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The Pluto of International Organizations: The Evolution of the SCO

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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This piece investigates the unique peculiarities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Instead of being a Eurasian counterpart to the EU, an additional IO bridge between East and West, or even influenced by organizations like ASEAN, the SCO is dominated by micro-agendas that work in opposition to the theoretical literature explaining international organization purpose.

Consequently, this particular IO has so far not only failed to become a nexus for globalization, democratic respect, or the fight against terror, it really cannot be considered a legitimate IO as is traditionally framed by theory at the present time. When promise is found more in the literature than in empirical reality, there is need for caution. This analysis suggests that there is a present-day tendency to be empirically loose in how the designation ‘international organization’ is applied. As such, the SCO is the ‘Pluto’ of IOs and should be renamed and removed as an international organization if its present course does not radically change.

Looking at the SCO’s relative power sources and how influence interacts with institutional design, it will become clear why the organization does not increase international cooperation, economic prosperity, or global security, as is typically expected from major IOs to strive to. Rather, the manner in which all three of the above goals are undermined by SCO institutional design and internal agendas should call into question whether it should be classified as an IO at all. Renaming it a politically-motivated axis of convenience is less grand but perhaps a more accurate description of its nature and functions.

China

China’s main position within Central Asia is economic, though certain security issues also exist. China is extremely interested in currying favor with Central Asia to help feed its voracious energy appetite. On the other hand issues of ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, China’s western border, make cooperation and mutual understanding with Central Asia strategically advantageous. Thus Central Asia acts as a dual purpose economic-security bridge for China: a bulwark against Uighur and pan-Turkic nationalism/separatism and an energy hub for importing oil and gas.

Russia

Russia has always viewed Central Asia as its own backyard and particular sphere of influence. Thus, the SCO has largely been seen as a soft entry for Russia to maintain and project its military influence into the region. While Central Asia may represent a buffer zone for China’s western flank, it also represents a buffer zone for Russia’s southern flank, in particular against Islamist extremist threats that may look to move into Russia from the region. There is also a clear competitive dynamic with China that has the SCO as the peaceful arena in which Russia tries to keep a warning embrace around it. Some have seen this as a voluntary division of leadership within the SCO: China maintaining economic oversight while Russia assumes the position of primacy in security matters.

Despite these explicit leadership roles, Moscow remains the weaker of the two ‘superpowers’ in comparison to Beijing. It cannot, regardless of propaganda or posturing, oppose China’s emergent economic influence in the region and as such it has largely embraced the SCO not so much because of a strong belief in the relevance of the organization but rather as an easier conduit with which to maintain Moscow-friendly regimes across Central Asia and a decent mechanism to try to keep China from sprinting too far ahead.

Central Asia

Perhaps the most unique ability of the Central Asian members is to simultaneously bargain and balance across multiple fronts. Indeed, the Central Asian states have always been acutely aware of their precarious position in between two major powers while a third distant American power commonly initiates contact because of its own crucial security agenda within the region. The SCO, therefore, has always been a tool for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to attempt to balance China and Russia off of each other and carving out maneuverability space. At the same time, the Stans have not hesitated to engage with the European Union and the United States, striving to expand their options and minimize the possibility of being overwhelmed by the local superpowers. While it is true that Central Asia is largely more sympathetic to Chinese leadership over Russian, it is also true that no major power has single-handedly been able to satisfy all of the diverse needs of the Central Asian states.

The multidirectional policy of bargaining and balancing best serves the interests of the Central Asian states and as such it will likely continue long into the future. After all, the primary economic and security concerns within Central Asia are not unimportant to Russia, China, as well as the United States. These concerns include: Islamic radicalization; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; narcotics trafficking; lagging economic development and investment climates; and pervasive poverty. The obvious criticism is that none of these concerns have been alleviated with the Central Asian states’ involvement in the SCO, despite a decade of existence. The one characteristic that seemed to be an axiom for the SCO – maintaining the political status quo – cannot be considered a given, what with the non-response to civil unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The possibility that this lack of response to assist could signal a benevolent ignorance on the part of the SCO, tacitly endorsing potential democratization, falls flat: all of the members of the SCO unanimously voiced their concerns and disapproval over the events in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, it marked an IO ‘double whammy’ of hypocrisy: the SCO physically did not come to the aid of a member but then still verbally denounced democratic change.

So far, the SCO identifies as an ineffective organization. That lack of efficiency emerges whether analyzing the institutional design of the SCO or reviewing empirical evidence through case study analysis. The SCO seems to be structured in a manner that undermines its own development, as IO evolution is understood by the scholarly community. The member states simultaneously support and undermine the organization via individualized micro-agendas because of their worries about the tricks each might play upon the other. Interestingly, what the literature does not do is question the legitimacy of the SCO. This is one of the main contentions here: membership of the SCO in the IO community should be questioned instead of simply de facto bestowed. Until now, its membership has always been a given.

Recently, both India and Pakistan have been accepted as future members of the SCO, expecting to be formally incorporated sometime in 2016. There are four other states given ‘Observer Status’ which include Belarus, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. Finally, there is yet another category called ‘Dialogue Partners,’ including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Aside from a geopolitical alliance that seems to be aiming for the SCO to absorb something that could be called the ‘Greater Caspian Region,’ none of the aforementioned countries, if formal members, can be expected to bring smooth transitions and peaceful cooperative relations between members. If anything, internal SCO relations would only become more chaotic, micro-managed, and potentially zero-sum (does anyone really think India and Pakistan will resolve their differences by being part of the SCO? Armenia and Azerbaijan? Turkey and Iran?). In short, the SCO seems to be evolving in a way to guarantee it remaining one of the most fascinating organizations in the world, but that does not mean it will be effective or outwardly-impactful on the global stage.

The Pluto of IOs?

If the SCO seems to affirm only the negative concerns and detrimental aspects of faulty IO formation and development, while providing little to no empirical evidence of the positive impacts and cooperative influence inherent to most of the general IO literature, then how can the SCO continue to be accepted as a formal IO? The answer is it should not be. There is a present-day tendency to be empirically loose in how the designation ‘international organization’ is applied. This is no small matter: lax empiricism inadequately supported by or even ignoring accepted theoretical underpinnings results not only in misdirected scholarship but actually carries the potential to undermine foreign policy analysis as a whole. Perhaps with the SCO as an initial first step, there can be renewed interest and diligence in looking over the world’s IOs and rigorously applying IO theory to empirical reality as a sort of legitimacy litmus test. Is the SCO the world’s only Pluto? The present analysis finds that highly unlikely. Scientific brethren in astronomy can attest: just because a planet has always been called a planet does not mean it should remain so. If Pluto can be re-designated, then it should not be considered too high a controversy to rename IOs that do not measure up to accepted standards. Whether that new name is ‘politically-motivated axis of convenience’ (P-MAC) or some other moniker matters little: the importance is in shoring up the discipline so that empirical reality and intellectual theory inform each other rather than contradict one another and actual analysis becomes more accurate.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Latvia: “Armed to the teeth”

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source: Wikimedia Commons

Latvia has fallen into the trap. It all started with a sincere desire to increase the military capabilities of the state.

Thus, according to the Ministry of Defence, five years ago Latvia and the UK agreed on supply of 123 used Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance Tracked or CVR(T) for €48.1 million euros to Latvia.

In November 2018, it signed a deal for four UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters.

In addition, Latvia has purchased 47 M109 self-propelled artillery pieces from Austria and Stinger man-portable air-defense missile systems (MANPADs) from Denmark.

Latvia has also expressed interest in procuring a medium-range ground-based air-defense system (GBADS) and is investing $56 million annually through 2022 on military infrastructure, with two-thirds of this amount being spent to upgrade Ādaži military base, headquarters of the Canadian-led EFP battle group.

It could be seen that Latvia allocates great amount of money to increase its defence capabilities by buying used military vehicles, ammunition and equipment from its NATO and EU partners.

All this sounds impressive, but in practice all the equipment needs major repairs and modernization.

Latvian authorities should admit that huge part of such military equipment is worn-out.

Experts underline that even if equipment is bought only for training purposes not for the battle, it should serve even longer. But worn-out vehicles or helicopters will be “killed” by military in the training process faster than by the enemy in real battle.

Latvian authorities recognized that supplied British Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance Tracked were far from being new: they were produced in the mid-sixties of the last century. When Latvia launched this large-scale army mechanization project, the goal was set to engage the local industry as much as possible. Still, even today, most serious repairs of the armored vehicles are not conducted in Latvia. Latvia does not have spare parts as well. Repairs of the CVR(T) are still conducted in the UK instead of Latvia.

Nevertheless , then Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Bergmanis insisted that this was an important step towards strengthening Latvia’s self-defense capacity.” New Defence Minister has just the same point of view on the issue.

But this means that Latvia, seeking to pursue a self-fulfilling policy in military sphere, becomes more and more dependent on foreign industrial capacity and simply on the political will of its partners.

“Armed to the teeth”, as they say.

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How to Stop NATO

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Catherine the Great is credited with saying that the only way to secure the borders of the Russian Empire is to expand them continuously. This logic is to some degree applicable to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which embarked on a path of geographical enlargement quite literally from the very first days of its existence. Seven rounds of enlargement over the next 70 years brought NATO membership from 12 to 29 countries. And, from the look of things, the expansion will not stop there.

It is far from obvious that there is a linear correlation between the number of NATO members and the organization’s military and/or political effectiveness. Geographical enlargement comes at a cost: the accumulation of internal contradictions; the emergence of tensions among members with diverging interests; and occasional heated conflict within the group. A recent example of such a conflict is Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft weapon systems and the failed attempts of the United States to scuttle the deal.

The sixth and seventh rounds of NATO enlargement into the chronically unstable and explosive region of the Western Balkans (Albania, Croatia and Montenegro) created more problems than significant new opportunities for the organization. The planned eighth round of enlargement (to include North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) also raises a number of questions as to the ability of the new members to strengthen the organization’s military potential and increase its overall security. The possible accession of Cyprus, not to mention that of Georgia and Ukraine, posits just as many questions.

The Logic Behind Enlargement

Alarmist voices can be heard from time to time in Europe and the United States calling for at least a temporary suspension of NATO’s endless and thoughtless enlargement and for its members to focus their attention on enhancing cooperation within the organization. The alarmists’ stance is clear: the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by including mostly “security consumers” puts the “security providers,” primarily the United States, in a difficult situation. The United States’ obligations to its European allies are mounting, while its security is not being strengthened. Last year, Donald Trump, in his typically outrageous manner, reminded the distinguished audience that a third world war might very well break out as a result of a crisis provoked by “aggressive” Montenegro.

Nevertheless, NATO’s ineluctable enlargement has its own logic and justifications, or can at least be explained.

One of these explanations is bureaucratic: each new member brings with it new personnel for the organization’s executive office, new budgets and targeted projects, and new instruments of exerting administrative pressure on old members. One look at NATO’s immense new headquarters, built two years ago at the cost of over $1 billion and taking up an area of over 250.000 square metres, is sufficient to understand why Brussels bureaucrats believe the enlargement process is rational.

Another explanation is legal: NATO cannot close its doors to potential new members without revising the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which that states in Article 10 that NATO membership is open to “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” That is, NATO can reject specific applicants (the request of the Soviet Union was rejected in 1954, for example), but it cannot close its doors as a matter of principle. Revising or amending the founding Treaty under current circumstances is a purely hypothetical question.

A third explanation is economic: each subsequent candidate undertakes to modernize its weapons so that they comply with NATO standards. Accordingly, U.S. and European defence contractors gain a new market. It is not even important who ultimately pays for the modernization programme, the candidate or the United States itself, since in any case, the enlargement of the organization means new contracts and new profits for the politically influential defence industry.

And finally, the political explanation: enlargement is one of the principal instruments of legitimizing NATO. The constant flow of candidates wishing to accede to NATO means that any talk of the alliance being obsolete, ineffective or unneeded is groundless. Enlargement is a weighty argument for those who disagree with the diagnosis recently made by President of France, Emmanuel Macron, that NATO was experiencing “brain death.”

Supply and Demand

Given all of the above, it is unlikely that the further enlargement of NATO can be stopped through negotiations with the organization’s leadership or with its most influential members. While there are forces in both Washington and Brussels that oppose the endless process of NATO enlargement, their influence is clearly weaker than that wielded by the proponents of further expansion into the Balkans and possibly Eastern Europe. However, even if the desire to stop further enlargement once and for all dominated in the West today, enshrining this desire “for centuries to come” in the form of legally binding agreements is virtually impossible.

Presidents and prime ministers come and go, the strategic and geopolitical landscape of the Euro-Atlantic space changes, and the concepts of threats and challenges to national security evolve. History, including that of the recent past, demonstrates that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” when it comes to getting out of any treaty if it no longer satisfies the leadership of a signatory country for whatever reason. Legal commitments inevitably recede into the background when it comes to political expediency. Especially when fundamental security interests of great powers are at stake.

If this is the case, then the further geographical enlargement of NATO should be counteracted not so much on the supply side as on the demand side. This requires understanding the specific motivation that drives the population and political elites of those countries that are currently in line for the long-sought-after entrance to the building on Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels.

Clearly, the issue of NATO membership takes different shapes in Tbilisi, Kyiv or Chisinau: the level of public support for NATO varies widely, and those in Eastern Europe who call for membership countries (let us note in parentheses that such people, even if they are presently few, can be found even in Belarus and Kazakhstan) have their own specific set of expectations when it comes to NATO membership. Nevertheless, we can distinguish three groups of incentives that push a part of the population in these countries, and especially part of their “establishment,” into joining NATO. These incentives are linked to security, identity and inclusivity. Let us consider each group in more detail.

Security

Naturally, not all security problems of the countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus can be automatically eliminated by acceding to NATO, especially when it comes to new issues that have appeared on the global agenda this century. For instance, NATO has no particular reason to advertise its successes in counteracting climate change and illegal migration, or even in the fight against international terrorism. Moreover, involvement in NATO’s activities or participating in situational Euro-Atlantic coalitions can generate additional security risks for participating countries. A textbook example of this is the series of large-scale terrorist attacks at Madrid train stations on March 11, 2004, which, according to those responsible (Islamists), were perpetrated as a means of exacting revenge on Spain for its active role in the Iraq War. However, some former Soviet republics interpret national security primarily as security in relation to the supposed aggressive intentions and actions of Moscow, and all other security aspects are automatically moved down the national priority scale.

Is it realistic to offer the countries in the “shared neighbourhood” alternative options of protection against what they perceive as the “Moscow threat”? It should be immediately acknowledged that there is no full-fledged alternative to the military guarantees stipulated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But we should also remember that, frequently, those countries of Central Europe that have already become full-fledged NATO members do not even see Article 5 as a complete and sufficient guarantee of their security.

A heated discussion on the security of the Baltic countries in the face of “possible Russian aggression” following the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 served as another reminder of the profound uncertainty within these countries concerning the effectiveness of Article 5. It is probably no coincidence at all that Poland (a NATO member) has long been fighting to have U.S. troops and U.S. military facilities on its territory, since the country views NATO’s multilateral guarantees as insufficiently convincing.

If we strip Article 5 of its “sacral” and metaphysical meaning, then there are grounds for discussing alternative options for ensuring the security of the countries in the “shared neighbourhood.” Long-term and interconnected actions in two areas could potentially serve as a replacement for NATO enlargement.

In order to alleviate the security concerns of its neighbours, Russia needs to pay persistent, consistent and carefully considered attention to the eastern trajectory of its foreign policy. This work should be done no matter how grounded or divorced from reality these concerns appear to the Russian leadership. This task looks exceedingly difficult following the 2014 crisis, and it will take many years to resolve. Without going into detail, let us note that Russia’s success will, to a great degree, depend on its ability to effectively combine the military, political, diplomatic, public and humanitarian aspects of its approaches to its post-Soviet neighbours.

As for the western trajectory of its foreign policy, Russia should take NATO ‘s efforts to expand its cooperation with its partners as a given, as long as this cooperation does not turn into practical preparations for admitting new members to the alliance. Several neutral and non-aligned countries have experience of working in partnership with NATO without the explicit goal of joining the organization (for example, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland). Some of these countries participate in a number of the alliance’s programmes (in particular, the “Partnership for Peace” programme) and even hold joint exercises with NATO. They have also repeatedly deployed troops to support NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

The attempts of some European countries to make up for the lack of multilateral guarantees from NATO by concluding bilateral agreements with the United States (following the example of Japan and South Korea) should also be viewed as inevitable. The effectiveness of these attempts will most likely depend above all on the state of U.S.–Russia relations. Whatever the case may be, however, it is highly unlikely right now that the United States will provide military guarantees to an Eastern European country.

Identity

It is well known that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is both a military bloc and a self-proclaimed “club of Euro-Atlantic democracies,” an alliance based on “western values.” During the 70 years of its history, the organization has not always lived up to this image: for instance, Turkey in the 1950s, or Greece at the time of the Regime of the Colonels could hardly qualify as democratic states. Nevertheless, the interconnection between NATO and political liberalism is evident. At the 1999 Washington summit, the attendees adopted a list of requirements for new members that included, among other things, the obligation to demonstrate a commitment to human rights and the rule of law and to organize the necessary democratic and civilian control over the national armed forces.

Consequently, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally viewed NATO membership as both a security issue and a matter of identity. Belonging to North Atlantic Alliance also meant belonging to the Euro-Atlantic, or the western civilizational space as a whole. Historically, the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic began to drift towards NATO long before they pondered and legitimized their fears of the “revanchist” Russia.

Strictly speaking, during the 1990s and up to the 2014 crisis, Russia itself actively debated the possibility of acceding to NATO’s political bodies (for instance, the North Atlantic Council and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly). Even back then, the complete military integration of Russia into the organization seemed like an impossibility, or at least as a task for the foreseeable future. However, the idea of using the “French model” of political integration with NATO seemed possible during the period 1966–2009, when Paris did not take part in the activities of the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group but continued to work in NATO’s political bodies and joined some of its military operations in 1995. The proponents of Russia’s gradual political integration with NATO believed this step would be an essential confirmation of the unalterable Euro-Atlantic orientation of Russia’s foreign political strategy.

Of course, it is clear to any politician in Central or Eastern Europe that, from the point of view of western identity, EU membership significantly outweighs NATO membership. However, becoming a member of the European Union is far more complicated than joining NATO. Accession to the European Union requires a far more profound (and more painful) socioeconomic and political transformation of the candidate country than NATO membership. It even took the United Kingdom 12 years (from 1961 to 1973) to become a member of the European Union.

Most countries of Central Europe and the Western Balkans (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia) joined NATO first and later acceded to the European Union. In some cases, accession to both alliances was almost simultaneous (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia), while in others, countries that are already NATO members are still waiting to join the European Union (for example, Albania and Montenegro). However, there has not been a single case of a former socialist country acceding to the European Union first and then to NATO. The current sentiments in EU leadership do not leave much hope that such a precedent will be set in the foreseeable future.

This experience leads Eastern European countries to the logical conclusion that NATO membership is an insufficient, yet requisite condition for acceding to the European Union. In the worst-case scenario, NATO membership can be seen as a “silver medal” of sorts in the historical race for western identity. Although Turkey’s experience demonstrates that, while a silver medal does not satisfy everyone, it is still better than withdrawing from the race.

Accordingly, if the objective is to stop the further territorial enlargement of NATO, then NATO and EU membership should be separated as far as possible. It would be useful here to rely on the rich experience of the non-aligned and/or neutral European states that are EU members: Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Republic of Ireland, whose European identity cannot be doubted. On the other hand, the attention of potential NATO members should be drawn to the fact that several countries that have long been NATO members have not come any closer to full-fledged EU membership.

Strengthening the “strategic autonomy” of the European Union could play a certain role in reducing the appeal of NATO membership for post-Soviet states. This, in turn, means that Russia should not perceive the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) programme in security and defence for the EU countries in a solely negative light. On the contrary, if this programme is successful, it could help lay down the foundations of long-term defence cooperation between Russia and Europe outside the framework of the highly toxic Russia–NATO relations.

Inclusivity

In addition to the important, yet somewhat abstract issue of “Euro-Atlantic identity,” Eastern European countries are faced with the no less important, but far more specific issue of their participation in practical everyday decision-making on matters of European security. Each country seeks to gain a seat at the table where the most pressing political and military issues — issues that are of direct relevance to them – are discussed. Nobody would like to find themselves in the position of an outside observer who does not have a say in this discussion, not to mention the right to veto decisions.

It should be acknowledged that in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War, Europe has failed to create sufficiently influential pan-European bodies that are capable of ensuring adequate and effective representation for all, including the continent’s smaller countries. Meanwhile, over the course of its 70-year history, NATO has established approximately 20 committees and councils of various kinds for all imaginable issues, from air traffic to public diplomacy. All these bodies are well staffed with officials and experts, have large budgets and, most importantly, enjoy close and stable ties with the relevant ministries and agencies in member states.

NATO has numerous national and international think tanks and leading European media outlets at its disposal. Any ambitious politician from a Central European or Balkan country can clearly see that working in the NATO executive office may prove to be a unique springboard to a high-flying career. Suffice it to recall the story of Croatian Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who in 2015 moved from the office of Assistant Secretary-General of NATO for Public Diplomacy directly to the Presidential Palace in Croatia.

In short, NATO quite simply does not have any worthy institutional competitors on many specific security issues in Europe. This means that reducing the appeal of NATO for the countries in the “shared neighbourhood” will require attempts to strip the organization of its current monopoly on the European security agenda, which can be achieved by strengthening the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), developing regional cooperation mechanisms and creating inclusive pan-European regimes regulating individual dimensions of European security.

Europe does have a positive experience of “outsourcing” its security issues. For instance, the very pressing problem of military flights over the Baltic Sea by aircraft that, as a matter of protocol, had their transponders turned on was ultimately settled not in the NATO–Russia Council, but by a special Baltic Sea Project Team created under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

On the other hand, history demonstrates that adhering to a policy of neutrality that frees countries and their leaders from rigid bloc discipline can, under certain circumstances, afford them several additional opportunities in international affairs. Frequently, neutral states find it easier to propose original new ideas, act as unbiased intermediaries in acute conflicts and exhibit maximum flexibility in their foreign policies without having to agree to morally and ethically dubious compromises.

Let us once again refer to examples of such non-NATO states like Austria, Finland and Sweden, which have played an active role both in Europe and around the world for many decades now, sometimes being far more visible and effective than larger and more powerful NATO members. Thus, neutrality and non-alignment do not themselves always mean some kind of defective status. On the contrary, in certain circumstances, they can prove to be a significant comparative advantage on the international stage.

How about Plan B?

None of the proposals provided a guarantee that NATO will curtail its geographical enlargement. Sceptics will likely say that the current momentum of geographic expansion is too great, that NATO will continue its process of enlargement unless Russia and its partners fill the “geopolitical vacuum” in the “shared neighbourhood.” However, we should note that the attempts to fill that “geopolitical vacuum” in the three decades or so following the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been particularly successful, and that today, Russia is not surrounded exclusively by friendly neighbours. Even in the best-case scenario, it would take an extremely long time to create a reliable “good-neighbourliness belt” around Moscow. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that many in Russia view as potential “Eurasian” counterbalance to the North Atlantic Alliance is hardly capable of filling the “geopolitical vacuum” in the near future. While NATO continues the process of enlargement, the CSTO, on the contrary, is shrinking, as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan have all pulled out of the organization within the past ten years (Tashkent has even managed to leave the CSTO on two separate occasions, once in 1999 and again in 2012).

The idea that Russia could block the accession of former Soviet republics to NATO entirely by using the candidate requirements formulated at the 1999 Washington summit has gained widespread popularity in Moscow. The requirements state that potential members first resolve, by peaceful means, any international disputes, as well as any ethnic, territorial and political conflicts in which they are involved, in accordance with OSCE principles. Stoking the flames of smouldering territorial or other conflicts in neighbouring states could, in theory, block the paths of these countries to NATO membership indefinitely.

However, even if we put rather important moral and ethical considerations to one side, as a long-term strategy, this route will not necessarily bring the desired results. First, it is entirely possible that the requirements for candidates may be revised at a future NATO summit. The western expert community is already actively discussing proposals to “make an exception” for Tbilisi so that Georgia can accede to the organization despite its unresolved problems with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Once this issue is resolved, nothing is stopping the expert community from turning their attention to Ukraine with a similar idea in mind.

Second, the existence of unresolved, albeit mostly frozen conflicts along Russian borders itself creates multiple large-scale national security threats. It is entirely unreasonable, to say the least, to construct a foreign policy based on the “lesser evil” principle, since an always present “lesser evil” could at some point turn out to be more dangerous than what was initially thought to be the “greater evil.”

There is another possible course of action, which is to observe NATO’s irresponsible enlargement dispassionately until the organization collapses under its own weight. If we are to believe Napoleon Bonaparte, all “great empires die of indigestion,” and there is no reason to suppose that NATO will be an exception to the rule. And, following the logic of the lesser-known British writer, historian and satirist Cyril Northcote Parkinson, NATO’s move to its ostentatious headquarters is a clear symptom of its approaching decline and inevitable collapse.

However, will a world without NATO be better for Russia than a world with NATO? Will it be better if Turkey or Germany start to think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons, while Poland attempts to create an anti-Russian “three seas” military and political alliance, uniting the states of Central Europe? Will it be better if another president of the United States turns out to be entirely free of all the obligations and restrictions imposed on him by NATO’s multilateral rules and procedures?

We should harbour no illusions regarding NATO: as it approaches its 70th anniversary, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appears to be a clearly obsolete, very costly, exceedingly cumbersome and significantly fossilized organization that is stuck somewhere in the world of the middle of the last century. The organization is very poorly prepared to counteract the threats posited by networked non-state structures and the ever-increasing number of global problems and challenges. On the whole, the idea that security issues can be resolved on a territorial basis by creating a region of “absolute security” around oneself appears rather unconvincing, to put it mildly, in the age of globalization, especially given the ”project-based” approach to security that is rapidly gaining ground in the world today.

Nevertheless, we believe that the task is not to simply go back to a “world without NATO.” Nor is it to go back to a “world without nuclear weapons.” Any return to the past is not only impossible, but it is also undesirable, since the world of the past has never been the ideal for the future. The task is to replace the bloc security system inherited from the Cold War era with a new system that exceeds its predecessor in such critical parameters as openness, efficiency and reliability.

From our partner RIAC

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The US & the Black Sea: A Troublesome Year Ahead

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The US is increasingly looking inwards as internal political problems, coupled with the ongoing election campaign, shifts Washington’s attention away from some regions in the Eurasian continent. One such region is the Black Sea.

Being under considerable pressure from Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia looked to the US and NATO for security considerations. Though there was no direct military help in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and recognized the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions as independent, several agreements on military cooperation (one signed just a few days ago) and economic aid have been signed between Washington and Tbilisi.

Many in Georgia criticized the Obama Administration for initiating isolationist policies and looking away from the Black Sea. However, it is in recent years that the US policy has grown more inward-looking, which is having a continuous impact on vulnerable Tbilisi.

Impeachment hearings in the US are also shifting Washington’s attention from the Black Sea region. US’ ties with Ukraine are also being harmed and Georgians have already started asking “if the 40 million population strong Ukraine could be left alone, so can a tiny 4 million Georgia”.

And it is not only about the impeachment. Many believe that the shift in US interests is also reflected in the case of the faltering Anaklia port project. Located on the Black Sea coast, the new deep-sea port will be capable of receiving large container ships and perhaps, as many suggest, even military ships.

In the age of increased US-China geopolitical competition across Eurasia, when there is essentially a battle going on to control crucial railways, roads and ports, Anaklia has become a focal point. This is not to say that the US is not interested in the port. In fact, Americans were behind stopping the Chinese from becoming sole investors in the port. In June this year, Mike Pompeo even said that Anaklia port’s “implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China. These imaginary friends are not driven by good intentions.” However since that time, American companies have withdrawn major investments from the port and there is a noticeable reduction in the attention being paid to the project.

More worrisome is that Russia might be the reason. Moscow is building its own deep-sea port in the Kerch Strait and there have been instances when the US chose to avoid raising Russian fears in the Black Sea. For example, during the latest congressional testimony in Washington, it was reported that a Navy freedom-of-navigation operation in the Black Sea with visits to Georgian ports was cancelled earlier in 2019 after Trump complained to then-national security adviser John Bolton that the operation would irritate Russia.

There is more to this. As the impeachment hearings continue and the US moves into an election year, ever less attention will be paid to the Black Sea region, and Georgia in particular. Moreover, in the longer run, US competition with China will further limit Washington’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to rising problems in the Black Sea region.

This is also complicated by the absence of an appointed US Ambassador in Georgia, at a time when the country is experiencing demonstrations of various intensity ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections, as a result of which major repercussions might be seen from Washington.

From South Korea to the Kurds in Middle East to Ukraine, everyone feels how unpredictable the geopolitical situation in the world has become, leading to many among the political elite questioning how long-lasting dependence on US support can in reality be.

Like other states across Eurasia, the Georgian political elite is also starting to look into various possibilities to balance the US’ lack of attention. Talking directly to Russians is one such solution. No wonder the Georgian foreign ministry held its first meeting (since 2008) this September with the Minister’s Russian counterpart. Though diplomatically there is nothing wrong in this scenario, overall, however, it signals that Tbilisi now has fewer cards to play to evade Moscow’s increasing pressure in such crucial issues as energy, security, etc.

As a result, Moscow’s influence is bound to grow in the Black Sea region – a borderline between Russia and NATO. Moreover, as Russia has heavily militarized the annexed Crimean Peninsula and uses the latter as a jump point for control of the Kerch Strait, US support for the construction of Anaklia’s deep-sea port could serve as a good balance to Moscow’s Black Sea strategy.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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