The Kremlin today will be struggling to reconcile conflicting messages from the West.
Deepening divisions in the European Union that came to a dramatic head with the Brexit vote have not found their way into NATO. Instead, the Alliance appears to have re-discovered the culture of deterrence.
The communiqué that comes out of last weekend’s NATO Summit in Warsaw devotes considerable space to the challenges Russia poses to European security and lists them in unusually clear language. These include the ‘ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea … the violation of sovereign borders by force; the deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine; large-scale snap exercises contrary to the spirit of the Vienna Document, and provocative military activities near NATO borders’. NATO leaders also condemned Moscow’s ‘irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric’.
NATO’s decision to shore up its eastern flank by deploying four battalion-sized battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland will not have come as a surprise to Moscow. NATO had telegraphed its intentions well in advance.
The Russian General Staff will not be unduly concerned by the size of the deployments and NATO’s efforts to develop improved capabilities for reinforcing the Baltic States since it believes it has the necessary operational capabilities to counter them. However, the military establishment may not immediately recognize that it is Moscow’s behaviour over the past two years that has woken NATO from its slumbers and put it on a course to become a strategic challenge to Russia.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have forced NATO to think once again in terms of focusing on its traditional core task of collective defence of both its populations and its values.
While the Russian military stands to benefit from this situation, at least in the short run in terms of continued provision of resources for rearmament and an important voice in strategic decision-making, it is likely to be uncomfortable as well.
Its planners will not have forgotten the lessons of the 1980s, when the USSR’s inferior economic development combined with heavy military spending generated a threat to national security and forced a new generation of political leaders to seek to regain strategic advantage through détente and disarmament. From the military’s perspective, these policies ended disastrously with the break up first of the Warsaw Pact and then the USSR itself.
Parts of the military system are likely to recognize that President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to divide the US from its European allies have failed in both Ukraine and Syria.
The White House decision, reportedly against advice from other agencies, not to provide lethal aid to Ukraine preserved Western cohesion over Ukraine. Germany, in particular, opposed the move. The strong political support at the summit for Ukraine and its territorial integrity is an indication of how Ukraine’s security has become coterminous with NATO’s in terms of destabilization of the country threatening broader European security.
Similarly, Putin’s intervention in Syria has not led to disruption of the US-led global coalition to counter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
What will Russia do next? Judging by the tone of last night’s weekly news review presented by Dmitri Kiselev, the Kremlin’s top propagandist, the message to the Russian population is that Russia is no longer a partner for NATO but rather a target, and NATO is preparing for war. Russia will respond carefully and not immediately, he said, since as Putin claimed last week, it is developing new technologies ‘that can change the correlation of forces at sea and in the air in any military theatre’.
In fact, there may be no need for an immediate response beyond harsh words and further accusations of ‘anti-Russian hysteria’ and Western provocation.
Russia has been working on a response to increased NATO activity on its borders since the beginning of the year when it announced the creation of three new divisions in its western military district. Some Russian military analysts have suggested that the military will struggle to find sufficient soldiers to man them.
Defending the exclave of Kaliningrad is becoming a particular challenge at a time of heightened tension with NATO and the region could become a new form of the Cold War anomaly of West Berlin given Russian concerns about their ability to defend it.
As a show of force both at home and abroad, the Russian military may finally feel compelled to follow through on threats to deploy Iskander missiles there in response to NATO’s continued development of a ballistic missile defence system. Moscow continues to reject NATO claims that the system is not aimed at undermining Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
The Warsaw Summit communiqué also signalled that dialogue with Russia should complement deterrence, not replace it.
The NATO−Russia Council was born in the hope that NATO and Russia could forge cooperation to transcend their differences. When it meets at ambassadorial level on Wednesday, these differences will be clearer than ever before.
John Lough is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme (Chatham House) and vice president with Gabara Strategies, a public affairs and strategic consulting company.