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Understanding Egypt’s Limited Involvement in the Arab NATO

Irina Tsukerman

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Authors: Irina Tsukerman, Mohamed Maher*

During President Sissi’s visit to the White House, some press reports talked about Egypt’s withdrawal from the planned Middle Eastern and North African defense alliance which became known as MESA, and in popular parlance, referred to as the “Arab NATO”. The idea of the alliance, initiated and backed by President Trump, is to create a structure that would bring together powers to oppose Iran’s regional meddling. According to sources cited by Reuters, some of the reasons for the withdrawal included uncertainty over President Trump’s political future, lack of formal structure for the alliance, and lack of traction by the other potential members.

Egypt has always been against the policy of alliances throughout its modern history, and therefore its refusal to participate in the Arab NATO or Mesa  was expected.

Indeed, in 2018, when the discussions were held with lower level Saudi defense officials, many have expressed doubts about the success of MESA, at least in part due to the potential membership by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet’s regional rival Qatar, under the boycott by KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain since June 2017. The Saudis at the time and five others of the would be members of this defense initiative, despite differences on many other defense matters, all agreed that Iran is a major regional threat, and would be willing to work closely to coordinate with the White House . The alliance would be in essence  a pact focused on countering the Islamic Republic’s influence.

Like NATO, such coordination would not necessarily be dependent on the administration in office; the Obama administration never completely denied that Iran-backed groups presented a threat.  However, the lack of framework, mechanism for addressing internecine tensions and grievances, and the odd fellowship of the would-be members spelled doom for this idea. Similar efforts had failed in the past for the same reasons. Tensions between Doha and the ATQ were but one problem plaguing the tentative alliance. Under President Trump’s proposal, Morocco with its well equipped and well trained military would not be part of it, but Bashir’s Sudan would have been.

Now that Omar Bashir has fallen from power, Sudan’s future is unclear. It enjoys support from a number of state actors, and the symbolic Sudanese contingent remains in Yemen, but Sudan’s ability to commit to any long term plans is doubtful. Qatar, with its tiny military, does not add much on the defense side; moreover, it is closely aligned to Iran politically and economically. Aside from aggravating several of the potential MESA members with its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks through the state mouthpiece Al Jazeera, and close defense relations with Turkey, Qatar cannot be trusted at this point not to play for both sides, or to adhere to defense goals of the group.  Following the imposition of the boycott on Doha by the ATQ, Qatar claimed that this boycott pushed it closer to Iran, despite evidence of growing relations prior to June 2017. 

Why is Trump’s vision of MESA failing?

The White House devoted some diplomatic efforts to securing the lifting of the boycott, but Qatar refused to meet any of the demands put forth by the ATQ, including Egypt, and the prospects for the reunification of the Gulf seem bleak in the short term. Egypt, one of the major players in the region was one of the contingencies on which MESA depended. With Cairo out of the picture, the Trump administration will have to rethink its approach to regional security. Part of MESA’s purpose would be to create an independent regional force, to go along with the diminishing role of the United States.

Unfortunately, what that would entail was never clearly defined. For instance, the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen receives intelligence and logistical support from the US, but the operations are not fully integrated. Morocco once comprised part of the forces in Yemen, but eventually withdrew following tension with Saudi Arabia. Sudan greatly diminished the number of its forces over time, while Egypt retained only a small number from the start. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates likewise had different priorities in Yemen, with KSA, which is regularly attacked by the Houthis, prioritizing the opposition to the Iran expansionism.  UAE, by contrast, like Egypt was more concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Overtime, the Coalition came to rely increasingly on assorted mercenaries to supplement diminishing forces.

And the presence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, which trained, armed, and supplied Yemen – and which likewise threatened Morocco with the backing of the separatist Polisario group, was widely cited by the Saudi embassy in the U.S., but at no point was clearly addressed by the White House, nor was there ever a plan to address its presence. For the Arab NATO to have even a glimmer of hope, resolving these differences and assuring a greater level of coordination and mutual support between these members for Yemen, and greater level of US government buy in would be the first test. So far, however, too many forces appear to be pulling in different directions; the United States is more concerned about eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS, and have expressed concerns about rumors of the Coalition members cutting deals with Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US has been unwilling to reassess the grounds for its presence and to commit to a greater level of support and involvement. From Egypt’s perspective, if the current on the ground realities cannot be handled even by the initiators of the MESA project, the prospects for future success appear to be rather bleak. 

Executing the Mission without MESA – what is the path for the United States?

If Arab NATO is not to be in the form as envisioned by the White House,  the US will be forced to develop stronger bilateral defense relationship with each of the key players, and figure out a different way of engaging the pivotal actors in countering Iran’s expansionism.  If MESA is to be resurrected, its members need to be at least a somewhat cohesive force; so only the countries that are more or less on the same page and are not likely to attack each other should be considered for membership. Furthermore, any Arab NATO should model itself closely upon the real NATO, including creating a formal structure of alliances, finding a way of separating PR and trade grievances from defense commitments, receiving formal training from the US and other Western NATO members, and creating Centers of Excellence which capitalize on each members’ strengths and which would create interdependency and assuage regional rivalries. Furthermore, a certain level of fluidity in alliances makes sense in contemporary multipolar defense landscape. For some countries, addressing joint border issues makes sense, and a natural alliance will occur. Others will see Iran as the top priority, while still others may be more concerned about jihadist presence. Whatever the case may be, rigid structure of the original NATO which emerged out of the bipolar Cold War scenario, may no longer be applicable at all, much less towards MENA.

Does that mean that Egypt can never be relied upon to counter Iran’s rising hegemony? From all appearances, it seems that Egypt is content with maintaining a modest diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Part of the reason for its difference with the rest of the ATQ on this matter is the fact that Egypt currently prioritizes addressing the threats by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tehran does not appear to present an immediate existential danger.

Understanding the Divide within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet

Additionally, Cairo’s priorities since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took power have consistently centered around countering the danger of radical Islamism, both in Egypt and abroad. Cairo is likewise currently fighting a fierce regional battle with Turkey and Qatar, who support the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Relative to these challenges, countering the Iranian threat is a lower priority for Egypt.

Thanks to MB financial backing, terrorist threats have spread throughout the regions; infiltration of ISIS member and other groups in Sinai keep Egypt occupied and require a great deal of financial expenditures and military focus. The situation in Libya until recently has likewise been a major military concern; Qatar’s interference in regional matters, such as backing Sudan over a dam-related dispute with Egypt were likewise more immediate items of interest from Cairo’s perspective.  Although Iran had previously worked with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government on establishing stronger military and intelligence ties with Egypt, since President Sissi’s tenure began, Iran focused its energies elsewhere.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with support from Ankara and Doha, is seen as an existential threat; Iran is not.

IN that sense, the Gulf States and Egypt have differing priorities; combating Iran’s expansionism is one of the top priorities for KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, but it apparently is not so for Egypt.

Similarly, the Gulf States, despite significant differences with Erdogan’s Turkey, need Turkey’s involvement in Syria to oppose Assad and Iranian incursion, although they, too, distrust Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions. Cairo, on the other hand, in part by growing closer to Russia, has made peace with Assad retaining power, and prefers Assad to the instability of jihadist groups at war, the expansion of Muslim  Brotherhood, and the strengthening of Ankara.

Why Egypt Prioritizes Response to the Turkish Threat

Egypt’s and Turkey’s historical relationship is fraught with friction; some of the old tensions are now playing out with Ankara’s Islamist leadership in charge.  Some old Ottoman street names, for instance, have fallen casualty of the more recent strife. Egypt was under Ottoman control from the 16th through the early 20th century. Although there are many historical, cultural, and religious ties, the countries have had periods of tensions, such as during the Nasserist period in the 1950s and 60s, when the Kemalist Turkey moved in a pro-Western direction. Erdogan’s support for Morsi created a long term problem for his relations with the Sissi government. In 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador following a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan permanently banned the Egyptian ambassador from entering Turkey and declared him to be a persona non grata in response. The reason for this cold start to relations was Turkey’s involvement in the Arab Spring which brought Morsi to power in the first place, and later, its meddling in Syria.

Erdogan welcomed the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fled Egypt and openly touted his ties with that organization. Increasing evidence of Erdogan’s trade ties with ISIS created a further obstacle to the relationship with Egypt, which suffers from ongoing terrorist attacks. President Sissi on the other hand, proposed, recognizing the Armenian genocide, a sore point for Turkey, particularly under Erdogan. In February 2019, the government implicitly recognized the genocide, further exacerbating the divide. Other members of the Egyptian government proposed granting asylum to Fethullah Gullen, Erdogan’s Islamist political rival, currently under protection in the United States.

  Furthermore, Egypt has arrested a number of individuals in 2017; that group was accused of espionage in favor of Turkey, as well as money laundering, and assorted related crimes.  The two countries have also been engaged in an ongoing media war. These exchanges reflected the geopolitical tensions. Egypt was irked by Turkey’s interest in projecting greater power into Africa, including its incursions into the Red Sea. Not the least of it was the general sense that Turkey seeks to be the new Sunni leader of the Muslim world, displacing the traditional role played by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in that regard. Its media coverage attacking the heads of state in these two countries reflected Erdogan’s populist move to rile up any pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements.

Turkey and Qatar’s growing presence in Africa threatens to reignite the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, which can spread like fire across borders of unstable neighboring countries, or exploit existing vulnerabilities even in more secure states. Both of these states have been generously funding humanitarian and ideological outreach efforts, which hit much closer to home than Iran. Egypt, then, finds itself having to focus on securing itself from these efforts – and leaving the less immediately urgent battles to its Gulf counterparts.

How Egypt is Getting the Best of Both Worlds

For Cairo, this arrangement seems to be the best of both worlds: while remaining a Gulf ally, Egypt is able to preserve an attitude towards Iran’s actions in the region that reflects some of Cairo and Tehran’s shared strategic interests. The two states have similar perspectives on major regional issues such as support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the need to subject the Israeli nuclear program to international oversight.

 The position of the two countries on the Syrian issue is notably aligned—even at the expense of Egypt’s Gulf allies. Cairo openly supports Assad, Tehran’s traditional ally. And against expectations, Egypt voted in the Security Council in favor of the Russian decision on Syria in October 2016—supported by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia—a decision that infuriated Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Egypt has not been pushed towards a significantly more bellicose position by its Gulf allies and continues to limit itself to activities like its participation in the Warsaw Conference. Based on these and other indicators, it seems that Egypt and Iran have no intention of seriously clashing in the near future.

There are other reasons for Egypt’s position on this issue. First, there is the traditional isolationist argument present to some extent in any society, which calls for focusing Egypt’s foreign policy exclusively on matters of direct and immediate interest to Egypt’s national interests. While that argument is not prevalent, despite some presence among government officials, it does press the issue of priorities. Second, coordination of efforts thus far has been mostly lip service. There have been some isolated joint military exercises; Egyptian advisers to Saudi defense have played an influential role. Nevertheless, for theArab NATO to succeed and for Egypt to want to return to an active role in regional efforts, several things need to happen – and there are certainly opportunities for these issues to be addressed.  

Recommendations for saving MESA and bringing Egypt back to the table

Goals and limitations of the alliance need to be clearly defined; responsibilities of each member need to be delineated; financial commitments must be clear, transparent, and have enforcement mechanisms for collection to avoid the pitfalls of the Western NATO discrepancies.

Most successful Iranian operations, including naval exercises, are geared towards asymmetrical warfare. While MESA member states are increasingly well equipped with modern weaponry, up until this point the training regimen was largely geared towards large scale traditional confrontations, which is no longer the present, much less the future of contemporary warfare. For that reason, all states which aspire to be a members should agree to restructure their forces in such a way that effective asymmetrical preparation became possible. This would give Egypt additional advantage in any future confrontation with jihadist groups or its priority adversarial forces. In other words, this would be a win-win situation, as all members would benefit in some way from such an arrangement.

 While there needs to be a minimal agreed upon financial commitment among all members, building trust in any formalized alliance also requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, creating a way of compensating for any inherent vulnerabilities.  That means that where some members are best position to contribute well trained and battle hardened forces, others may be better positioned to contribute financially while they commit to developing the level of preparation that would facilitate their participation in any potential confrontations, and still others might provide other essential types of expertise.

Because Iran is not a top priority for Egypt, it is important to underscore that Iran’s detrimental effect in the region is not constrained by military prowess and destruction alone. Cybesecurity, financial crimes, alliances with assorted organized crimes schemes, the advance of soft power, law fare and economic warfare, and lobbying and PR in the West are all part of Iran’s geopolitical strategy – and while Egypt may not suffer the effects of Iran’s combat plans directly or in the immediate foreseeable future, it is not immune from the other global activities by Iran and its proxies.

Finally, it is important to note that Turkey, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood and its backed organizations such as Hamas, are increasingly growing closer to Iran. Hamas is fully funded by Iran; Egypt’s diplomatic successes in dealing with Hamas recently are noteworthy; however, Iran’s determination to destabilize the region and to utilize Syria and regional battles to exact influence have continued unabated.  For that reason, it is in Egypt’s best interests to separate its worst enemies from each other and from Iran.   The issue, then, is how to address Egypt’s relationship with Assad and how to avoid exacerbating the differences with the Gulf States over Syria’s role. The answer to that is: carefully, and incrementally, by focusing on small issues, where, for instance, Egypt can exercise diplomatic influence over Russia and Assad to pressure Iran, whereas in exchange the Gulf States can worker closer with Egypt on securing its interests against incursion by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The United States has limited options if it wants to exert the “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. It can return to a more hawkish role in the Middle East, expand its presence in Syria and Iraq, figure out an effective and legal way of disrupting Hezbollah operations and IRGC financing and arming of the Houthis or else increasing its forces on the ground and incorporating Hezbollah into its counterrorism mission. It can also invest into soft power projects along with its Middle Eastern counterpart that could counter Iran’s ideological influence. It could even build additional bases, including in Saudi Arabia, in the future to deter attacks from Houthis or various jihadist groups. Alternatively, if the US seeks in the long term to minimize its presence in the region without sacrificing the region to Russia and Iran as now appears to be the course, it will need to do a lot more in the short term to ensure that the bloc of states the Trump administration is counting on to pick up the leadership role in countering Iran’s malign influence does not disperse to be co-opted, weakened, or countered by the adversary. It needs to invest time, effort, and human resources into creating a coherent mechanism for delivering a workable strategy towards a clearly defined objective – rolling back Iranian influence and bankrupting the regime to the point that it can no longer present a security threat to anyone in the region.

*Mohamed Maher is an Egyptian journalist and researcher based in the United States.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Defense

The Game-changing Fallibility of BMD Systems: Lessons from the Middle East and South Asia

M Waqas Jan

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As the Middle East’s major powers recalculate their defence and foreign policies following last month’s missile strikes on Saudi oilfields, there have emerged some telling lessons with regard to the changing nature of modern warfare. While these lessons are perhaps painfully obvious to the likes of Saudi Arabia who have directly been on the receiving end of these attacks, they are also evident in the near deafening introspection being undertaken by the region’s other power brokers, the United States and Israel as well. This has been made clear by the fact that even after a month since the attacks took place, there remains a definite and near ironic aspect of shock and awe to what was otherwise a quick, covert and precision strike on a highly valuable target.

What’s more, the fact that the strike took place despite the presence of one of the world’s most sophisticated missile defense systems, presents a telling example of how the technological balance in cruise missile development has shifted more in favor of offensive strikes at the expense of a once reliable defensive capability. As such, the ease and precision with which one of the world’s most closely guarded facilities were struck, shows that based on the widespread availability of current technologies, it is perhaps more reliable to count on a missile system’s offensive strike capabilities. Consequently, the opportunity cost of investing in and developing expensive missile defense shields based on this scenario becomes tremendously higher.

These lessons provide valuable strategic import to another nearby region which is also brimming with tensions amongst two extremely well equipped and militarily capable states. This refers to the South Asian region, where both India and Pakistan also seem headed towards a dangerous escalation of hostilities. As a result, both countries would do well to consider the lessons emanating from the above-mentioned Saudi experience. For instance, like Saudi Arabia, India has also been on a military spending spree over the last decade, importing some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems from across the world. Its massive economic growth has given it license to pursue a robust military modernization program that is keenly focused on enhancing its power projection capabilities. However, again like Saudi Arabia, India’s military also remains untested and risks being termed another ‘glitter force’ that is more concerned with procuring arms as a matter of prestige as opposed to operational efficacy. This for instance was clear during India’s aerial engagement with Pakistani Air Force jets in March, during which a sophisticated Israeli origin missile fired by India’s air defenses downed one of India’s own Russian made Mi-17 helicopters. Such lack of operational readiness and blind faith in untested systems is evident in both the Saudi and Indian experience highlighted above.

Specifically, regarding the US made Patriot batteries used by the Saudis and the Israeli made Spyder missiles used by India, the above incidents have shown that the efficacy and reliability of these systems in the real-time conflicts of today is quite patchy at best. If anything, any form of over-reliance on these systems runs the risk of a grave miscalculation which in effect is multiplied by the regional complexities of both their respective security environments. These miscalculations are already on display in the increasingly volatile Middle East, as the Western backed and Saudi led military alliance is just realizing. With the vulnerability of such missile defense systems now increasingly evident, there has also arguably been an element of deterrence that has been further reinforced. Consequently, the path to de-escalation appears a lot more rational than one which may escalate towards all-out war. The case of South Asia too was similar where the aerial engagement between nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan, also ultimately reinforced the latter’s conventional deterrent while exposing gaps in the former’s much touted aerial defenses.

Yet, considering that the case of South Asia remains infinitely more precarious due to the presence of two adversarial nuclear weapons states, the above described developments pose additional yet considerably more important implications when applied to the region’s nuclear deterrence framework. In effect, they erode the belief that ballistic missile defense systems can serve as the backbone to what many a state would consider a winnable nuclear war. These primarily comprise of Nuclear Weapons States such as the US and India which in the recent past have increasingly relied on concepts such as counterforce, pre-emption and precision as key themes within their official military thinking. All under the premise that Missile defense shields offer a reliable and credible defense against an adversary’s pre-emptive or secondary nuclear strikes as part of their strategic calculus. India’s much vaunted purchase of the Russian made S-400 system presents a clear example of such a strategy.

In contrast however, the fallibility and faltering reliability of such air defence systems shows the immense dangers of adopting such an approach within scenarios that have the potential of irreversibly altering life on earth as we know it. Considering how peace and stability in the South Asian region is precariously balanced between Pakistan and India’s nuclear deterrence framework, the unreliability and increasing fallibility of missile defense systems thus warrant a serious re-evaluation of the strategic calculus of both nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan.  

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Protracted Asymmetric Geopolitical Conflict

Dayan Jayatilleka

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Each of us has his own definition of “geo-history”, and mine is the interface of the “geopolitical” and the “world-historical.”

We are marked by two anniversaries, that of the start of WW II in 1939 and its end in 1945. Fascism was a unique regime of terror, with a strategy of unbridled ‘exterminism’ and therefore constituted a unique political evil in world history. However, outside of its type of regime, strategy and tactics, was its ‘grand strategic’ goal also unique or was it not? Is there a resemblance or homology between, on the one hand, the doctrine of Ein Reich, the telos of world domination, a Thousand Year Reich, and the military moves of Germany and its Axis partners in the run-up to WWII, and on the other, that of a unipolar world order and global military expansionism; of open-ended unipolar global leadership? Is there a continuity or homology between on the one hand, the wartime US Grand Area planning for the postwar world (the documents of which were unearthed by Noam Chomsky), and the present Indo-Pacific strategy and on the other hand, the notorious earlier search for Lebensraum? Is the Indo-Pacific strategy an insistence on “maritime Lebensraum”?

If the answer is yes, and the two paradigms can be superimposed upon each other, then history provides only one answer: the united front and its extension, a global grand alliance. But a united front and grand alliance with whom, to what end?

Politics is combat. International politics is international combat. By the “suicide” of the Soviet Union (that post-mortem verdict was Fidel Castro’s), the Empire was unbound and it is now threatening world peace and the future of humanity itself. Every single arms control agreement (bar one) has been unilaterally renounced, but before that came the rollback of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements with the destruction of former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO. Now the empire seeks to dominate the entire global theatre in all possible spheres. This should not come as a shock or surprise. It is almost a law of physics (perhaps it should be called ‘geophysics’) that once unwisely unbound, the Empire would uncoil, spread, expand, and seek to dominate—in short, that the Empire would seek to behave as an empire.

The geohistorical question facing humanity today is how to constrain the Empire, but not return to the old delusions of how to do so. The Empire must be initially counterbalanced and then constrained– bound– permanently, until, as in the case of the Roman Empire, there is a benign change of beliefs (in this case, political) from within its own society, its own citizenry and not as before, a change in its external posture which proves in the long geo-historical term, to have been merely ephemeral, conjunctural, even tactical.

The Empire’s strategy as concerns Russia is quite simple to understand. It is a re-run of the strategy that enabled them to prevail in the Cold War. It is to provoke Russia into an arms race and exceed prudent spending limits, cause economic hardship and generate enough discontent that the citizenry, especially the young, will agitate, thereby causing psychological exhaustion and catalyzing peaceful democratic “regime change”, bringing into office a capitulationist/collaborationist administration sooner or later, in the wake of the end of President Putin’s term. Meanwhile, what is being played out in Hong Kong foreshadows the geohistorical endgame envisaged by the Empire for China and Eurasia as a whole.

By its global offensive, imperialism has potentially overstretched itself morally, ethically and politically. Not since Vietnam has imperialism had a potential target profile which is so large and so exposed. The targeting of Iran when that country has not violated the JCPOA can be turned into a massive indictment on the twin grounds of reason and logic as well as of natural justice. Similarly, the targeting of Venezuela can be exposed for the absurdity that someone who did not even run for Presidential office should be recognized as the legitimate President of a country. So also, the unilateral withdrawal from arms control agreements can be exposed for the danger this poses to humanity.

One of the most important principles of asymmetric political resistance is the identification of the most important strategic real estate as the moral high ground. The moral or moral-ethical high ground is the seizure and occupation of that terrain of argument which is recognized and recognizable as more rational, reasonable and of broader benefit to humanity, assuring “the greatest good of the greatest number” according to universal values and norms and not merely national or regional values and norms.

The main axial routes and themes of the political struggle should be Peace and Sovereignty. Firstly, these are themes that have a universal or near-universal resonance. Secondly, they allow the critic to fight for and occupy the moral high ground because the West has only a toehold on the moral high ground in all these cases. Thirdly, they are also the main achievements of humanity that are threatened by the Western offensive. Fourthly, they are themes that are likely to have resonance among peoples the world over, albeit with greater or lesser emphasis in different areas of the globe.

This great struggle cannot be waged with the guiding ideology solely of or governed solely by “State Interest” or “National Interest.” It can only be waged by the recovery of the spirit of “internationalism” that was present in the entire Soviet period. It is little appreciated that Stalin, the father of ‘Socialism in One Country,’ and political leader of the Great Patriotic War waged an international campaign against fascism. Even in periods of isolation and siege, Stalin’s perspectival approach was never one of a cultural or civilizational preoccupation. The struggle for Peace and Sovereignty, Against Interventionism and Global War, requires the building of global opinion and a global movement.

A contemporary Realist would immediately grasp the opportunity which has opened up in post-Cold War history, namely of compensating at least partially for the loss of those territories and Russia’s Western buffer, the rollback of Yalta and Potsdam and the USSR’s wartime gains and the advance of the NATO borders up to Russia, by the geostrategic gains on the Eastern front through the renewal of partnership with China. Obviously, this has been recognized and acted upon but it has yet to be optimized by the kind of diverse yet solid strategic relationships that the USA has through NATO in the West, and Japan and many other states in other parts of the world. A Realist would recommend a re-visiting, retrieval and revision of Article 1 of the 30 Treaty signed by Stalin and Mao, which recognizes that the security of Russia and China are indivisible and that any aggression against one will be regarded as aggression against the other and responded to accordingly.

There is a contradiction between the Western project of the encirclement of Russia and the intellectual response to that encirclement. One of the reasons for that contradiction is the fact that academies and think tanks have been shaped and formed by and sometimes in the decades of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and later ‘détente’ with the West and are almost structurally unprepared for the change in the global geopolitical-geostrategic ‘ecology’ as it were. These institutions were formed or reshaped by party edict as adjuncts of the tasks of negotiation with the West and the competition (which became enmity for a period) with China. They are structurally oriented towards the West; their institutional faces are turned westwards. Their entire spirit and ethos are those of partnership with the West and suspicion of China stemming from the 1960s and 1970s.

Institutions need to reflect the tasks of the new times, those of facing the West as an adversary in a protracted Cold War encompassing a global hybrid war; facing encirclement by the West and the global offensive of the West. Perhaps new joint analytical and academic institutions should evolve as intellectual-scientific superstructures of the SCO, BRICS, the Astana process and most importantly the partnership with China. A Russo-Sino joint think-tank or ensemble of think-tanks of Advanced Studies, as an intellectual microcosm or advanced prototype of a strategic alliance (not merely a strategic partnership) seems an imperative need.

The threat to Russia is nothing less than deeply, profoundly existential. If Iran is disaggregated by military action two things will result simultaneously. In a small scale equivalent of the collapse of the USSR and the dawning of the unipolar moment after the Cold War ended, there will be a dramatic shift of the balance of forces within the global Islamic community or ummah, to the Wahhabi/Salafists, just as in return to pre-1979, Western power is projected right back into an arena dangerously proximate to Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ as the western analysts have always seen it. The intermediate ‘buffer state’ may not always remain so. Any deep damaging of Iran will also have global grand strategic implications of tightening the encirclement of Eurasia and weakening China.

Iran’s capacity for deterrence and if deterrence fails, its capacity for prolonged resistance and the same of Venezuela, will decide the level of resistance far away from Russia’s frontlines. If Afghanistan ended the USSR by bleeding it white, then the most effective Western policy in that theatre was to equip the so-called mujahidin with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to neutralize Soviet air power. If the USSR had not been so enmeshed in détente as to hold back the SAM-6s from and provide only a minimum supply of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese, then the damage inflicted on the US may have been such that it could not have gone on the offensive in Afghanistan a mere three years after the withdrawal from Saigon. While the US had no compunction in providing shoulder-fired to the Afghan mujahidin, with whom they had nothing in common ideologically, knowing full well that they would cause Soviet casualties especially among pilots, the USSR did have compunctions in providing SAM-6 batteries and a far more generous quantity of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese who were ideological comrades. The Vietnamese used to wryly remark to those of us in the Vietnam solidarity movement in Asia, that had the USSR provided them with the quantity and quality of air defense missiles that it gave the Arab states in the same period, the early 1970s, the Vietnamese would certainly have used them more effectively and with less losses than did the Arab armies.

That is perhaps the best single piece of explanatory evidence as to why the US recovered so fast from the Vietnam defeat while the USSR unilaterally withdrew from the Cold War and collapsed. It was a matter of will, and the consistent clarity of the US that the USSR was the enemy, and the determination to prevail over it. Later, the successor state of the USSR, the Russian state, with the Russian armed forces as its core, was seen as the enemy—even when the Russian administration and leadership may have been seen as a useful quasi-ally, partner and even ‘friend.’ Thus, on the questions of Iran and Venezuela, a contemporary Russian ‘dialectical and historical Realist’ analysis would consider a ‘reverse Brzezinski.’

China appears caught in a contradiction within an irony. The contradiction is that having entered the world capitalist order dominated by the West and become a major player within it, it now finds itself vulnerable to both economic and military threats simply because it proved to be strong enough to be an economic competitor but not strong enough to prevent, deter or prevail over a military build-up triggered by the inherently hierarchical and hegemonistic character of the system it had bought into. The irony is that China had found itself caught in a contradiction because it had forgotten Mao’s theory of contradictions which draws a fundamental distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. China regarded the competition between itself and the West as a purely economic and therefore non-antagonistic contradiction, but the world system being not only an economic system but one of power, China’s peaceful rise was perceived by the West not as a ‘friendly’ or non-antagonistic contradiction but precisely as an antagonistic one, to be responded to not merely by economic means but also by military means, namely the biggest build-up of an armada in recent history through the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The irony is a dual one, because it was China that first cautioned the USSR about the idealistic and utopian nature of the project of “peaceful economic competition” with the West, but later pursued it with greater zeal and success than the USSR ever did or could. In the 1960s and 1970s, China had established a methodology of identifying the contradictions in the world at any given period and went on to hierarchize those contradictions. The listing would naturally shift over time and became irrationally anti-Soviet at one point; an irrationality that lasted a long period. However, the methodology of discerning, identifying and ranking contradictions was a realistic one, because it alerted China or anyone who used the dialectical framework, to the reality of antagonism, of hostility, in the world arena.

If the world’s foremost military power which disposes of the greatest destructive force known by history, regards one or more countries as adversaries, indeed as The Other(s), and backs up this policy perspective with the actual offensive disposition and concentration of men and material over time, then basic survival instinct should dictate that the states designated and treated as adversaries should seek to combine their military and non-military strengths to countervail and deter such a power which regards them with hostility and as threats. There are several such countries but only two such great powers, and these are Russia and China, in whichever order. Those who opine that Russia can slip out of this siege by living down a perception of a special relationship with China and associating as closely or even more closely with other great or big powers, seem to forget that Western moves against Russia’s interests preceded its renewed hostility to China.

The bottom line is that in any objective, dialectical and historical Realist analysis of Russia’s core interests, no relationship with Europe can be a substitute or even on par with a partnership with China. Not all vectors are equal, and some are certainly more equal than others.

Since neither Russia nor China can countervail the US-led Western alliance on its own, a closer equation is needed between the two than between either Russia or China and any other big power or powers. No other big power, however friendly, is the target of unremitting and adversarial Western action, and therefore will not take the same risks for either Russia or China as each of them should logically do for each other, since they both stand threatened and targeted. A Concert of Big Powers cannot be a substitute for a defensive United Front or coalition of states, of which the Russia-China relationship will be the main alliance, consisting of those sovereign states actively threatened in a military-economic sense by the West.

These are the strictly personal views of the author.

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Defense

Time for a New Approach to Conventional Arms Control?

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The return to an outright deterrence relationship between NATO and Russia involves the danger of an arms race and a number of military risks, particularly in the NATO-Russia contact zones. These risks can be contained by means of sub-regional arms control. Approaches of this kind should comprise sub-regional force limitations, limitations of military exercises, transparency and inspection rules for rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities outside the zone of limitations, as well as a strict verification regime. Measures should be based on existing agreements rather than negotiating a new treaty.

Currently, there is a little scholarly discussion on new initiatives or innovative approaches to conventional arms control (CAC) in Europe. A diligent study by Peter van Ham from the Dutch Clingendael Institute — “Modernizing conventional arms control in the Euro-Atlantic region” — discusses the merits of different approaches. A very critical report by the Swedish FOI Institute — “Conventional Arms Control. A Way Forward or Wishful Thinking?” — , edited by Johan Engvall and Gudrun Persson, focuses more on the question as to why German Social Democrats, in the wake of the 2016 Steinmeier initiative, are focusing so much on CAC than on the issue itself. And finally, in the framework of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, a group of authors from Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the US presented a concrete proposal for sub-regional arms control in the Baltic region — “Reducing the Risks of Conventional Deterrence. Arms Control in the NATO-Russia Contact Zones”.

There are many, to some extent, reasonable arguments questioning new efforts for CAC. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is politically dead, the modernization of the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures 2011 (VD11) is blocked. Why should any new initiative for CAC fly? In a broader sense, it is argued that, with the failure of the INF Treaty, the termination of the Iran nuclear agreement by the US and the uncertain future of the New START Treaty arms control, in general, has become almost unachievable. There is deep mistrust on all sides. Western governments argue that there cannot be business as usual (including arms control) with Russia as long as the Russian government is backing secessionist forces in Eastern Ukraine, while the Russian side is arguing that arms control is blocked by NATO’s ambitions for military superiority.

The Return of Deterrence

What unites most governments in Europe is the conviction that strengthening one’s own military capabilities is more important than cooperative security approaches. We are seeing the return of a mutual deterrence scenario coupled with the progressive erosion of cooperative security policies that were pursued until the early 2000s. To be sure: We never had a pure cooperative security scenario, but rather a hybrid mix of cooperative and deterrence elements. But even this led to an unprecedented reduction of conventional and nuclear weapons in Europe.

Currently, we are experiencing a quick reversal of this positive trend at all levels: We are witnessing the re-emergence of strong threat perceptions that are directly contrary to one another and mutually exclusive. Military exercises on both sides are approaching the levels reached in the Cold War. And we see hardening military postures, states investing more, modernizing and in some cases enlarging their armed forces. Although we have not yet reached a full arms race, we are on the brink of one. In terms of military options, the issue at stake is no longer “large-scale offensive options” of a continental-size in the sense of the preamble of the CFE Treaty, but the perception of emerging options for a surprise attack in the contact regions between NATO and Russia, particularly in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions.

The Risks of Deterrence

Any military deterrence relationship necessarily involves risks and inherently drives escalation. The three most important drivers of escalation are uncertainty, sub-regional conflicts, and the nuclear dimension. Uncertainty and the lack of military transparency are driving the two sides into a security dilemma with inherent worst-case thinking. Sub-regional conflicts — just imagine a re-escalation of hostilities in Ukraine — can be a powerful factor in raising the level of tensions in Europe. And finally, the failure of the INF Treaty will most probably have a destabilizing impact on the deterrence relationship in Europe.

These military risks in a narrower sense are aggravated by two broader global trends: With the rise of China and other emerging powers, we are passing through a period of hegemonic change that is characterized by a maximum of uncertainty and volatility. And we are passing through the two or three and not many more decades that are critical for stopping a global climate disaster. Both lines of risk, the more narrow military one as well as the broader global dimension, make it imperative to avoid a new arms race in Europe (and elsewhere) that would spoil scarce resources and attract the political attention that we urgently need to address global problems.

Options for Conventional Arms Control in Europe

Against this background, there are basically three options of addressing risks ensuing from a deterrence scenario dominated by conventional armed forces. The first is traditional measures of risk reduction, bilateral or multilateral agreements on the avoidance of incidents and accidents, possibly augmented by transparency measures. A good example is the Baltic Sea Project Team. Measures of this kind are considered by most governments, at least in principle. They are urgently needed, but clearly insufficient in view of the present and future risks.

A second option would be a comprehensive, pan-European post-CFE agreement that also involves new military options and types of equipment. The 2016 Steinmeier initiative for reviving arms control in Europe comes closest to this option. Despite discussions in a German-led Like-Minded Group this option seems to be far too ambitious under the current conditions. It would rather fit a cooperative security policy scenario that is beyond reach at the moment.

The third option consists of using arms control instruments for stabilizing the given deterrence relationship focusing on those areas where the danger of destabilization is most imminent, that is the contact zones between NATO and Russia. This option remains within the scope of mainstream deterrence thinking. It requires an approach of sub-regional arms control.

Problems of Sub-regional Arms Control

Sub-regional arms control is disputed by many for three main reasons. Some are afraid of the political singularization of those who would fall under a sub-regional arms control regime contrary to others who would not. Second, some governments are afraid that sub-regional or any kind of arms control would divert attention from necessary defense measures. And finally there is concern that sub-regional arms control might not be feasible in operational terms in the sense that there is always an impact from outside into the zone covered by a sub-regional arms control regime.

However, sub-regional approaches have been considered time and again. The negotiations on Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR, 1973-1989), the predecessor negotiations of the CFE talks, dealt solely with sub-regional approaches. And Chapter X of the VD11 explicitly addresses “Regional Measures.” If the three arguments quoted above are taken seriously, it is possible to establish valid sub-regional arms control regimes. The three key factors are an arms control zone large enough to dispel singularization fears and to limit properly the sides’ forces in an equal manner; sufficient regulations for armed forces outside the zone; and a thorough transparency and verification regime.

A Model for Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe

The authors of the Risk Study elaborated a model for sub-regional arms control taking the Baltic Contact Zone as an example. This zone would comprise Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Eastern part of Germany covered by the 2 plus 4 Treaty, Belarus, and parts of the Western Military District of Russia. The zone is large enough to dispel fears of singularization as it covers parts of Germany and Russia. And it is also large enough to cover a substantial part of the sides’ forces. The Baltic arms control regime would be equipped with the following main features:

No permanent deployment of additional substantial combat forces would be allowed in the Baltic Contact Zone. This builds on the obligation of NATO in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act to avoid “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the newly admitted NATO states and the corresponding obligation of Russia in the 1999 CFE Final Act not “to station substantial additional combat forces” in the Kaliningrad and Pskov oblasts. Although there is no shared definition of the term “substantial combat forces,” there is wide-shared agreement that these two obligations are still valid and have not been broken. To make them operational for a sub-regional arms control regime, it would only be necessary to agree on a definition of “substantial combat forces” and to recommit to these obligations. The commitment not to increase combat forces in the contact zone would represent the key element of the sub-regional arms control regime.

In addition, military exercises in the contact zone would be limited in size, frequency, duration and geographical proximity to borders. Such an agreement could be regarded as a measure under Chapter X of the VD11.

As a complementary measure, rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities deployed beyond the contact zone should be subject to a notification and observation regime.

All measures agreed would be subject to sufficiently strict transparency and verification regime that could also be established in the frame of the VD11. Certainly, additional quota for inspections and evaluation visits would become necessary.

Is Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe Possible?

Such a regime would have two important advantages: It would address the real risks, namely sub-regional offensive options, and it would build on the adaptation of existing agreements, the VD11, the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the CFE Final Act, rather than negotiating a completely new treaty. A sub-regional arms control regime of this kind is modest in the sense that it remains within the framework of a mutual deterrence relationship. However, it is bold in that it would introduce effective steps for stabilizing this relationship.

Is such an approach to conventional arms control in Europe feasible under the current conditions? Certainly not, if we continue to exchange almost ritualized mutual accusations. And it will become possible only when we recognize that extraordinary circumstances require special measures.

It will certainly not be possible if talks on conventional arms control are conducted predominantly at expert levels. These issues must be dealt with at the higher political levels, including heads of state and government, and ideally embedded in a broader approach of pragmatic cooperation.

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