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Column: 'After many years of peace, Europe could be drawn into a war on its own borders'

The West needs to stop hiding behind treaties that Russia has already invalidated, writes John O’Donnell.

John O'Donnell

A WHOLE NEW generation of Kremlinologists is spilling ink over Vladimir Putin’s intentions on everything from Ukrainian statehood through gas shipments.

The current clash between Russia and NATO, currently focused on Ukraine, has upset the worldview that many Americans and Europeans have long taken for granted.

Europe, after many long years of peace could be drawn into a war on its own borders. In overthrowing the regional status quo of the last 25 years, Vladimir Putin has both led and been led by domestic factors in upsetting his relations with NATO and the EU.

Balance of power

Many Russians (like Germans in 1919) have seen the current balance of power in Europe as stacked against them. Putin sees the end of the USSR as the  greatest tragedy of the 20th also miss the prestige of Empire.

As the Ukrainian crisis has expanded from a squabble over customs unions to outright war in Europe, NATO has continually stated that it will abide by the treaties it has signed with Russia in the late 80s and 90s to reduce military tensions and govern the new peace in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, the Russian side has disregarded treaty after treaty, from upgrading its potential nuclear capacity in Eastern Europe to annexing chunks of Ukraine. Each discarded treaty has changed the terms of Russia – NATO relations and has set precedents for other countries around the world, from China to Iran, on how the West will react if they try to upset the status quo. century and a sizeable portion of the Russian population.

Russia Finland Putin Russian President Vladimir Putin. Source: AP/Press Association Images

How Not to Treat a Treaty

While Ukraine is by far the bloodiest battle so far in Putin’s struggle to reassert domination over the smaller states of the former USSR, it is by no means the first. Until now, the West has done a poor job of pressuring Russia to uphold its agreements and obligations. Russia’s first post-soviet war in its “near abroad” (Russia’s term for ex-soviet states) happened in 2008 in Georgia.

Since then Russia has pursed an aggressive foreign policy aimed at creating frozen conflicts and using them to create new “facts on the ground” while revising the post-Cold War agreements.

The first treaty Vladimir Putin threw out was the Cold War Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treat, signed with the USSR in 1987. The treaty was concluded to prevent medium ranged, nuclear tipped missiles in Europe – the sort that could come down on London, Berlin, Paris or Warsaw. As with other treaties, Russia has never formally withdrawn.

However, Russia has continued to violate the treaty since at least 2011 by developing the R-500 Iskander missile system, including a potentially nuclear equipped version.

Post-Cold War 

Vladimir Putin’s Russia further destabilised the post-Cold War by installing its own forces in Ukraine and annexing Crimea, which is a direct violation of the terms of the 1994 Budapest memorandum which guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up the remains of its share of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal.

Throwing out the Budapest memorandum sets a horrible precedent for agreements to end nuclear weapons program with countries such as Iran or North Korea. The unilateral trashing of this agreement has continued with Russia actively supporting the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk as well as committing its own forces in Eastern Ukraine.

Belarus Ukraine Source: AP/Press Association Images

Very recently, Russia has also stated it will change its own policies towards NATO, a direct violation of both the spirit and letter of the NATO-Russia Founding agreement of 1997. Although not a legally binding treaty, it has in fact been treated as one both by the NATO and Russian sides.

The document clearly states that Russia and NATO will no longer consider each other adversaries and encourages them to work together to minimise just the sort of crises that is occurring in Ukraine.

It also states that neither NATO nor Russia will move military capacities forward into the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Violations

Russia has already violated the agreement by unilaterally upgrading its conventional missile capacity in Kaliningrad Oblast (although, in fairness, this was specifically aimed at overcoming US missile plans in Eastern Europe) and by bringing its own troops into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. NATO has hesitated to put bases or stronger defences in Poland or the Baltic states in order not to violate this agreement.

The reality is that the entire post- Cold War treaty infrastructure has been thrown out by Russia; NATO and the EU must recognise this.

There are no longer valid treaties of friendship between Russia and NATO. There are no longer valid treaties preventing NATO troops from being based in Poland or in the vulnerable countries on the Baltic Sea. Russia is no longer the NATO ally that it could credibly claim to be in the 90s. It is a hostile state, actively seeking the break up of NATO and the re-establishment of Russian pre-eminence in Eastern Europe.

What Russia (and Putin) Really Wants 

While the rebel ceasefire seems to be largely holding, it would be naïve to imagine that the larger conflict is over.

The deterioration of NATO – Russian relations began well before the Ukraine crisis and it will continue long after. This is a bid from Putin to re-establish Russia as an indispensable nation in the affairs of all post-soviet countries and possibly beyond. Putin has not minced his words on these aspirations.

He has also unmasked himself as having some measure of operational control over the rebels by forcing the current ceasefire on them.

Putin’s world view is zero-sum; any gain for the West is a loss for Russia. That is why Putin is cannot be reconciled to an independent and peaceful Ukraine inside the EU, let alone NATO. It is also why it is naive to believe that Putin would give up Kiev for Crimea.

In a crude and simplistic geopolitical argument, Putin would be losing out if he gave up Ukraine’s 44 million people to gain only 2 million in Crimea. Crimea is a lovely holiday retreat, but Kiev is the mother of Russian civilization.

He has no intention of simply allowing Kiev and the bulk of Ukraine to join the EU or NATO. Ukraine has to at least be a neutral state; Putin would rather see it left as a mess or broken into pieces than see it “belong” to someone else. But a military solution to capturing Kiev is also not in Russia’s interest, Russia would lose thousands of soldiers if it were to try to conquer Kiev.

‘Saviour of Crimea’

Putin is finding himself back into a corner by the same domestic pressures he’s unleashed and his own zero-sum calculus. For instance, he’s become the “saviour” of Crimea, but now Crimea can no longer be used as a chip to bargain with.

His popularity touched 90% after the annexation of Crimea; he can hardly return it quietly. The grey war he is fighting in Ukraine may begin to back fire as more Russian soldiers come home to be buried. Putin has also radicalised an already divided Ukrainian population and locked Russia into a long-term struggle with NATO and the EU.

Crimea Election A Russian soldier is reflected in a mirror as he casts his ballot paper at a polling station during regional parliament and municipal election in Sevastopol, Crimea. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The further Putin stokes Russian nationalism, the harder it will be for him to disengage or pull back from a maximalist Russian state – which would include large stretches of former Soviet states, including possibly parts of NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It is equally clear that a classic security dilemma is evolving between Russia on one side and NATO and the EU on the other. Every move that Russia or NATO makes to secure its own position (or that of its allies) risks undermining the security of the other.

For example, Russian aid for the rebels has pushed NATO into setting up a fast reaction force, which itself in turn has set off alarm bells in Moscow, which may yet increase its military in Kaliningrad. The logic pushes for the ever-increasing militarisation of the Russian – NATO borders and the fragmentation of Ukraine, which would be a disaster for Europe. However, without trust between the main antagonists, it is impossible for either side to simply back down.

And trust has become a scarce commodity since Putin has continued to lie about Russian troop movements, first in Crimea and then in Eastern Ukraine. Instead, both sides must admit they have conflicting interests, but that neither side will gain from military action.

An Armistice for 30 years?

Russia is still a very vulnerable state. While it has the largest cohesive army in Europe, it is entirely dependent on EU customers to prop up its economy. Russia’s economy needs significant Western investment to grow and function. Russia’s army, while modernising, is still far behind NATO. Direct Russian interference in Ukraine has only brought the battle to a standstill. If Russia can barely subjugate Ukraine, it has no hopes against the more technologically advanced NATO forces – as yet.

Russia may have the world’s third NATO’s collective spending. In the face of Russia’s lack of credibility, NATO and the EU need to establish their own credibility and to show that the West will honour its commitments, but not highest military spending, but it is a fraction of push further.

As such, Russia’s Ambassador and permanent mission to NATO should be immediately expelled. NATO forces need to be brought into Poland and Baltic countries most threatened by Russian revanchism with the explicit goal of defense.

Their positioning in Poland and capacity should also reflect a defensive posture. NATO’s lack of credibility on defending its Baltic members sends mixed signals to the Russian side, which could lead to unintended conflicts down the line.

Germany must solidly back NATO and a concerted EU reaction to Russian militism with stronger sanctions and by contributing more to NATO. The Germans should know better than any other nation what happens when dictators are allowed to trample democracy and human rights while redrawing European borders. Germany should demand from the US (on behalf of the EU) that full German support will be contingent on the US accepting a treaty on its spy operations in Europe. NATO is a collection of allies, not US vassels.

The French have taken a first, and painful, step in delaying the delivery of two Mistral class helicopter carriers to Russia. More painful decisions lay ahead for NATO and EU members. But the current prosperity that the EU, and the West in general, enjoys is largely dependent on the security in Europe and around the world.

A resurgent and belligerent Russia threatens that. As the world has learned before, militant nationalism is a recipe for war not prosperity. The West needs to stop hiding behind treaties that Russia has already invalidated.

John O’Donnell is a recent MSc. International Politics student from Trinity College, Dublin. He lives in Dublin and focuses on US-EU relations.

Read: US intensifies sanctions to punish Russia>

Read: The EU is targeting Russia’s oil and AK47s in its latest round of sanctions>

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