Nato, the west and Russia: from peril to progress

Aviel Roshwald
23 September 2008

The phenomenon of "imperial overstretch" was defined and analysed by the Yale historian Paul Kennedy in his acclaimed study The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). In the closing section of this hefty volume - the part that gained most attention among scholars and the media - Kennedy extended his historical paradigm to the contemporary scene and suggested that the United States might well be on the verge of falling into the same self-defeating pattern of global overextension that had been the downfall of its great-power predecessors.

Twenty-one years later, as Washington and other leading states of the Nato alliance press ahead with their plans for further Nato expansion, Kennedy's prescient warning remains unheeded. The consequences are fraught with peril for Nato, Russia, and the world. Aviel Roshwald is professor of history at Georgetown University. Among his books is The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

A provocative process

Many people in the west argue that in the post-cold-war era Nato is no longer an anti-Russian alliance; and that Russian opposition to Nato expansion is a function of paranoid and anachronistic thinking, a throwback to a 19th-century conception of geopolitics that has no relevance in an age of "globalised" this and "transnational" that. This attitude reflects a lack of historical perspective and an inability to recognise the central importance of rank, status, and honour as factors in international relations. The more the west ignores or disrespects the Russians, the more this attitude aggrieves them; and the more aggrieved they are, the less open to geopolitical compromise they will prove. In what is still a dangerous nuclear age, an inability on Washington's and Moscow's part to reach a workable modus vivendi in Europe may prove calamitous to all parties.

Nato arose as a response to the Soviet threat, and it was the confrontation with the Soviet Union and the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact that shaped Nato's evolution and defined its identity as a political and military alliance. In the wake of its adversary's collapse, it has expanded ever further eastwards - incorporating along the way former Soviet satellites in east-central Europe, as well as the three Baltic states that had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in the early stages of the second world war.

As this process unfolded, there was little serious talk of ever including a post-communist Russia in Nato. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that Russian leaders came to the conclusion that Nato remained - true to its historic roots - primarily directed against them. From a Russian perspective, Mikhail Gorbachev's voluntary abandonment of the Soviet sphere of influence was being rewarded by a humiliating expansion of the American sphere of influence to the frontiers of the former USSR, and beyond; and that expansion was taking place in the framework of the very alliance that had been formed to contain the Soviet Union in the first place.

Such concerns were reinforced when Nato's well-justified intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was followed by the less well-judged decision by major western countries (including leading Nato members) to recognise Kosovo independence in February 2008 - on the basis of a loose interpretation of a United Nations Security Council resolution and in the face of strident Russian opposition. It is true (as many commentators have argued) that the situation in Kosovo is not exactly parallel to that in South Ossetia, the trigger of the crisis involving Georgia, Russia and the west in August 2008. But such political disputes and controversies cannot be so neatly confined and separated from each other. The Russians could here invoke arguments of both geopolitics and principle to argue that what the west was doing was to deny the Russians a meaningful say in the Balkans, while continuing to seek political, economic, and military influence in the Transcaucasus and Ukraine.

This policy was bound to provoke eventual resistance from Russia, regardless of who was in charge of its government. The reality, comfortable or not, is that the west cannot expect to affirm its right to an ever-expanding sphere of influence while denying the Russians' right to a sphere of influence of their own - all the while insisting that the very concept of spheres of influence is undemocratic and out of date. The west's actions belie its words, and it is operating according to a painfully obvious double-standard. No other great power - or great-power aspirant - can reasonably be expected to remain passive in the face of such conduct.

Moreover, the agreement to use Poland and the Czech Republic as bases for an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system feeds into Moscow's worst geo-strategic fears. The primary purpose of the venture may be to counter a potential Iranian threat, but the establishment of a tracking system in east-central Europe obviously creates opportunities for looking deep into Russian space as well. And it is only to be expected that the Russians will conjecture that the limited ABM system to be installed in Poland may represent the thin end of the wedge. Indeed, the decision to rush the negotiations with Poland to a rapid conclusion in the midst of the Georgian crisis served to reinforce Russian suspicions that the missile-defense system is directed against them.

Also in openDemocracy on the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 and its implications:

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Russia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, "Sovereignty, status and the humanitarian perspective" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, ""The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's post-war promise" (15 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (16 September 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war. A dangerous overstretch

The implication of the above is not at all to suggest that the Russian government is free of blame in the crisis provoked by the war over South Ossetia. In particular, Russia's de facto dictator Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be a cold-bloodedly Machiavellian operator who seems to take a certain sadistic pleasure in the carefully calibrated, yet unfailingly ruthless, deployment of the instruments of power. There can be little doubt that his ambition is to reconstitute as much as possible of the former Soviet Union into a Russian-dominated union or confederation of some sort.

The problem is threefold. First, this ambition is (given geographical and energy-resource realities) in current circumstances more achievable than the west's goal of drawing Russia's neighbours into its alliance system.

Second, Nato's relentless push eastwards has helped to consolidate Putin's domestic image as the strong-willed leader whose neo-KGB regime is alone capable of countering American hubris and restoring a humiliated Russia to its rightful place in the world.

Third, and worst of all, the west's policies have established a perceived linkage between democratisation and the expansion of American hegemony. What the west should have been striving for is a decoupling of the two, by way of demonstrating that democracy truly reflects universal values. Instead, it has become associated with the expansion of a military alliance and the redirection of oil and natural-gas flows in the Transcaucasus, away from Russian-controlled pipelines.

Nato has over several years appeared oblivious to Moscow's steady escalation of warning-signals. Putin's speech at the Munich security conference in February 2007 which rejected American unilateralism; the Russian air-force's resumption of the cold-war practice of buzzing American offshore military bases; the strong Russian hints at the time of Kosovo's declaration of independence that western support for the move would result in a quid pro quo in South Ossetia and Abkhazia - all these developments failed to register fully among the United States's (and other western governments') tone-deaf political decision-makers and advisors. Washington in particular, by closing off the possibility of meaningful compromises with Russia over such issues as the missile-defense system and Kosovo, has conveyed the impression that the only language it understands is that of force.

Now, after Russia has in fact used force, Nato and the European Union cannot remain indifferent. Thus, it is important not to reward Moscow for its own resort to violent unilateralism (although it should also be recalled just how stupid and reckless was Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in rising to Russia's bait by sending Georgian forces into South Ossetia, giving the Russians a pretext for their subsequent actions). The west should do what it can to shore up democratic governments and democratic processes in Georgia and Ukraine in the face of Russian efforts to subvert them.

But to continue insisting on the eventual incorporation of these countries into Nato is folly. True, sovereign states like Georgia and Ukraine have every right to request admission to Nato. But Nato has no obligation to let them in. To admit Georgia would mean committing the alliance to the defence of a country whose borders are in dispute with Russia. Would it really be willing to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and risk escalation to a nuclear confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia? And if not, where would that leave Nato's credibility?

To let Ukraine join Nato would almost inevitably trigger a Moscow-orchestrated secession from Ukraine of the ethnically-Russian Crimean peninsula, home to the Russian navy's Black Sea base. Does it serve anyone's interest to see another European state fall into fragments? Would the west be willing to place Nato's standing on the line over any ensuing border-conflict between a rump Ukraine and a Russian-controlled Crimea? Once again, if not, this would be to undermine the deterrent power of the alliance as a whole. To push Nato further east would be to overextend it. It would leave the alliance facing dilemmas far more painful and perilous even than those presented by the Georgian crisis.

A creative challenge

Nato, and western powers in general, need to change course. The imminent presidential election in the United States offers an opportunity. What the next American president needs to do is to undertake a strategic review of relations with Russia, followed by intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations that must include Nato allies. The objective should be an overall accommodation with Russia based on realistic compromises that will be tough for both sides to accept, but necessary in order to avoid further dangerous confrontation.

In any such talks, the missile-defense and Nato-expansion plans can actually serve as useful bargaining-chips. In exchange for establishing a definitive end to Nato enlargement and for cancelling or modifying the missile-defense system, the western allies should insist on much more energetic and consistent Russian cooperation in terminating Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons programme. They should also demand that Russia respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions of its neighbours, with stronger mechanisms put into place for Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) oversight of electoral processes and the protection of human rights in its member-states.

For its part, Russia can reasonably be expected to insist that former Soviet republics adhere to foreign policies that respect Moscow's fundamental security interests.

During the later years of the cold war, as the extreme perils of brinksmanship came to be fully appreciated by both sides, nuanced and subtle approaches to conflict resolution were developed that helped contain the risks of escalation. The flexible and imaginative diplomacy developed during the final decades of the cold-war era is sorely needed today.

With a fresh approach of this kind, there is every reason to believe that the west and Russia can yet create a framework for the negotiation of their differences and a basis for long-term stability across the European continent. 


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