by Hall Gardner
International Conference on Common European Security Prague
I. Critique of the « Open » NATO Enlargement
Two decades ago, prominent American foreign policy experts, former Senators, retired military officers, diplomats and academicians all forewarned that NATO enlargement would eventually provoke a Russian backlash. Ironically, both George Kennan and Paul Nitze, who were largely responsible for the policy of containment that sought to check Soviet and Communist expansionism, were both against NATO enlargement.
While George Kennan is perhaps most often cited, Paul Nitze also argued that the most important goal of post-Cold War US foreign policy should be to promote the engagement of Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community. As early as May 1995, Nitze was forewarning: « With the vulnerabilty of Russia’s new democracy, pushing for NATO enlargement will likely exacerbate the existing, destructive internal pressures. A wrong move on our part could easily backfire, triggering a rise to power by Russia’s nationalists… (NATO)… will find itself back in a Cold War environment. Our long term objective should be to promote the engagement, not the exclusion of Russia in Europe. »
Nitze accordingly argued (as a retired State Department official and Professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS) that there was greater risk that a Russian backlash would occur if NATO did enlarge than if NATO did not expand, and that NATO would actually become weaker in political and military terms the more it expanded, in part due to its own internal geostrategic and political-economic disputes that were already evident at the time. As Nitze argued in Congressional testimony in 1997, and which was likewise argued in the Open Letter to President Clinton (June 26, 1997), NATO enlargement could have and should have been “put on hold.”
So too did my PhD mentor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Czech born IR theorist George (Jiri) Liska, and former student/ colleague of Hans Morgenthau, the founder of modern American « realism », argue against NATO enlargement. Like Nitze, Liska also forewarned of a revanchist Russian backlash if NATO attempted to create a cordon sanitaire that sought to isolate Russia from Europe.
For Liska, it was essential that central and eastern Europe forge a strategic bulwark between Germany and Russia. For Liska, the Czech Republic and Poland needed to work together and cooperate to forge a confederation of Central and Eastern European states « that would stabilize the region in depth and for the long term ». Such a confederation was essential to counter-balancing both Germany and Russia. The countries that would join this confederation would not serve as either a « bridge » or a « buffer » and they would « neither be demilitarized nor neutralized » , but they would serve as an active link between Germany and Russia that would help bring Russia into a new, and more positive, relationship with the rest of Europe.
As Liska argued in 1996, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe could initially provide the political framework for reciprocal security guarantees that would seek to safeguard eastern European countries against the possibility that double expansion of NATO and the European Union into eastern Europe would result in an « assault by Russia » in response.
At that time, I wrote a critique of the September 1995 NATO Enlargement Study. I argued—based at least in part on the views of George Liska and Paul Nitze—for the need to strengthen a proposed Central and Eastern European confederation in political-military terms. Instead of integrating individual states one-by-one, or in regional groups, fully into NATO’s integrated command structure, as NATO was planning at the time, I argued for the creation of a « separate » Central and Eastern European command structure that would work to integrate and build-up the political, economic and military capabilities of Central and Eastern European states step-by-step through the Partnership for Peace initiative under overlapping NATO, Russian and European security guarantees and under a general OSCE or UN mandate. This would have provided a tougher shell to George Liska’s proposed central and eastern European confederation and would have been intended to better counter-balance both Germany/Europe and Russia, while not antagonizing the latter.
I published my proposed alternative « separate » command structure for Central and Eastern European states in several publications and in my 1997 book Dangerous Crossroads : Europe, Russia and the Future of NATO. The latter was named after a speech made at Johns Hopkins SAIS by then National Security Advisor Anthony Lake who had affirmed that US and Russia relations were at a « crossroads. » He neglected to add the adjective… « dangerous.»
I would further argue that the roots of the present crisis are largely due to the fact that there were no truly careful, well-thought, plans as how to engage Russia in the new Europe that could have replaced the less complex, and really expedient, option of expanding a powerful military alliance closer to Russian borders—in that the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in effect, represented a new « non-agression pact » in George Liska’s words. I had, in fact, been told at the time by a high ranking US diplomat that those who were asked to draw up the plans for post-Cold War Euro-Atlantic security « did not have time to think. »
NATO’s promises not to deploy troops or nuclear weapons on the territories of the new members—what I called the « NATO self-limitation » approach at the time—was hastily conceived and executed. And we are only now, since 2014, realizing the dangerous consequences.
NATO expansion nonetheless became a panacea to secure and somehow democratize eastern European countries (as if NATO and democracy were inextricably related) against the feared (yet unspoken) Russian threat. It was “NATO or nothing”—which was one of the slogans of the epoch—but which would result in a self-fulfilled prophecy of a Russian backlash.
One of the main reasons that NATO enlargement took such a simplified and expedient form was due to President Clinton’s hope to attract voters for his second term in office. Nearly 20 million Americans of east European background were concentrated in 14 states that possessed 194 electoral votes, in which Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey were pivotal to win the 1996 Presidential election. Many of these voters wanted clear NATO Article V security guarantees for their former homelands.
Yet the strategic dilemma is that the definition of an Article V attack is no longer as clear-cut in post-Cold war circumstances as it at least appeared to be during the Cold War. Given the clandestine and shadowy nature of “hybrid” or “non-linear” war—in which the actual source of an attack may not be absolutely certain—the call for the implementation of NATO Article V security guarantees would most likely take place in unclear, emotionally charged, and politically contentious circumstances.
Moreover, the hypothetical defense of many of the new eastern European NATO members against Russia—particularly those countries close to Russian borders—would require the use of nuclear weaponry—in effect eradicating those intended to be saved. And was the US really willing to risk nuclear strikes on its territory in order to defend the Baltic states or other eastern European countries, including Ukraine—in post-Cold War games of brinksmanship?
The next major reason for an open NATO expansion was potential US arms sales to full NATO member states. In addition to the demands of Americans of eastern European background to join NATO, plus demands of a newly unified Germany’s hope to secure a “buffer of states” around it (Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary) that would be protected after the first wave of NATO enlargement from 1997-99, US arms producers were also pressing the US Congress and the Clinton administration to begin expanding NATO to assure US arms deals in eastern Europe.
In short, there was not much hope for the implementation of an alternative, and more flexible, geostrategy toward eastern European security that would seek to incorporate Russian security concerns as well—much as George Liska had proposed. Yet NATO expansion, which was determined to be open-ended, was largely set on autopilot—contrary to the warnings of George Kennan, Paul Nitze and many others who opposed the extension of the NATO juggernaut into central and eastern Europe.
The Pre-World War I Analogy
In the Machiavelli-Liska tradition of explicating historical analogies to illustrate contemporary foreign policy questions, let me now compare and contrast the Ukrainian crisis with the long-term crisis leading to World War I. In the final section, I will then outline a few points that I call a « neo-Jaurès » strategy after the great French statesman, Jean Jaurès, who had opposed the general militarization and looming possibility of war before World War I.
Jaurès had warned against the French policy of revanche that was implemented step-by-step in the aftermath of the Prussian/German annexation of Alsace Lorraine in 1871. Contrary to the militarist French voices of his age, Jaurès had argued for engaged diplomatic discussions between France and Imperial Germany over Alsace-Lorraine, Morocco, the Balkans and other key geopolitical and geo-economic issues that had alienated the two powers prior to the outbreak of World War I.
In this historical analogy, the pre-World War I period appears highly relevant to the post-2014 Ukrainian crisis in that the Russian annexation of Crimea and political military interference in eastern Ukraine can be compared and contrasted with Prussia/German annexation of most of Alsace-Lorraine—and subsequent French demands for revanche.
In this perspective, pre-World War I French demands to regain Alsace-Lorraine after the Prussian/German annexation appear very relevant to the contemporary crisis when regarded in relationship to the demands of Kiev to fully regain Crimea and to European Union hopes (backed by NATO) to further integrate Ukraine into the pan-European project as a whole, and in which the EU has sought to draw most post-Soviet states into its sphere of influence and security—to the potential exclusion of Russian political, economic and security interests.
While European Union enlargement was not initially seen by Moscow as a potential “threat,” it then became a “threat” once the EU announced in 2008 that it intended to invite former Soviet bloc states into the EU Eastern Partnership. The new EU Eastern Partnership was accordingly seen by Moscow as potentially drawing Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, as well as Georgia and Ukraine, away from Russian political-economic, if not military, grasp.
Of these countries, Russia’s geostrategic and political economic interests in eastern Ukraine are among the most crucial. Moscow had opposed any political-economic deal between the EU and Ukraine that did not also incorporate Russian gas and other economic interests. The promise of a EU Association Accord with Ukraine accordingly played in the background of the Maidan protests in Kiev in 2013-14 that led Moscow to take advantage of the chaos once the kleptocratic Yanukovych leadership collapsed in order to rapidly annex Crimea, and engage in clandestine political-military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Here, it should be pointed out that the EU Association Accord that was finally signed with Kiev in 2014 with the new Ukrainian Poroshenko government after the annexation of Crimea also possesses security and defense aspects—in that it commits Kiev to engage in dialogue leading to a gradual convergence with the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy and European Defense Agency policies. Moreover, from Moscow’s standpoint, the July 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit did nothing to question the “open” NATO enlargement. NATO continues to support the quest of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO as full members—which the July Warsaw Summit Communiqué once again confirmed. In effect, NATO expansion is still set on auto-pilot while likewise backing pan-European aspirations—in potential conflict with Russia’s claims to its own spheres of influence and security.
The Present Crisis
The danger now is that the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s purported political-military interference in eastern Ukraine, combined with the Russian military build-up and provocative actions, overflights, and submarine penetration into NATO and EU member territories, plus Russian actions in Syria, are risking a dangerous socio-political and military backlash in both the US and Europe. This potential overreaction augments the possibility that inadvertent actions, miscalculations, and even acts of terrorism by third parties, can set off unexpected conflict.
In addition to the imposition of economic sanctions by the US and EU against Moscow, NATO has engaged in new counter-measures since the July 2016 Warsaw summit. These include a new conventional and nuclear military build-up involving the deployment of « rotating » forces in the Baltic area. At the July 2014 Warsaw summit, NATO accordingly agreed to a “rotating” force of 4,000 men in the Baltic states and Poland. At the same time, Sweden and Finland have been seeking closer defense ties to NATO. As a show of solidarity, and ostensibly of deterrence, the purpose is to make (an overly feared ) Russian advance into the Baltic region sometime in the future much more costly.
In many ways, Russian military actions, at least since 2014, appear to parallel the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercises against the Soviet Union—but in reverse. In the present post-Cold War context, Moscow has been engaging in a wide range of military and non-military activities —which include snap military exercises, cyber attacks, the use of special forces and displays of conventional forces, overflights and submarine penetration of NATO and EU member territories, coupled with repeated threats to deploy tactical nuclear weaponry in Kaliningrad and now in Crimea, for example. Russian military strategy sees tactical nuclear weaponry as a potential means to « de-escalate » a conventional conflict, as opposed to « deterring » a conventional conflict—as in the American strategic perspective.
Moscow has accordingly been enhancing its A2/AD denial tactics in Kaliningrad by deploying S-400 air defense missiles and tactical, nuclear capable, Iskander surface-to-surface missiles, plus shore based cruise missiles. The purpose appears to be to block NATO from potentially re-supplying the Baltic states in case of war.
These kind of actions and nuclear deployments (which NATO sees as demonstrating « hybrid » or « non-linear » warfare capabilities) have led NATO strategists to up the ante. NATO strategists have begun to threaten to develop a new nuclear defense posture—ostensibly as a means to sustain « deterrence. » The Pentagon has also been upgrading the B-61-12 “tactical” nuclear weapon—which, in effect, extends its range and transforms it into a “strategic” weapon. There are now 480 renovated B-61-12 warheads scheduled for production—to be deployed by 2020.
With the 2010 Nuclear Policy Review (NPR), the US has thus been planning a massive high tech conventional and nuclear weapons build-up in case of future wars, whether with Russia, China, or other states in an accelerating arms race that really began in earnest in the aftermath the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.
The deployment of the controversial and overpriced F-35 fighter jet (which can carry the B-61-12 nuclear bomb), for example, is being planned, in addition to the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber. There are also the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), which is a form of nuclear cruise missile with dual-use nuclear/ conventional capabilities. Such dual use systems could confuse the military of the state that is being targeted and result in a nuclear response—even if a “conventional” warhead is deployed on the LRSO. The deployment of many of these systems can be questioned on both strategic (unnecessary or provocative) and financial grounds (excessive costs).
The development of these new US nuclear weapons systems is taking place along side the deployment of US Missile Defense systems in Romania in 2016 and in Poland (by 2018). Such MD systems, coupled with penetrating radar, have been denounced by Moscow as “encircling”—and potentially capable of protecting a US nuclear first strike against a second Russian strike in retaliation. Already, both the US and Russia have a significant number ICBM’s on “launch on warning” status. From this perspective, Moscow sees itself responding to both a US/NATO conventional and nuclear military build–up and the expansion of NATO military infrastructure closer and closer to the borders of the Russian Federation.
The build-up of NATO military capabilities—without also engaging in full-fledged diplomacy with Moscow—risks an escalation of crisis. This military-technological build-up is likewise contrary to the promises President Obama made to reduce or eliminate nuclear weaponry in his first term in office, while contradicting the reasons President Obama was (prematurely) given the Noble Peace prize.
Toward A Neo-Jaurès Strategy
Much as Mikhail Gorbachev warned in his September 16 address, a very dangerous arms race and geopolitical conflict has already begun—with potentially no end in sight. I will thus try to make a few suggestions that could hopefully help defuse NATO-Russian-Ukrainian tensions and help bring Russia back into a closer relationship with Europe and the US and away from its relative isolation and the sanctions imposed upon the Russian Federation by the US and Europeans—and which were largely reciprocated by Moscow.
The Ukrainian crisis now holds the key as to whether or not Russia can move closer to the Euro-Atlantic community. On the one hand, if the brutal war now raging in eastern Ukraine continues, it will continue to stimulate a general arms race and destabilize US-EU-Russian relations. On the other hand, an overarching geopolitical settlement can help defuse tensions throughout the region.
If bargained cautiously, a resource and industrial rich “neutral” and « decentralized » Ukraine (with Crimea under Russian sovereignty) could play a significant role as a « gateway » between Europe and Russia. This would begin to defuse tensions between NATO and Russia—much like a Franco-German deal over Alsace-Lorraine could have possibly served to foster Franco-German cooperation.
The present dilemma, however, is that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appears incapable of implementing the February 2015 Minsk decentralization proposals, involving changes to the constitution and permitting local elections. This appears true primarily because these decentralization plans have not yet been supported by the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada. Concurrently, Moscow appears reluctant to make good on its security commitments, because of its commitment to eastern Ukrainian autonomists, who see the open border with Russia as key to their survival. At the same time, Kiev has, in the past year, insisted on being able to control the Ukrainian-Russian border first before implementing the Minsk accords. This is a major factor in leading to a breakdown in discussions.
Yet there is an additional dilemma: It appears dubious that the eastern Ukrainian Donbass question can be thoroughly be settled without also settling the question as whether NATO should eventually enlarge to Ukraine. Here, NATO should formally announce a full suspension of NATO enlargement, but as part of a larger negotiation process that is intended to reach a deal with Moscow over eastern Ukraine and the Caucasus, if not elsewhere.
A suspension of calls for NATO enlargement should, in itself, help ameliorate US-European-Russian tensions. On the one hand, the promise of NATO enlargement has done nothing but send mixed signals to both Russia and Ukraine. It has antagonized Moscow, while concurrently being disingenous to Kiev—as NATO membership for Ukraine remains a truly dubious prospect. The dilemma is that Ukraine’s long and porous border with Russia can only be defended by NATO’s use of nuclear weapons if relations between Ukraine and Russia remain negative.
From a political-economic perspective, it is also essential that Russia and Ukraine learn to live side-by-side—as these two large contiguous countries will remain in uneven political-economic and financial inter-dependence upon each other for a long time : Even closer ties to the European Union will not prove to be a panacea for Kiev given its deep financial crisis. It is accordingly essential that the European Union work out mutual accords with both Ukraine and Russia as soon as possible once the disputes over eastern Ukraine can be resolved, and in the process of rescinding sanctions against Russia (and vice-versa).
If a mutual accord can eventually be reached, the deployment of a multinational brigade of neutral, but armed, peacekeepers under a UN or OSCE mandate in order to enforce the Minsk II accords will most likely be needed—otherwise Minsk II will most likely fail. The possibility of peacekeepers is beginning to be considered by Russia and Ukraine; yet Moscow has thus far agreed only to a temporary and limited presence, while Kiev has wanted to set up a more permanent and expanded peacekeeping force. Let us hope the Minsk discussions will continue— even if they may need to be placed into a larger format that includes the United States.
In addition to the potential deployment of peacekeepers, so to assure security and development prospects in the Donbass region under a general UN or OSCE mandate, peacekeepers under UN or OSCE auspices (much as was the case for Bosnia in 1995 but with more Russian inputs) could also be considered for the states of the southern Caucasus. Here, instead of demanding that Russia “evacuate Tranistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, as well as Crimea and Donbass” —as the hardline position that seeks to isolate Russia advocates and which Moscow would definitely consider as a casus belli—joint peacekeepers can be deployed in the so-called “frozen conflicts.” The problem here will be how to engage in joint US, European and Russian arrangements in an effort to share or internationalize (but not monopolize) some Russian non-vital “spheres of influence and security” where mutual agreement is possible.
Joint NATO-Russian or else multinational Partnership for Peace (PfP) peacekeeping deployments (under a general mandate of the OSCE or UN) could accordingly be deployed in the frozen conflicts in the Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh—similar to joint deployments in ex-Yugoslavia in 1995—and under a joint US-EU-NATO-Russia command structure in which Russia plays a positive role.
As for Crimea, I would suggest that the US and Europeans press for an international free trade zone—but that Crimea would remain under Russian sovereignty despite its “illegal” takeover and Moscow’s ostensible violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum for annexing Crimea. And the US and EU likewise should likewise push for Kaliningrad to become a free trade zone as well. These proposals would be coupled by a step-by-step joint demilitarization of both regions.
This latter proposal is more or less what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently advocated—as part of an “eight-point” plan for Vladivostok. Would it not be possible for a somewhat similar plan to be implemented for Sevastopol and for Kaliningrad as well—so as to as to reduce tensions in both the Black Sea region and Northern Europe? Valdivostok, Sevastopol, Kaliningrad would all remain under Russian sovereignty, but these areas would be opened up to a free trade and development zones.
NATO-Russian military-to-military talks are absolutely crucial, but these need to be taken in a new direction. Despite NATO enlargement to the three Baltic states and Poland, there may still be ways to mitigate tensions with Russia. Instead of engaging in a renewed military build-up of the Baltic states, as is being implemented by NATO after the Warsaw Summit, but which can be relatively easily countered militarily by Moscow, I propose other options.
One possible option is joint NATO-EU-Russian air policing and naval patrolling of Baltic region and joint naval and air patrols in Black Sea region, as well. Concurrently both sides need to jointly reduce conventional and nuclear military capabilities in all theatres—while seeking ways to cooperate where possible in the “global war on terrorism”.
Despite the difficulties and recent blunders and mutual imprecations on both sides, US-Russian military coordination in Syria against the Islamic State and other “terrorist” factions represents a positive sign—if such coordination can be sustained. Prospects, however, appear bleak at the moment as the two sides engage in mutual imprecations and suspend talks—hopefully temporarily.
In many ways, the present Syrian crisis appears to parallel the series of Moroccan crises that were a major factor in sparking World War I along with the pre-World War I Balkan wars—which parallel contemporary Saudi-Iranian proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and throughout the ‘wider Middle East’.
But here another issue arises: There should eventually be discussions to reduce, if not eliminate, at least in Europe, all tactical nuclear weaponry as soon as politically possible. Here, the US and Russia could agree to a mutual “no-first use” of nuclear weapons in Europe so to reduce tensions. In addition, the US could consider eliminating land-based elements of the nuclear triad so as to reduce pressure on Moscow to “launch on warning”—without undermining a strong US air- and sea-based deterrent.
A US-Russian discussion of tactical and intercontinental nuclear systems could be accompanied by potential compromises on the deployment of US Missile Defense systems in Europe. The US, Europeans and Russia need to fully discuss whether such MD systems are necessary, whether they can function, and if so, where should they deployed and under what dual-key relationships, if any. To reach a compromise, the US and Russia should re-visit some of the previous proposals for joint Missile Defense systems that were proposed before UN P-5 plus 1 negotiations pressed Iran to give up on its nuclear program.
It will still take some time to build up trust after the next Presidential elections, and somewhat like Imperial Germany before World War I, Moscow will not give up unilaterally or even compromise—without very tough power-based bargaining. Nevertheless, I do not believe these proposals are utopian. They can succeed if proposed by the US and Europeans in a unified and concerted fashion and if all sides demonstrate a practical effort to forge a new system of Euro-Atlantic security, with practical verification measures, that incorporates legitimate Russian security and political economic concerns—and that protect Moscow’s truly “vital” interests.
Here, the EU needs to bring both Kiev and Moscow into a more equitable partnership, so that Ukraine can become a strong “gateway” between Russia, Europe and the United States—a gateway that could unleash the tremendous economic and energy potential of the Black Sea and Caucasus region. This can be accomplished through a joint EU-Ukraine, EU-Russian accords. Had the EU worked first with Moscow, which has specific economic interests in eastern Ukraine, and then with Kiev, the crisis since 2014 might not have become so acute.
Concurrently, once and if the Minsk II accords can be implemented (assuming Kiev can eventually implement the necessary constitutional changes and deal directly with the Donbass “autonomists”), the US, Europe and Russia need to establish Ukraine as an internationally recognized neutral and “decentralized” country, with Crimea as a free trade zone—yet under Russian sovereignty.
If this proves feasible, then the amelioration of political-military tensions in the Black Sea region, with a formal declaration of “neutrality” for Ukraine, in particular, should help ameliorate tensions throughout the entire region and lead to a significant reduction of armaments throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic region, as well as the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Perhaps the Czech Republic can play a key role in breaking the ice between the US, Europeans and Russia—much as George Liska had counseled?
It is certain we are entering a very danger period. Will NATO’s actions and efforts to build up its military capabilities in Poland and the Baltic states and strengthen ties to Sweden and Finland, represent acts of true “deterrence”?
Or more likely, will such a US/NATO/EU military build-up be perceived by Moscow as an act of escalation that, in effect, links NATO to pan-European goals, and be met by even stronger Russian counter-measures—perhaps by augmenting its purported clandestine support for Ukrainian “autonomists” or by further pressuring the southern Caucasus and the Baltic states—or else by forging an even tighter military alliance with China?
And will the US, Europeans, and Russia eventually find a way to cooperate over Syria? Or will that conflict lead to an even deeper deterioration of relations between the US, Europe and Russia?
Jean Jaurès had forewarned that the French military build-up against Imperial Germany before World War I could provoke war if France could not come to terms with Imperial Germany over the questions of Alsace-Lorraine, Morocco, the Balkans, among other disputes. Somewhat similarly, in today’s differing geostrategic circumstances, if NATO cannot soon switch off its “open enlargement” autopilot, and if the US and Europeans cannot come to terms with the Russian Federation over the question of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, if not Syria and the ‘wider Middle East’ as well, the world could be heading toward a dangerous collision between rival nuclear powers and their alliances—and in the not-so-distant future.
It is time to wind this crisis down.