NATO heads of state meet in Newport, south Wales for their summit at the end of this week. The relationship with Russia will dominate the agenda—the only question being how far member states are openly willing to go to face down Moscow in the conflict over Ukraine.
That confrontation appears to vindicate the fears consistently expressed by eastern-European member states. Sensing opinion is moving their way, they are calling on alliance partners to step up their military capabilities and to direct missile-defence systems towards Russia.
Cooler heads are asking, however, where all this ends. With nearly seven decades of experience since the cold war started, we should have learned that modern strategic confrontation does not end in victory but in uneasy and costly stalemates which stifle the co-operation essential to tackle the global challenges of our time. The trap into which we are collectively falling is predictable, yet our leaderships seem to lack the vision and imagination to choose an alternative path.
The battle for control over Ukraine and the broader struggle between the United States and Russia for global influence has been described by many analysts this year as a return to the 19th-century Great Game. But how we perceive this has a major impact on how it plays out.
If we see it as a deadly competition which demands aggressive, robust actions and respond accordingly, it will be so. If we believe in these bad times that Russia has to be subdued, not only in the interests of stability, justice and freedom but also to ensure western interests prevail in the longer run, we can be sure that this will be find an echo within Russia.
While it may appear honourable to defend the weak—an emerging Ukrainian democracy or the Baltic states for that matter—against the oppressive, the reality is that it is Ukrainians themselves who will lose most directly in this confrontation. And the damage done to our collective capacity for global governance would be incalculable.
As the more powerful element in the relationship with Russia, NATO and the US shoulder much of the responsibility for squandering recent opportunities in better times to overcome these strategic competitive tendencies and failing to communicate properly through the NATO-Russia Council. We may correctly judge Russia’s overbearing approach towards its neighbours but NATO has displayed similar attitudes in ploughing on with missile defence, expanding its military operations in Libya to encompass “regime change” and its own reach eastwards. This was inevitably going to be seen by Russians, sooner or later, as a direct threat.
All sides in Ukraine have played their part in creating this crisis. The EU and NATO had a choice in 2013, amid deep divisions over which direction to take, and they chose to push hard and risk confrontation with Russia. It is not too late to learn from these mistakes and turn the relationship around.
This would not equate to abandoning Ukraine, or long-term hopes for democracy and freedom, but rather finding strategies that are effective in the longer run in keeping Russia onside while moving in the right direction. We still have an opportunity to bring all sides to the table, including Russia and its proxies within Ukraine, to negotiate agreements which respect the views and interests of all involved.
At the more global level we need to see Russia as a partner in the continuing project to build international regimes which underpin stability and provide the frameworks to tackle nuclear dangers arising from the failure to disarm and the threats of proliferation, alongside myriad other challenges.
The last NATO summit, an extravaganza hosted by Chicago in November 2012, was dominated by the plans to remove combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and by the operations in Libya which removed Muammar Qaddafi from power. In those days the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was a guest at the table, though some member states viewed him with deep suspicion.
Behind the scenes in Chicago, leaders concluded the muted review of the alliance’s deterrence-and-defence posture. The conservatives had already won the day, though they were sufficiently astute not to declare it openly. The review successfully resisted calls for a further reduction in the emphasis given to nuclear deterrence and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
These proposals had come from the previous governing coalition in Germany and had attracted support from several member states. Instead, the NATO leaders made any further reductions conditional upon reciprocal moves by Moscow. This effectively froze progress, because Russia had already made clear it was not interested in further negotiations on these weapons, perceiving its larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to be balancing other capabilities in which NATO had a clear and rapidly-developing superiority.
NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons have no significant military value and therefore present a minimal threat to Russia itself. Further, their deployments are highly controversial within those states which host them and represent a long-term source of political division within the alliance.
This division, bad enough in peacetime, could become highly significant if conflict were to break out with Russia on NATO’s eastern fringes. Any calls from central- and east-European members to prepare the deployment of nuclear-capable aircraft would likely be strongly resisted by host states fearful that sending such powerful signals could exacerbate tensions. Paradoxically, these tactical nuclear systems are thus an asset to the Russian strategic goal of driving a wedge between NATO members.
It is the received wisdom that any debate over NATO’s nuclear weapons is dead and buried—at least for now—and that whatever ambivalence and uncertainty there may have been has been resolved by events in Ukraine. Those who would call on leaders to go beyond the rhetoric and engage in serious arms control have been muted in recent months, aware that this would run counter to the mood. Yet it is more important than ever to address the issue.
All protagonists to the current conflict have to recognise the responsibilities they have to stabilise and reassure, going beyond self-interest and any perceived short-term, tactical advantage—indeed beyond their own interpretation of the conflict itself—to see the importance of the investment we all have in moving towards a resolution that leaves Russia and NATO members feeling secure and respected. This takes compromise.
The most urgent task for NATO’s leadership this week is to agree to open a direct channel of communication with Russia—to achieve clarity about the role of strategic and tactical nuclear forces and their link with other military capabilities and doctrines, and clarity over the strategic signals that each side is giving at any one time. Every effort needs to be made to scale back nuclear and other strategic-forces alerts and reassure the other side. This requires clear and consistent signalling of intent to de-escalate, contrary to many of the moves made by NATO members and Russia in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, the chances of this happening are next to zero.