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Are Russia and NATO inching towards a conflict?

Rajorshi Roy is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • August 08, 2016

    The Joint Communique issued by the recent NATO summit, held on July 8-9 in Warsaw, appears to have sown the seeds of a renewed confrontation with Russia. It identifies Russia as a key threat to European security, emphasises upon ‘deterrence’ and ‘defence’ through a NATO military build-up along Europe’s eastern arc to counter the Russian threat, and indicates NATO’s intent to strengthen its outreach in the post-Soviet space of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The other vital roadmaps identified by the Joint Communique include Montenegro’s accession as a NATO member, the operationalisation of missile defence systems in Romania and Poland, and the cultivation of a defence partnership with, hitherto neutral, Sweden and Finland.

    While these initiatives may reassure Eastern European members about NATO’s commitment to counter the Russian threat, they are also likely to reinforce Russia’s hostile perceptions of this ‘Western’ alliance. It can even be argued that NATO’s blueprint amounts to breaching the Kremlin’s red-lines, which is particularly significant given the adversarial relationship between Russia and the ‘West’ post the 2014 Ukrainian crisis.

    Russian and NATO Threat Perceptions

    The roots of the ongoing Russia-‘West’ rivalry lies in the inability of the latter to accommodate the former as an equal partner on the global stage. Their historical mutual distrust and fundamental differences over the global strategic balance finally culminated in the Ukrainian standoff. The West’s imposition of economic sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia in the global arena have reinforced Russia’s suspicions about the US-led ‘Western’ strategy to contain it in its own neighbourhood. Against this backdrop, NATO is seen by Russia as a key instrument for pushing this ‘Western’ agenda, which is particularly reflected in the alliance’s expanding footprints eastwards, despite an assurance to the contrary.

    Russia’s Historical Anxiety

    In this context, one also needs to take into account the historical genesis of the Russian anxiety about military alliances in its neighbourhood. Being a pre-dominantly land power, which moreover did not possess defensible frontiers, Russian empires have had to face the onslaughts of Mongols, Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans.1 This gave rise to its quintessential need for strategic depth, in the form of a geographical buffer, to prevent invasions of Russian territory. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War was an outcome of such thinking. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has not only witnessed its geographical buffer shrink dramatically, but also NATO moving practically to its doorstep. Given the deep sense of betrayal over the alliance’s expansion, Russians have been vigilant of NATO’s capabilities rather than relying upon its assurances that the military build-up is directed against other threats. From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, NATO continues to pose an existential threat to Russia’s security.

    At the same time, a similar fear psychosis exists among NATO members about Russia. This is particularly so in the case of the ex-Warsaw Pact countries of Poland and the Baltic states. Given the substantial presence and influence of ethnic Russian minorities in their territories, the pretext advanced by the Kremlin for the Crimean takeover has set alarm bells ringing in these countries. According to a recent RAND report, Russia can overrun their territories within a few hours.2 This has compelled them to seek a more robust NATO military posture towards Russia. However, the fallout is Russia’s belief that NATO has re-discovered its raison d’être. In effect, each side blames the other for escalating tensions.

    Brexit and the Dynamics of European Defence

    Against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile Russia-NATO relationship, the dynamics of European defence is likely to change on account of ‘Brexit’. This is because NATO’s and the European Union’s (EU) memberships overlap. Britain has been a pillar of NATO, with its defence spending the highest among the EU countries. It has also strongly supported the sanctions against Russia. The ongoing ‘leave’ turmoil and a possible economic slowdown can distract its attention from NATO and its alliance commitments. The key question is which European power can fill the void, given the emerging tendency everywhere to look inwards. Meanwhile, the number of dissenting voices in Europe over the adoption of a hard-line position towards Russia has increased. These include the German Foreign Minister and the French President who have criticised the rationale for NATO’s ‘sabre-rattling’ and the EU’s economic sanctions. At stake is European solidarity and credibility.

    Moreover, the EU’s new ‘Foreign and Security Policy’ envisions deeper military cooperation between its members.3 This is seen as an attempt to gain strategic independence from NATO. But will it lead to the revival of the EU-orchestrated Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)? Questions abound since, at present, only a handful of EU members meet NATO’s two per cent of GDP spending on defence threshold. Also, the dynamics of German and French collaboration need to be worked out. Consequently, European defence is likely to be in flux for the foreseeable future even though Russia is perceived as being the biggest threat and challenge to European security.

    Is a Military Confrontation Between Russia and NATO in the Offing?

    It is likely that Russia will view the Warsaw summit as a major provocation. As a result, the Kremlin can be expected to up the ante. The wheels have already been set in motion since the beginning of the year when signs of a NATO build-up emerged. This has included the re-organisation of Russia’s western military command and an increase in the number of military exercises and bomber flights closer to NATO boundaries. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has stated that NATO’s initiatives will be met with an ‘adequate response’.

    The emerging flashpoints of a Russia-NATO confrontation involve the Baltic and the Black Sea regions. Notably, the Kremlin retains ‘escalation dominance’ in its neighbourhood. This allows it to raise the stakes, knowing fully well that NATO’s success in a localised confrontation are minimal. Russia’s Syrian expedition would also have emboldened it. The tactic appears designed to force the ‘West’ to respect Russia’s core interests.

    In this context, the salience of nuclear weapons for Moscow has grown manifold. Nuclear weapons offer the Kremlin parity with NATO at a time when its conventional military capabilities have failed to keep pace with those of the alliance. As a result, the modernisation of both its conventional and nuclear arsenals is likely to be given priority. Given the mutual threat perception, a period of intense arms racing in Europe may be in the offing. Moreover, a hard-line position towards NATO strengthens the Kremlin’s domestic narrative of Russian resilience in the face of adversity. This assumes significance given that parliamentary elections are due in September.

    Nevertheless, an armed confrontation looks unlikely. In a Russia-‘West’ standoff, the optics of a strong posture are equally important. They are linked to the nuanced interplay of several events involving Syrian developments, economic sanctions and the Ukrainian crisis. These will, in the future, involve a grand bargain. When that time comes, each party would like to hold an upper hand. As such, there does not appear to be any real appetite for a military confrontation on either side.

    A Russian encroachment of the Baltics will likely unite the European fence sitters. A more plausible Russian strategy would be to cultivate the differences among EU members in order to undermine the US-led ‘Western’ alliance. In this light, it is important to note that countries like France, Austria, Italy and Greece have favoured a more reconciliatory approach towards Russia. They have expressed their unhappiness over the American pressure tactics to maintain the current course.

    However, the danger of a miscalculation increasingly lurks in the background. The frequent overflights of Russian bombers and ‘mysterious’ appearances of Russian submarines in the NATO periphery have led to tense encounters. The risk of an incident snowballing into a confrontation has grown exponentially in the absence of a regular Russia-NATO dialogue. This can have devastating consequences.

    Given the unravelling of Russia’s ties with the ‘West’, it appears that their interactions are likely to be limited to managing risks and cooperating tactically where their interests overlap, including tackling the threat of terrorism. This is unfortunate given the tremendous potential of Russia-‘West’ cooperation on the global stage. Ultimately, in this evolving rivalry, where the ‘West’ appears keen to contain one major power (Russia), it may inadvertently be facilitating the rise of another in the form of China. This does not bode well for either Russia or the ‘West’.

    Implications for India

    India is neither a member of NATO nor located in Europe or in Europe’s immediate vicinity and, as such, the Russia-NATO confrontation should not ideally affect it. However, the fact remains that the broad contours of this rivalry involve Moscow’s fundamental differences with the US. Therefore, the pull and pressure of this competition is likely to complicate India’s foreign policy practice. While ties with Russia have been a pillar of the country’s foreign policy, India cannot afford to ignore the ‘West’. The key challenge will be to tactfully build relationships with each side on its own merits. More notably, the Russia-China entente, which is a direct outcome of the Russia-‘West’ rivalry, is likely to have more significant implications for India.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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