstream; and recognise, formally and practically, its status as a great power on a par with the US and the totality of European states.

Some detail, little substance

The first iteration of Medvedev's proposals in Berlin in June 2008 elicited little response in Europe. Only when the Russian president presented a more developed version at the World Policy Forum in Evian in October 2008 did his project begin to attract attention. By this time, Russia's relations with the West - and particularly the US - had reached a 20-year low following the Georgia war.

The biggest difference between Medvedev's Evian statement and his Berlin address was the shift in focus from European to Euro-Atlantic. Although he condemned Washington's alleged complicity in the Georgia war and American unipolarity in general, there was now an implicit understanding that the US could not be excluded from any revised security architecture. In addition to the frequent use of the term ‘Euro-Atlantic', Medvedev highlighted issues that extended beyond Europe such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and international terrorism. Importantly, too, he invited "all key Euro-Atlantic organisations" to take part in a European security conference - a significant departure from Berlin, when he had called for countries to attend as individual nations only.

But the Evian speech remained thin on substance and contained little that was new. Respect for international law, national sovereignty and territorial integrity; the inadmissibility of the use of force; the notion of ‘equal' and indivisible security; and crude criticisms of NATO and its yen to expand - these were the stuff of innumerable statements issued by the Kremlin and Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Yeltsin years.

Arguably, the only conceptual innovation was a new Helsinki-type treaty that would "ensure in stable and legally binding form our common security guarantees for many years to come." But even its significance was questionable. The notion of a ‘Helsinki II' treaty followed in the tradition of grandiose, but essentially empty ideas, such as a ‘global multipolar order for the 21st century', a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi axis, and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). It did not point to a more contemporary understanding of international security. Instead, Medvedev highlighted the importance of military issues. The assumption that international security is fundamentally about political-military power reflected a realist culture dating back more than 300 years, one that viewed soft power and soft security (political and human) as more decorative than essential.

Moving the goal-posts

But the unfolding of the Medvedev initiative has also revealed Moscow's sensitivity to changing domestic and international circumstances. Europe's relative unity over Georgia, the impact of the global financial crisis and, most recently, a resurgent US following Barack Obama's election have radically changed the external context of Russian policy-making. An overtly anti-American and anti-NATO tone is no longer sustainable. In fact, this was already evident at Evian, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized that any ‘Vancouver to Vladivostok' security arrangement must be based first of all on NATO, and urged Russia to engage more closely in existing institutions and mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) and the EU's European Security and Defence Policy.

Moscow is now clearly at pains to smooth out the rough edges in its security initiative. At a time when relations with the US and NATO are improving, there is little will in the Kremlin to upset things.

Does Russia have a case?

It has become fashionable to blame Western governments, above all the US, for the deterioration in the Euro-Atlantic security environment. They are accused of rubbing Russia's nose in the dirt, most notably by enlarging NATO eastwards to include most of Central and Eastern Europe. In recent years, Western support for the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the development of US missile defence plans in Poland and the Czech Republic, and a failure to manage Russian sensitivities in the former Soviet Union have generated considerable resentment in Moscow. The current European security architecture, centred on institutions such as NATO and the OSCE, stands accused not merely of failing to alleviate tensions, but of aggravating them to the point of crisis.

On the face of things, the Russians would appear to have a case - the existing security architecture is ineffective in many respects. It cannot stop wars; it breeds considerable ill-feeling, and the Western powers exploit it to promote national and bloc (i.e., NATO) interests. Yet such criticisms should not obscure the fact that international organisations are only as good as their constituent states. Despite the considerable advances in multilateral diplomacy since the Second World War, it is the great powers, not multilateral institutions, which dominate international affairs.

As Russia has demonstrated, and others before it, great powers will not always abide by international law; they will not necessarily respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states; they will sometimes use force as an instrument of foreign policy; they will ensure their security at the expense of others; and they will pursue their national interests in ways they deem appropriate, but that offend the interests or sensibilities of others. The best architecture in the world will not alter any of these realities.

Rather than finding (obvious) fault in the current security system, we need to consider whether it can be improved, even at the margins. Can NATO find ways to become more inclusive of Russian interests? How might the OSCE develop into a more effective body? Can the impasse over the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty be resolved? Would European security be enhanced by the integration of Moscow-backed institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)? And would a new pan-European treaty bring the Helsinki Charter into the 21st century?

‘Fixing' the unfixable

It is difficult to be sanguine about the prospects. Take NATO, for example. The alliance has tried to reinvent itself in the post-Cold War period. It has changed its identity from a defensive alliance countering the Soviet military threat to an organisation that has promoted stability, democracy and the development of civil society in much of Central and Eastern Europe. There can be little doubt that these countries - and European security in general - would have been far worse off had they been left to fester in a kind of strategic limbo-land (or ‘buffer zone'). One needs only to look at the Balkan conflicts to see what the fate of these countries might have been had they been excluded.

Simultaneously, NATO has attempted to engage Russia more closely in security co-operation. In the 1990s, it brought Russia into the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, with the potential prospect of eventual alliance membership. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act admitted Moscow to alliance consultations for the first time. And in 2002 the creation of the NATO-Russia Council established mechanisms for joint decision-making in areas of common security concern.

None of this, however, has changed the core perception in Moscow that NATO remains a ‘relic of the Cold War', directed primarily at containing Russia. Although there has been some modest co-operation within the NRC, for example on joint anti-piracy patrols in the Mediterranean, Russian policy-makers continue to regard the alliance as intrinsically hostile.

As for the OSCE, during the 1990s it was Moscow's favourite security organisation. Not only was Russia a full member, but consensus voting rules meant that it could always veto any decision it disliked. The OSCE was an attractive ‘alternative' to NATO precisely because it did not impinge on the sovereign prerogatives of the great powers, Russia in the first instance.

This situation changed after the December 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, when the organisation condemned Moscow's conduct of the second post-Soviet Chechen war. Since that time, the OSCE has begun to exert genuine influence in the area of soft security. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), in particular, has assumed a high profile through its monitoring and evaluation of elections in Central and Eastern Europe (including Russia). Moscow views such scrutiny as an infringement of sovereign rights. It seeks a return to the good old days - and the OSCE's ‘core' security functions - when the organisation was almost entirely ineffectual.

The CFE Treaty is one area where there is room for significant improvement. The treaty needs to be revised (‘modernised') to reflect the changes in Europe's strategic map since the fall of the USSR. The present version restricts Moscow from moving more troops to the south, where the main threats to Russia's national security lie. NATO member-states have erred in linking their ratification of an adapted CFE treaty to the withdrawal of Russian troops (‘peacekeepers') from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Moldova. Moscow has rejected this linkage and used the non-ratification issue to justify suspending its participation in the CFE treaty. Nevertheless, all these problems relate to the treaty itself, not to the much broader (and largely abstract) question of a continental security architecture. As such, they should be addressed within the specific framework of CFE negotiations.

Since its establishment in 2002, the CSTO has been Moscow's multilateral instrument of choice - a political-military alliance that brings together Russia's closest allies within the former Soviet Union: Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Although its military effectiveness is minimal, it sends the message that Russia is not without friends, and it gives Moscow something to bargain with when pushing for a more central role in European security. As a result, Russian policy-makers are now calling for a NATO-CSTO ‘equal partnership'. The problem, however, is the enormous imbalance in the scale, capabilities and importance of the two organisations. If the CSTO is brought into a new security architecture, its role will be peripheral. And Moscow will continue to take umbrage at the perceived unfairness of Europe's security framework.

The idea of a Helsinki-2 or Helsinki-plus treaty has found some support in the West. In principle, there is nothing wrong with freshening up the 1975 Helsinki Final Act to reflect post-Cold War realities. However, Medvedev's emphasis on hard security (see above) indicates that a ‘new' treaty, as imagined by Moscow, would reflect traditional Russian thinking. The gulf between the enunciation of supposedly common values and their radically different interpretations across Helsinki signatory states remains stark. A new treaty would inevitably become heavily politicised, aggravating extant tensions on the European continent. (In this connection, the notion that the West could somehow ‘trap' Russia into abiding by commitments to democracy and human rights is delusional.)

Finally, we should consider whether it is even meaningful to speak of a security architecture. Today, more than ever, the conditions are lacking to translate worthy aspiration into practice. Regional organisations are in open competition; there are major disagreements over the legitimacy of European security mechanisms; the values-gap between Russia and many Western countries is wide and getting wider; and Moscow and the West compete for influence in the so-called ‘common neighbourhood'. To promote a new security architecture without addressing some of these fundamental problems is to pretend that elaborate process can somehow substitute for lack of substantive progress.

Back to the USA

The vagueness of the Russian proposals has been much criticised. Such vagueness underlines the fact that Moscow has a far better understanding of what it does not like than of how an alternative architecture might work. Another explanation is that the Medvedev initiative has been overtaken by developments: the global financial crisis and, above all, the warming of Russia-US ties.

The Obama administration has not only talked of ‘pressing the reset button' in US-Russia relations, but has re-engaged with Moscow in areas where it believes Russia can make a difference: strategic arms control, the Iranian nuclear question, and Afghanistan. At the same time, it has downplayed to near-anonymity issues that have previously caused major ructions, such as NATO enlargement and missile defence. The administration's moves have altered the psychological climate and led Moscow to embrace, albeit cautiously, the opportunity to engage Washington on issues where it has both a vital interest and a genuine role. The prospect of a renewed co-operative security relationship with the US has made grand systemic approaches to international security less relevant.

More generally, Washington's renewed interest has encouraged a return to the America-centric tradition in Russian strategic thinking. The EU may account for over half of Russia's external trade as well as most of its foreign investment. But for Russia's leadership, the US remains the main game because it is by far the most powerful country in the world, even if its authority is under greater challenge than at any time in the past two decades. Brutally put, in the Russian mind raw power trumps geographical proximity, economic interaction and cultural affinity.

As long as the Russia-US relationship remains centred on concrete priorities, there will be scant policy space for more conceptual schemes, particularly if, as now, Washington shows little interest in them. But should the bilateral relationship sour then the notion of a European/Euro-Atlantic security treaty could gain new impetus.

The challenge for Europe

The main challenge for European policy-makers in responding to the Medvedev project is that there is very little to ‘bite' on. It was easy to reject some of the early ideas, such as the exclusion of NATO and the US. But, beyond that, getting to grips with what the Russians really want has proved elusive.

The Europeans have foiled Moscow's attempts to divide them from the US and from each other. They have refused to legitimise the notion of a Russian sphere of privileged interests. They have underlined NATO's primacy in European security, as well as preserving a central role for the OSCE. And they have left the onus on Moscow to deliver on the detail of its security proposals.

The real test is whether European unity can withstand a more nuanced Russian foreign policy. Several traps await. One is a misplaced belief that Moscow has seen the error of its confrontational ways. While the global financial crisis has acted as a reality check on the Russian leadership, this will not necessarily foster a more benign attitude towards the West. While Moscow may have softened its foreign policy style, some things remain constant: an innate sense of Russia as a global great power; the conviction that the former Soviet republics belong in its sphere of influence; and a general view of the world as a fiercely competitive arena.

Another error would be to view the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington as an unalloyed benefit. For Washington's courting of Moscow will reinforce the extant America-centrism of the Russian elite, giving new life to notions of strategic bipolarity at the expense of more multifaceted relations with Europe.

The final trap, to which European states are prone, is wallowing in quasi-mythical ideas of commonality. Although EU and NATO member-states share some security priorities with Russia - in conventional arms control, counter-terrorism and combating transnational crime - there are many areas where their positions diverge. For example, Russia's approach to the common neighbourhood differs in almost every respect from that of NATO and the EU. And the interpretation of supposedly universal norms varies so greatly that these have become meaningless as a basis for common policy approaches.
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