Making peace with the West, country by country


Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Russia has taken a number of cautious steps aimed at normalizing its relationship with the West; both Moscow and Washington seem to be ready for  military cooperation in Syria; Moscow and Ankara are busy patching up their relationship; and Moscow and Helsinki have just discussed mutual security. One important feature of these recent hints at normalization in Russia-West relations is that Russia is emphasizing its dialogue with specific countries, not with blocs like the European Union or NATO.

Ahead of the NATO summit that opened in Warsaw on Friday, Russia intensified its contacts with specific capitals rather than collective bodies. Moscow put forth a set of proposals for Washington aimed at preventing confrontation in the case of a close encounter at sea or in the sky, according to Russia’s permanent representative to NATO Alexander Grushko. “We are talking about minimal distances between ships and aircraft, about what frequencies to use to establish contact, and other measures that help us understand each other’s maneuvers,” Grushko said.

Media reports suggest that the U.S. and Russia are discussing the possible coordination of military efforts in Syria. The U.S. would help Moscow with its targeting of militant jihadist groups as long as Moscow makes sure the Assad regime grounds its air force. Washington put forth this proposal last week and is waiting for a response. However, Russia is expecting the Syrian army to take Aleppo and the proposal is thus unlikely to yield an immediate result or a substantive response for many days or even weeks, a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal.

In another bilateral story, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto discussed mutual security during Putin’s recent visit to Finland. Following up on a debate in Finland and Sweden about the prospects of both countries joining NATO, Putin noted that Russia would respond forcefully to such a development. If Finnish armed forces become part of NATO’s military infrastructure, Putin said, “NATO would be at the borders of the Russian Federation. Do you think we will keep it as it is: our troops at 1,500 (kilometers, 900 miles) away?”

On the other hand, Putin agreed to work to build trust in the region and specifically promised to address the issue of military planes flying over the Baltic with identification devices switched off. The next day, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu gave an order to develop a system of trust-building measures to make flying over the Baltic safer, the defense ministry said last Saturday.

Russian-Turkish relations are changing from freezing cold to moderately warm at breakneck speed. As soon as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his regrets over the downing of a Russian warplane, his Russian counterpart rushed to rebuild broken ties. Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers met early this week to discuss the coordination of each country’s anti-terrorist operations in Syria. Russia and Turkey are far from agreeing on which specific groups to call terrorists, but Russia does need Turkish support to ensure the success of the expected assault on Aleppo by Assad’s forces. And there is no question that Russia and Turkey both need each other’s business. Russian tourists are eagerly waiting for charter flights to Turkey to resume and Turkish farmers and exporters are expecting their fruits and vegetables to return to Russian supermarket shelves.

Moscow seems to be working hard to rebuild its ties with its immediate neighbors and the U.S., but the main direction is bilateral, not multilateral.

Underlying these reassuring stories is the reality of Russia’s deepening economic crisis. As we pointed out earlier in this blog, Russia’s defense spending, which had been increasing for the past 15 years, will not grow. It remains at 3.8 percent of the gross domestic product this year, just like in 2015, but it is declining in real terms.  Early this week, the Russian government proposed to freeze the overall federal public expenditure, in nominal terms, at the level of 15.78 trillion rubles a year (246 billion U.S. dollars). A spending freeze that could not have happened without a Kremlin go-ahead will mean that 36 of 43 state programs, (roughly half of the budget) will decline in nominal value. The Kremlin prioritizes retirement costs, management of public finances, and other social expenditure over any further military expansion.

Moscow seems to be working hard to rebuild its ties with its immediate neighbors and the U.S., but the main direction is bilateral, not multilateral. The European Union is seen in Moscow as a bloc in decline, an entity permanently weakened by Brexit and previous acts of defiance by separate members. The relationship with NATO is yet to be redefined and currently stands at a freezing point. “We do not see NATO as a partner in solving the problems that concern both us and Europeans. We use other formats, like the Normandy Four or the International Syria Support Group, for resolving conflicts and countering mutually relevant challenges,” Ambassador Grushko said in the interview cited above.

Russia is economically weak and there is no sign of any new sources of growth emerging. Russia is militarily weak in relation to NATO and there is no way this disparity will be bridged any time soon. But Russia has clear strengths on each of the bilateral vectors it emphasizes. Russia is now aiming to demonstrate to the West that it can be a partner in building mutual trust, but with an important caveat: separate deals are welcome with specific countries, rather than with the Transatlantic Alliance as a whole.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.



Lee II Woo

Lee II Woo

Amid the global attention on the uncertainties of the global economy, if not the global order as we know it due to Brexit, commentaries and forecasts are left in a frenzy, leaving some to wonder whether the United States has now reaffirmed—if not been given the incentive—to act on its deepest desires to focus more on Asia as opposed to the West. Looking to adjust to a new reality while at the same time wishing to give assurances to old friends, public statements made—and not made—by elites have set a tone in which it has become common to question the validity of the “European project” if not the Western appeal at large.

Whatever one’s opinion may be regarding this milestone, perhaps it would serve us better had we muted the predictions about Asia now before they even reach such outlandish levels. With emotions and guesstimates running high, from China’s actions on the high seas to “terrorist refugees” and now Europe’s uncertain future, it has yet to be seen what in fact has actually changed or likely will change regarding the “Old World”, in addition to the one that apparently matters more for this century’s success—Asia.

The Same Old Song

To start, the overriding structures that have shaped the Far East have remained unaffected despite all the white noise from the West. As Donald Emmerson jokingly put it, when it comes to this place, the dynamics boil down to the Americans making the peace, soon followed by Asians making the money. Such crude generalizations remain intact especially when looking at the security nexus of this vast region. Looking beyond minor successes, such as American advancements between the Philippines and the Vietnamese, to partially-buried hatchets between the Japanese and South Koreans, U.S. presence and specifically its military presence, has continued to be the one constant for which nearly all parties—except the Chinese—can more or less agree upon.

Of course, it would be too naïve to think that this “pivot”, or “presence” or whatever else you want to call it was not without its faults. Obama’s economic centerpiece for the shift, the Transpacific Partnership, intended to bolster more inclusion in Asia, has only now entered the ratification process in an all but dysfunctional Congress. Not surprisingly, skeptical estimates have already begun; Barack Obama, like David Cameron, has just started his lame-duck session in office.

The West By Default?

Still, peering deeper into the security machinery America provides and for which Asia benefits, one would easily notice that ASEAN is nowhere near to becoming a NATO, and historical, if not territorial baggage remain across the board. Such hurdles would only distract from the commitments needed to increase complicated missions no doubt. Even with voluntary actions taken by those who talk a bigger game, such as Japan’s “upgrade” of its military to Indonesia’s uptick in peacekeeping missions, all may still find themselves out of sheer domestic constraints if not a profound risk aversion that has yet to be tested.

Would full-fledged American allies such as the Japanese and South Koreans be willing to put their troops in genuine harm’s way and for the long haul when operating in hot spots? Would they along with ASEAN members be willing to move beyond the supportive, hence politically safer roles they normally opt for? Apart from trying to dampen Chinese belligerence, what other meaningful commitments have Southeast Asian partners truly made for security assurances elsewhere? Common sense dictates that Asia, though important, is not the only vital area for which the world needs extra protection.

Though detractors would be right to point out that even the West has demonstrated its own failure to step up, such nitpicking of lower defense budgets and the West’s own version of risk avoidance would only miss out the bigger issue. If anything, when it comes to managing the global “public good”, potential partners in Asia appear to contribute when the circumstances align with their interests and not much more. Even if selfishness defines Western action, if not all action, what separates the Transatlantic connection as opposed to others is a storyline that underpins it all and for which the participants pay considerable respect. Call it “humanitarian-capitalism”.

This creed, foolish or not, is undoubtedly an essential ingredient in which the United States, Britain, France and other European partners have conditioned themselves for how they should function and should the opportunity arise. There’s just one problem. The Asia-Pacific has welcomed the latter with no guarantees on the former.

Of course, to give credit where credit is due, there have certainly been far-flung global assistance here and there. And yes, joint exercises and relief missionsthat should be applauded. But it is still open to discussion whether Asia as a whole, or even a specific nation within it is ready to take on that “special relationship” with America; to share that vision of not just what the world is, but what it ought to be while putting risky chips on the table for a cause beyond their own. This lack of impulse, to not just donate but to literally shape the world, regrettable to its disciples and delusional to its critics, is what differentiates the West and America in particular.

The Devil You Know

In the end, alarm bells will go off for some time as they always do when there is a perceived shakeup in world events. Whether the Brexit merits such a platform has yet to be fully known. What is known however is that the U.S.–British and European alliance, though imperfect, has been and will likely remain the more “reliable” partners in seeing through what Michael Ignatieff calls America’s burden: a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy.

Putting into context such grandiose and perhaps fanciful ideas, Asian associates would no doubt welcome America’s partnership—meaning protection—along with the prosperity it provides. It’s just that in this neighborhood, its own contribution to such an agreement should assist its own residents as opposed to a zeal to seek out progress for others—and that of course would be un-American.

NATO examines itself, again.

Stephen Sestanovich

The North Atlantic alliance has over the years experienced identity crises of two different kinds. The first stems from worry that the organization has outlived its usefulness. This form of self-doubt appeared most recently at NATO’s Lisbon summit in 2010, and again at its Chicago meeting in 2012. With memories of the Cold War receding and the “reset” with Russia still going strong (then-President Dmitri Medvedev actually came to Lisbon), the 2010 communiqué found Europe stable, successful, and at peace. Who needed an alliance?

A second kind of identity crisis is all about efficacy. It takes hold when threats are real, but NATO seems too diverse, too divided, and too disorganized to achieve its goals. Anxiety of this type was in evidence at the Wales summit of 2014. Russia had seized Crimea and sent military personnel to support separatism in eastern Ukraine, so no one doubted that NATO was necessary. The only question was whether it could fashion an effective response.

At the upcoming Warsaw summit, which begins on July 8, some will say the alliance has put identity crises behind it. The meeting is a chance for NATO leaders to review the pledges made at Wales and to endorse new plans for implementing them. Given the alliance’s record of the last two years, members have every reason to pat themselves on the back.

“Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making.”

Yet amid justified self-congratulation, doubts and divisions will surface at this summit. Some may even detect a third type of identity crisis, one that makes NATO seem, more than anything else, irrelevant to today’s big concerns.  The alliance, after all, has been on the sidelines of efforts to cope with refugees or to roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State. NATO’s mission in Afghanistan remains troubled (and to many, futile). Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making.

Concerns about relevance will be unavoidable when the leaders of the alliance gather, but these should not derail summit participants from highly relevant problems that they need to, and can, address.  NATO is not fully united in responding to the core European security concerns that brought it into being almost seventy years ago. The alliance needs better solutions to the problem of burden-sharing, and a more sustainable strategy for managing tensions with Russia.

A Record of Achievement

The debate on these issues at Warsaw will reflect the very real successes of the past two years. At their 2014 meeting, alliance leaders sought to reassure member states that NATO security guarantees meant something. To be able to protect threatened allies, especially those in Eastern Europe, in a crisis, the summit adopted a Readiness Action Plan. Its key measures were to triple the size of the NATO Response Force (NRF) to forty thousand troops and to create a “spearhead” unit within the NRF capable of deploying five thousand troops anywhere within the alliance in two to three days. Across NATO, rebuilding strength was the new imperative. The Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM), which had sent home the last of its heavy-armored vehicles in 2013, began bringing them back in 2015.

Since the Wales summit, NATO efforts to enhance deterrence have focused on creating a credible forward presence in “frontline” states. (As Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. diplomat who serves as deputy secretary-general of the alliance, puts it, it’s not enough to be able to reinforce. “We need to be there,” he says.) The Warsaw summit is expected to give final approval to the rotational deployment of four multi-national battalions to Poland and the Baltic states. Eight new regional headquarters have also been created in NATO’s east, to oversee the activities of the new forces and to prepare for the deployment of larger ones in an emergency.

Larger, more visible exercises from the Baltic to the Black Seas have been a further part of implementing the Readiness Action Plan. Last year, NATO held a total of three hundred separate exercises. Anakonda-16 in Poland brought together forces from twenty-three nations (including five non-NATO allies, Ukraine among them) in June 2016.  With thirty-one thousand participants, it was the largest-ever alliance exercise in Eastern Europe.

Burden Sharing

All these efforts will be justly hailed at the Warsaw summit. Even so, the meeting will face a nagging question: Is Europe pulling its weight? U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration wants to quadruple funding for the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative, from $800 million to $3.4 billion in 2017. Yet for many Americans—foreign-policymakers included—the “reassurance” project seems increasingly one-sided. The president has called NATO allies “free riders,” and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said the alliance may become “obsolete.” In U.S. public commentary on NATO—and on the Warsaw summit—burden-sharing is once more a contentious topic.

Annoyance with Europe is easy to understand. In 2015, the median level of defense spending by non-U.S. NATO members was 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.62 percent for the United States. To address this imbalance, the Wales summit set 2 percent of GDP as a target level for the military budgets of member-states. (In 2014 only four of them met this goal.) The leaders of the alliance further agreed at Wales that at least 20 percent of defense budgets should be dedicated to new equipment, so that increased spending actually increases capability. (In 2015, twenty members of the alliance failed to meet this standard.)

NATO is forced to focus on this issue now because European members of the alliance for years let economic growth outpace their contributions to the common defense. The end of the Cold War made it easy—and seemingly safe—to ignore military needs.  The global economic crisis of 2008, and sluggish growth thereafter, put further pressure on budgets. In France defense spending dropped more than 4 percent between 2010 and 2015; in Germany, more than 5 percent; in Britain, more than 6 percent; in Italy, by more than a third.  (Although Poland and the three Baltic states increased their budgets by an average of 40 percent in this period, they were lonely exceptions.)

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 began to reverse this trend, but the turnaround has been slow.  Alliance-wide, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, has estimated, the increase in spending will be only 1.5 percent. The impact of past cuts, particularly in troop numbers, remains severe. Since the Cold War, Germany has cut back its army by half. Others have gone further: the ground forces of European NATO as a whole are down 60 percent from the 1990s. No surprise, then, that some of the most important policy reversals have involved increased manpower. Poland now plans to double its army; Germany recently said it would add 11,400 military and civilian personnel.

The challenge for NATO leaders in Warsaw is to sustain pressure for more meaningful contributions, while recognizing the domestic realities of each member state. The alliance has struggled with this problem since its founding, but the imbalance has rarely been quite as stark as it is now. New benchmarks and new mechanisms urgently need discussion. (One recent suggestion is that NATO member parliaments formally endorse the 2 percent pledge.) To head off defeatism and back-biting, the alliance needs credible evidence that members accept the responsibilities of collective defense.)

Managing Tension

Whenever NATO rearms, it has to expect pushback from Moscow. Russia can test the alliance’s commitment to firmer new policies in various ways—through military countermeasures of its own, loud warnings that NATO is pushing Europe toward war, and offers and inducements that try to peel off the more nervous (or cynical) Western governments.

In the past two years, such efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates have had meager results. Efforts to divide the West have so far produced no give on sanctions and no readiness to let Moscow interpret the Minsk 2 agreement—the plan that is supposed to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine—by its own lights. Despite Europe’s surprising firmness on Ukraine, a new phase of Russian diplomacy is now at hand, and its aim is to slow down or reverse the alliance’s new military initiatives.

Russian officials regularly denounce Western exercises as excessive and provocative. “No threats in this part of the world whatsoever” justify what NATO is doing, according to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. (This, even though many recent Russian exercises have been three times as big.) Putin has charged that NATO missile defense facilities in Romania and Poland threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. (To this oft-made claim, he recently added a wild scenario in which the U.S. secretly replaces defensive interceptors with offensive cruise missiles. “I know how this is done,” he insisted.) Putin has also decried NATO’s “aggressive rhetoric and aggressive actions,” while declaring Russia “ready for dialogue.”

NATO governments know, of course, that it is Russia that increased its defense spending 100 percent over the past decade; that pulled out of the Europe-wide treaty on conventional forces (possibly violating the treaty on intermediate range missiles as well); that recently announced a three division build-up of forces on its western border; that has included simulated nuclear weapons use against NATO in its exercises; and that used force against Ukraine.

All the same, Moscow’s strategic combination of sharp elbows and appeals to reason seems to have made headway in some parts of Europe. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned of a renewed, Cold War-style division of Europe, proposed to invite Russia to rejoin the G8, and chided other Western governments for “warmongering.” The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, traveled to St. Petersburg in mid-June to meet with Putin and underscore Europe’s hope “to build bridges.”  At the same meeting the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, underscored his country’s interest in reviving trade.

Though criticized by many, such statements and meetings do not necessarily signal an unraveling of Western policy. As Ronald Reagan himself demonstrated, negotiations and ambitious arms control proposals can help legitimize a tough policy, showing doubters that every effort is being made to find alternatives to confrontation. NATO has made recent use of the same principle, holding the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in two years—and expressing regret afterward that the discussion showed how far apart the two sides remained. (An effort to convene a second meeting before the Warsaw summit apparently failed; it may be held later in July.) Meetings alone, however, have less value than a positive agenda—a set of initiatives that describe what the alliance wants Russia to do.  In the Reagan era, the so-called “zero option,” which required the dismantling of Soviet missiles aimed at Europe, played such a role. Other than the demand to get out of Ukraine, the West has no such initiatives on the table today.

Efforts to open separate channels to Russia do not by themselves show that policy is unraveling, but they do show the potential for it. At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it. Well-managed dialogue should increase pressure on Russian to change course.

Back to Basics

“At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it.”

NATO has reinvigorated itself in the past two years, and the Warsaw summit will celebrate this success. The alliance has bolstered the security of its own members and of Europe as a whole. But, in doing so, it has also re-discovered many of the problems that it faced in the past. In the ups and downs of the Cold War, NATO was rarely free of discord over how to share the burdens of collective defense. And it was rarely free of debate about how to keep tensions with Moscow from boiling over. These are the challenges the alliance will face at the Warsaw summit, and in all likelihood for years to come. For NATO, getting back to basics means coming to grips with its own internal divisions and with a tough, resourceful adversary.