After the NATO summit in Warsaw, West and East should stop blaming each other and immediately start negotiations to eliminate the possibility of armed confrontation, says Dmitry Trenin, director of Carnegie Center Moscow. A military stand-off is dangerous. Both sides have to compromise.
Whereas the 2014 summit in Wales marked the end of the NATO-Russia partnership, the 2016 Warsaw summit ushers in something that many have thought would never return: a military stand-off in Europe. The new confrontation between Russia and the West begun as a result of the Ukraine crisis is acquiring a measure of permanence. Rather than deploring this situation, which is certainly deplorable, or to engage in blaming the other side, which will certainly continue, the issue at hand now is to make sure that this new confrontation does not lead to a new major conflict. This means stabilizing the stand-off, learning to manage the adversity and keeping the channels of communication open for serious exchanges.
Europe fears peace order...
To make such exchanges more productive, each party needs to understand, to begin with, where the other one is coming from. The Russians have to acknowledge that Moscow’s response to the Kiev Maidan – first in Crimea, and then in south-eastern Ukraine – materially challenged the global system presided over and guaranteed by the United States, and delivered a shattering blow to the concept of the European peace order, which had become an article of faith for German and other European politicians. This challenge is fundamental, and the resultant confrontation cannot be patched over. Both sides will have to compete hard before there is a clear outcome.
but Russia feels threatened
The West needs to acknowledge that the stand-off with Russia is not merely the result of Russia turning authoritarian, nationalistic and assertive. European history suggests that a failure, after a major conflict – and the Cold War was such a conflict – to create an international order acceptable to the defeated party – and the Soviet Union did not survive the Cold War - leads to a new round of competition. The famous phrase of U.S. President George H.W. Bush about a 'Europe whole and free' applied to all countries west of the Russian border. Russia was to be a partner, but not part of the arrangement. Thus NATO enlargement which was promoted as a symbol of consolidation of a continent-wide democratic peace and development in Europe, became, in the eyes of the Russian elites, a means of consolidating Western strategic position vis-à-vis a sidelined Russia.
This mutual 'acknowledgment' should not constitute acceptance of the other side’s narrative. There is virtually no common ground between the two visions of the recent past. What is more important, however, is the present, and the future. With regards to the present, the most urgent task is to prevent incidents in Europe’s skies between Russian and NATO aircraft and naval ships which can result in collisions and casualties, which would send the confrontation to a qualitatively more dangerous level. On a recent visit to Finland, President Putin has acknowledged the problem and suggested addressing the issue. This absolutely needs to be pursued, immediately.
Stop arms race
With regard to the future, since a new military stand-off along Russia’s western border is already a fact, the task should be to keep the level of forces appreciably low. The reinforcements announced before Warsaw – 4,000 allied personnel stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic States – would not make the Russian General Staff overly agitated. The Russian counter-move of deploying two divisions to the Western military district is entirely predictable. Ideally, both sides should leave it at that. Otherwise, a totally unproductive and senseless cycle of re-militarization of Europe’s divisions will follow.
Missile defenses are another area where the action-reaction logic can lead to an arms race. The Romanian site, the Russians acknowledge, as presently configured, is not a major issue. However, should it be reconfigured for a different kind of missiles, which is technically possible, it might become one. To allay Russian suspicions and thus to prevent Moscow’s response, the only way forward is through confidence-building measures. The Polish site, which will not become operational until 2018, faces a similar dilemma: either convincing the Russians that they have no reason to overreact – or facing the likelihood that they would. Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave inside the NATO territory, is already being turned into a forward position for Russian counter-measures potentially reaching deep into the alliance’s rear.
To keep the revived rivalry under control, constant communication at appropriate levels is a must. Until now, NATO-Russian contacts were severed each time there was a crisis in Europe: in 1999 over Kosovo/Serbia, in 2008 over South Ossetia/Georgia, in 2014 over Crimea/Ukraine. Both sides viewed contacts with the other as a privilege that could be withdrawn at will. With partnership over, this should no longer be allowed to be the case. On the contrary, the NATO-Russia Council needs to be reconfigured to serve as a conflict management mechanism, designed to work overtime each time there is a new crisis in the relationship. As for the ongoing crisis in Donbass, it needs to be brought under much tighter control than now.
Speak not to domestic audiences
During the Ukraine crisis, top military commanders and spokesmen for both sides were liberal with public statements about the bad behavior of the other side. They talked to domestic and international audiences, but never to their counterparts across the new divide in Europe. Yet, the Kremlin-White House hot line is not enough, even in combination with a direct link between the U.S. Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister. SACEUR needs to be able to get in touch with the commander of Russia’s Western military district, and the Russian Chief of the General Staff needs a direct line to the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The shock of the sudden rupture over, Russia and NATO have to come to terms with the new reality, which promises to last a number of years. Their conflict is anything but trivial, but it is clearly not worth a European war, which should be securely prevented through joint precautionary measures. It is probably still too early for Russian and Western officials to talk about a new security architecture for Europe: the current round of competition is just starting. However, they need to be permanently in touch with each other to ensure that what is left of the existing architecture does not fall onto their – and their citizens’ – heads.
Dmitri Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
This article was first published in German in Die Zeit.