when the Cold War came to an end three decades ago, the West was careful to control the euphoria. “I was not euphoric about the Berlin Wall,” said the former president. George HW Bush for Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, during a meeting in Malta in 1989. Months later, James Baker, then US Secretary of State, reassured Gorbachev in Moscow: “If we maintain a presence in Germany, it will be part of NATO. There will be no expansion of NATO’s jurisdiction by an inch to the east.” Even after the collapse of Soviet Union, in 1991, the then British Prime Minister, John Major, repeated the promise. “We are not considering strengthening NATO,” he said.
Still, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) grown up. In 30 years, the alliance has expanded over a thousand kilometers east of the former frontline that divided the Germany. A bloc that previously shared only a slender border with Russia, on the northern shores of the Norway, now covers the Baltic countries, former Soviet republics located 200 kilometers from Saint Petersburg and 600 kilometers from Moscow. Seven of the eight members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. At a summit in Bucharest in 2008, the US persuaded alliance countries to declare that Ukraine and Georgia will “become” members – a promise that was reiterated last month.
To the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, this was both an insult and an intrusion. “What the US is doing in Ukraine is happening on our doorstep,” he complained at a meeting with military commanders on Dec. 21. “They must understand that we have nowhere else to retreat. Do they think we will just watch this without reacting?”
The question was rhetorical. Putin spent much of the past year mobilizing a vast army near the Ukrainian border. With that club in hand, he made public his demands on December 17 to obtain “legal guarantees” for Russia’s security in the form of draft treaties with the US and NATO. In practice, Putin is calling for both a massive pullback from NATO and the creation of a semi-formal Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Consider some treaty provisions. The NATO pact would require the alliance not only to rule out the possibility of further expansion, but also to renounce any kind of military cooperation with Ukraine and other non-Soviet bloc countries. Russia would not be bound by any reciprocity. And NATO would not be allowed to deploy troops and weaponry in the territories of its member states in Eastern Europe, a condition that would involve dismantling forces deployed in Poland and the Baltic States after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed NATO. Crimea. The deal with the US would entail the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, without any restriction on Russia’s considerable – and comparable – tactical atomic arsenal.
While European and US officials say Russia has yet to make a final decision to invade Ukraine, the Russians will likely have to decide whether or not to launch a military operation on Ukrainian soil before the end of winter, says Michael Kofman of the CNA. an analysis institute.
Troops cannot be kept indefinitely mobilized for an invasion, some of them hundreds of kilometers from their original bases, without their morale plummeting and their vehicles requiring maintenance. Ukraine’s frozen ground will begin to melt in March, making it difficult for tanks to advance. In April, Russian conscripts will be replaced by new, inexperienced recruits.
Perhaps to avoid giving Putin the opportunity to claim that diplomatic avenues have run out, the US has agreed to negotiate. The diplomatic flurry satisfies Putin’s desire to sit at the head of the table and have a chance to express his indignation.
US and Russia may find fields for mutual concessions. Putin often complains, hypothetically claiming that if the Americans deploy medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, the projectiles would be able to hit Moscow in minutes.
Similarly, Putin’s cruise missiles installed in Kaliningrad could hit Berlin just as quickly. A deal that bars such missiles in Europe but allows the US to deploy them against China in Asia – essentially a reborn, regionalized Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – could be attractive to both sides.
If missiles prove to be an intractable subject, another topic of discussion could be control of conventional weapons. Here too, both sides have long and old lists of grievances.
A new agreement to govern these factors is unlikely. For NATO, giving up exercises in the vicinity of Russia would be equivalent to expelling the Baltic countries from the alliance, since no part of their territories is far from Russia.
Russia would also not accept an equivalent ban on exercises in Kaliningrad, an enclave between Poland and Lithuania, or in Murmansk, near Norway, or in Belarus, next to Poland, says Dmitri Stefanovich of Imemo, an institute linked to the Academy of Russian Sciences. Greater transparency and more limits to the magnitude of these exercises, however, are possible, he says, and would build some trust.
Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group, another think tank, suggests that the Black Sea would be a promising candidate for mutual containment, for example with fewer NATO patrols in the vicinity of Crimea in exchange for Russia accepting containment of its fleet at Sea. Black.
Measures like these would be welcome, whatever happens in Ukraine. It is unlikely, however, that Putin threatened to go to war simply to obtain more detailed reports on NATO exercises. Their animosity is against the post-Cold War order as a whole and Russia’s exclusion from that system.
According to its narrative, the US and its European allies took advantage of Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and early 2000s by abandoning their promises not to expand NATO, by waging a war in Russia’s ally Serbia, and by supporting so-called “color revolutions” against authoritarian – and pro-Russia – regimes in the former Soviet republics.
It is true that Russia received several assurances that NATO would not expand – but it voluntarily resigned when the alliance changed its position. In 1997, even when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were invited to join the group, Russia and NATO signed a “constitutive act” according to which Moscow accepted NATO enlargement.
In return, NATO ruled out deploying “permanently substantial combat forces” in Eastern Europe and deploying missiles in the region, a limit that is still observed today. In addition, the US withdrew large contingents of soldiers from Europe after the Cold War, and European countries dramatically shrunk their Armed Forces.
These steps had salutary effects on Russian perceptions of the alliance. In 2001, shortly after the attacks by the September 11th, Putin met with the Secretary General of NATO and praised “the change in attitude and perspective of all Western partners”. In 2010, when a dozen new countries had joined NATO, the then Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, agreed: “We were successful in putting the difficult period in our relationships behind us.”
NATO has no stomach for admitting Ukraine’s membership at this point, with all the risks of war with Russia that such a maneuver could create. But ruling out Ukraine’s membership will not placate Putin. “The Kremlin knows that NATO has no intention of including Ukraine and Georgia in the near future,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German diplomat and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, an annual congress. “The underlying problem is the fear that Ukraine will modernize and become an attractive model for Russians across the border.”
Meanwhile, NATO formalizing the obvious – that Ukraine will not join the alliance for the foreseeable future – would deal a heavy blow to Ukrainian reformists, who have even registered their aspiration to integrate the club into the country’s constitution. Verbalizing this statement in response to Russian provocations would be doubly unpalatable.
One way to round that score, Ischinger suggests, would be to adopt the European Union’s position in recent years: that while enlargement is a goal as a principle, the country must first reform itself. This could gently dismiss Ukraine, without making it appear that Russia holds some sort of veto over the alliance’s expansion.
Ukraine is not the only place where this dilemma hangs. Georgia was also invited to join NATO in 2008, but its membership would also imply that the alliance would inherit an open conflict – Russia occupies a fifth of the country’s territory, in the breakaway regions of Georgia. Abkhazia and south ossetia. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina, another candidate, is also far from that path, with the Bosnian-Serb leadership increasingly opposed to membership.
The irony is that Russia’s efforts to prevent NATO’s eastward expansion may result in just the opposite. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 renewed the strength of the alliance, catalyzed a sharp increase in defense spending by European countries and provoked military deployments and movements in Eastern Europe that Putin now wants to see suspended. Furthermore, a major Russian attack would likely result in an even greater Western military presence in the region. Joe Biden already stated that, in this case, it would deploy troops in Eastern Europe.
By the same token, while a second Russian invasion of Ukraine could put an end to any prospect of Kiev joining NATO, it could push other countries toward the alliance. “It is difficult to say whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be able to trigger this process”, estimates a senior Finnish official, “but it would be possible. There is a growing understanding that even though Ukraine is geographically located hundreds of kilometers from Finland, Europe is a single arena.”
For Putin, the gamble could pay off. Better to start a war now, despite the costs to come, than to risk a Ukraine full of foreign troops a decade from now. Thirty years ago, political scientist Robert Jervis applied perspective theory, a branch of behavioral economics, to the study of war and peace. The theory notes that people tend to take greater risks when they feel they are losing.
“In this way, wars will often be provoked by fear of loss,” wrote Jervis. “When states take very high risks, it is usually because they believe they will have to accept certain losses if they don’t.”
What Putin claims is a quest for security. “We have nowhere else to retreat” means an exasperated effort to recapture formerly captive countries and somehow keep them under Russian influence. An insecure Kremlin, which goes on the attack to feel more secure, thus constitutes a spiral of insecurity.
Ischinger, a former German diplomat, recalls asking a very senior Russian government official in Moscow in 1993 about how the Kremlin intended to allay the fears of recently liberated countries such as Poland and Ukraine. “What’s wrong with our neighbors being afraid of us?” replied the official. Unfortunately, according to Ischinger, very little, if anything, has changed. / TRANSLATION BY GUILHERME RUSSO