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.
From our partner RIAC
NATO is not lost as the spirit of collective security remains
Authors: Do Quynh Anh & Paul Wang
It is true that NATO was founded 70 years ago during the heyday of the Cold War. Then in 1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was debated about the legitimate role of NATO in the future because the Soviet Union disappeared.It is true that in November, French President Macron warned that European countries could no longer rely on Washington to defend its Atlantic allies due to “the brain death of NATO.”Also it is evident that the United States, in particular President Trump, has consistently lashed out at European allies over the defense budget and even trade issues during NATO summit in London during this week.
However, it is unrealistic or a misguided view that the clashes among the NATO members will bring it to the end, and the United States or France would be “breaking off” the relationship with the NATO. In effect, since Macron spoke of the “brain death of NATO, German Chancellor Merkel immediately responded with her disapproval of Macron’s drastic words as she argued that NATO remains vital to the cross-Atlantic collective defense and beyond. So did Turkey and other member states which have vowed to hold the NATO in terms of the “bandwagoning behavior”.
In order to inquire the legitimacy of NATO, let’s go to review briefly its origins in 1949. When NATO was founded, the primary goal was sure to provide a security against the perceived threat from the Soviet Union in a collective military institution. Yet, NATO was also expected to watch and then keep the German re-militarism down and simultaneously to keep the disputed Europeans work together. There is no doubt that from the very beginning military and ideological threats have been reinforced with each other to challenge the Soviet Union and its bloc, since the West opined that divergent ideologies can pose a threat to each other. Today the spirit of the collective security remains valid since most states of Europe which have shared the so-called democracy still want to ensure German integration into a larger defense domain and also remains united to meet the reemerging Russia. It is clear that liberal scholars opine that NATO allies would crumble as the common fears of the Soviet Union had vanished, and now conflicting views might divide NATO and even undermine it soon or later. Yet, the provision in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty specified that “each member would consider an attack against one or more members to be an attack against them all.” This is exactly true that In light of the past memories of the Europeans and the shared interest in a collective security, NATO is still accepted in principle by all member states of NATO and its economic counterpart of EU.
Macron is correct that Europe stands on “the edge of a precipice” wherein it needs to think of itself strategically as a geopolitical power. He is also frank in view of the commitment of the United States which is seen to recede in Europe. As the youngest president of France in history, he is right to opine that Europe needs to start thinking and acting not only as an economic powerhouse but also as a strategic power. It requires that Europe regains its military authority, and re-opens dialogues with Russia despite suspicion from some of former states that were once under Soviet domination. Despite all the discourses, NATO member states want to make sure that the “European force” proposed by France since the 1950s does nothing to weaken NATO and the U.S. commitment to Europe. In effect, if American troops left Europe, most nations across the continent would scream out due to their lingering fears of German hegemony and Russian threat.
Considering this, the comments on the NATO’s brain-death is more a chat than a talk. The differences have been overstated between the United States and its allies. Even Macronopines that NATO functions well in the military sphere. His real goal is that Europe must be great again, even though Russia, China and the U.S. might have more the potentials in the future. Yet, as he argues that no matter how fragile it is, Europe if it can’t of itself as a global power, will disappear at all. In this sense, NATO still provides an insurance policy against any potential geopolitical threat, ensures a more assertive Germany integrated into a larger collective security community. Now it seems that NATO is in a tight spot, with both Trump and Macron taking aim at some of the alliance’s core value. Yet, politically the preservation of NATO is still in its fundamental interest shared by its all members. Germany hopes to ensure member states regain their trust in NATO by reforming the old mechanism. To that end, France does not object at all. It only intends to push forward the strategic autonomy that would insure Europe’s peace and prosperity.
Henry Kissinger once said, the so-called crises within NATO as the alliance were generally in the nature of family disputes, having to do with differing interpretations of the requirements of an agreed common security. Today it is the European allies who dissociate from American policies outside the NATO areas—from the Iran nuclear deal, sanctions against Cuba, and any aggressive rhetoric towards Russia and China. Due to a rapid changing era of globalization, there will be beyond the traditional framework of common defense: the members of the Atlantic Alliance used to think of themselves as belonging to a unique and special community of values and not simply as an aggregation of national interests.
Now consider that after so many years of strategic dependence on the U.S., Europe is truly unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. But the questions about NATO future emanate from not just Washington, DC, but Paris and Berlin as well. NATO’s survival can no longer be taken for granted, and Europeans cannot wait 20 years to figure out what should come after it. In view of the U.S. unilateral mentality, China’s growing assertiveness, and the ongoing digital revolution, Europe has no choice but to become a power in its own right. In this respect, Macron is correct but meanwhile to be sure, NATO still exists, and there are still U.S. troops deployed in Europe. As Joschka Fischer, former German foreign minister and vice chancellor (1998-2005) argued recently, Now that traditional institutions and transatlantic security commitments have been cast into doubt, the alliance’s unraveling has become less a matter of “if” than “when.” When will Trump finally decide that it’s time to call the whole thing off? For Europeans, it would be the height of folly to sit back and wait for the fateful tweet to arrive.”
Latvia: “Armed to the teeth”
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.
How to Stop NATO
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.
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.
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.
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.
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