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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

In a recent Valdai Club report, I proposed a combination of seven factors for a Euro-Atlantic security formula: the balance of power, the structural peculiarities of Russia and NATO, arms control regimes and institutions, political identity, new areas of competition and vulnerability (the digital and information environments), peripheral conflicts in Europe, and the role of rising external actors.

In this report, we will attempt to apply this formula to the Baltic security context. The Baltic region is where Russian and NATO forces come into direct contact. For the countries of that region, the "Russian threat" has turned into an essential part of the political discourse; they form the avant-garde of counteraction to "Russian aggression." It is also home to °countries that are trying to find an optimal format for dialogue with Russia, while at the same time firmly rejecting Moscow's current foreign policy.

In other words, the Baltic region is particularly vulnerable to contradictions between Russia and NATO. However, attempts to solve security problems in the region, though they may be tactical and insignificant at first, could become the beginning of more substantial changes for the better. The possibility of such a scenario is slim, but it must be studied and intellectually considered.

US President Donald Trump's signing of the "Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act" laid the foundation for a new Euro- 5 Atlantic security. The bill introduces comprehensive, systemic, long-term £ sanctions against Russia. These sanctions effectively rule out the possibility of striking any kind of deal between Moscow and Washington that would a change the quality of relations between the two countries. The passing of ™ the bill marks the final formalisation of a new bipolarity in Europe. From f now on, mutual deterrence will be the key component of Russia's relations with the West. This does not preclude cooperation on topics of common interest, but the cumulative weight of such cooperation is incapable of changing the track that has by now been determined for decades through formal sanctions and informal mutual grievances.

The only thing that can be realistically expected today is stabilising deterrence and minimising rivalry-related damage. Still, a stable deterrence will only be an interim solution, and may still lead either to growing confrontation or to partnership. We must admit that the possibility of the situation worsening is much higher at the moment than the possibility of normalisation. All this requires a thorough reflection on the new formula of Euro-Atlantic security and its driving forces. More importantly, it requires a vision of how we want to see this formula in the future. Without such reflection, we are doomed to further deterioration of the relationship.

In a recent Valdai Club report, I proposed a combination of seven factors for a Euro-Atlantic security formula: the balance of power, the structural peculiarities of Russia and NATO, arms control regimes and institutions, political identity, new areas of competition and vulnerability (the digital and information environments), peripheral conflicts in Europe, and the role of rising external actors.

In this report, we will attempt to apply this formula to the Baltic security context. The Baltic region is where Russian and NATO forces come into direct contact. For the countries of that region, the "Russian threat" has turned into an essential part of the political discourse; they form the avant-garde of counteraction to "Russian aggression." It is also home to °countries that are trying to find an optimal format for dialogue with Russia, while at the same time firmly rejecting Moscow's current foreign policy.

In other words, the Baltic region is particularly vulnerable to contradictions between Russia and NATO. However, attempts to solve security problems in the region, though they may be tactical and insignificant at first, could become the beginning of more substantial changes for the better. The possibility of such a scenario is slim, but it must be studied and intellectually considered.

Let's begin with the first component: the balance of power. One logical consequence of the Ukrainian crisis was a significant decrease in trust and growing fear of new crisis situations. Fortunately, an escalation was avoided, as were any significant incidents. Nevertheless, the developments in Ukraine have gradually begun to set Russian and NATO military machinery in motion.

The Russian threat has become a powerful driver of NATO consolidation. It has legitimised the Wales Summit's objective of bringing NATO member states' defence expenditures to 2% of national GDP and bringing spending on armament procurements up to 20% of their defence budgets (2/20). Very few NATO member nations are in a hurry to meet this target, but nobody questions the need to reach it sooner or later. Military potential has also been increased to a certain extent. Russia is fully aware of the fact serve a political purpose rather than a military one. Nevertheless, it is more difficult for Moscow to ignore NATO's other military preparations. The budget and scale of the US European Reassurance Initiative programme are growing. And even though the deployment of new US units to Europe merely restores the status quo following the 2012-2013 cuts, the build-up of reserves for the deployment of a division-level unit in the event of a crisis appears to be a more significant factor. The same goes for the expansion of NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

Changes are taking place in Russia as well. Moscow has managed to implement a massive, the four NATO battalions deployed in Poland and the Baltic states and apparently successful, military reform, creating " more compact, mobile, and possibly more efficient armed forces. A number of military units have been restored; in particular, three divisions were deployed on the country s southwestern borders to replace brigades previously stationed there. By all appearances, these the deployment of these forces was possibly aggravated with relations with Ukraine in mind. However, no serious changes to Russia's strength have taken place in the Baltic region. The level of information noise in the Baltic countries far exceeds the actual changes to the balance of power. This certainly stabilises the situation and prevents the triggering of a local arms race. Occasional escalations are possible, such as Poland getting new fighters and air-defence systems, or the possibility of Russia deploying new theatre missiles in the Kaliningrad Region. Overall, however, the stabilisation of the power balance at its current level is useful, given the complex political environment.

The second component concerns the structural peculiarities of Russia and NATO. The two are essentially different entities. Russia is a sovereign state, capable of making prompt foreign policy decisions. NATO, for its part, is a military bloc that requires consensual decisions; it is also characterised by a significant asymmetry. The US accounts for over 70% of NATO's defence expenditures; of contributions made by states other than the US, the UK and France contribute over 41% of the expenditures of all remaining NATO funding. In the Baltic region, NATO countries also differ significantly. Germany is the heaviest contributor (15% of the total NATO budget with the exception of the US share). If Berlin implements the 2/20 target by 2024, the country's NATO-related expenses will rise by over US$ 30 billion. This is an enormous sum, given that Russia's current defence expenditures amount to US$ 66 billion [1]. Denmark is close to Germany in terms of the share of defence spending as a percent of GDP, although that country is actually spending much less on defence than Germany. Poland is playing a noticeable role: it has already met the Wales Summit requirements. Warsaw's defence spending is significantly lower than that of Russia, but is still significant to regional stability, especially in light of the procurement of new weapons and military equipment. The contribution of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is minimal: these countries are consumers of security, although still important in terms of their location in the potential theatre of military operations.

The bottom line is that Berlin's commitment to the 2/20 target will be of 75 extreme importance to Baltic security, as will the actual opportunities resulting from such a hefty increase in defence spending. Poland's steadily increasing military potential is also important. It is obvious that the build up of potential capacity in these two countries could lead to a regional arms race. Russia's reaction to any changes in the potential capacity of Germany and Poland will also play a significant role. Such a reaction would hardly be positive, for obvious reasons, although Moscow's reciprocal measures might possibly prove asymmetrical.

The third component concerns arms control regimes in Europe, as well as pan-European security institutions. The erosion of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe is definitely having a pernicious effect on the mutual predictability of Russia and NATO. Against the background of growing disagreements between Moscow and the West, a serious positive signal came in the form of Frank-Walter Steinmeier's initiative to resume a dialogue on conventional arms control. The fact that the initiative was supported by 15 EU member states, and later transformed into an OSCE-led "structured dialogue" was definitely an achievement of German diplomacy. Nevertheless, the prospects for further dialogue on conventional arms control in Europe appear extremely uncertain. The emergence of a stable international regime can hardly be expected in this area. For the Baltic region, where Russian and NATO forces come into direct contact, the absence of such a regime would be fairly sensitive.

There could be even more serious consequences for Europe in general, and for the Baltic region in particular, from the possible disintegration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and from the deployment of US anti-ballistic missile (ABM) components in the region. Should the INF Treaty become defunct, the Baltic NATO members could become a convenient territory for deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Russia, forcing Moscow to take » appropriate countermeasures. This would result in less security and higher risks for the entire region. No less problematic is the development of ABM infrastructure. Given the ABM system's importance to strategic stability and potential nuclear deterrence, Russia would inevitably resort to balancing measures. All this would clearly do nothing to enhance regional security.

Another problem for European security is that the OSCE has failed to become the key inclusive security institution in Europe. That organisation is weak, whereas NATO, by contrast, is growing even stronger. This complicates the task of solving the security dilemma in Europe. The conventional arms race, the disintegration of the INF Treaty, and the development of ABM could further complicate the situation.

These three factors have all been sufficiently studied, with professionals both in Russia and the West interpreting them in a relatively rational way. The same cannot be said of the next three components.

The fourth component concerns political identity. This topic is particularly pressing for the Baltic states and Poland. For these countries, Russia is a part of the "dark legend" national narrative. They perceive Moscow as the grotesque embodiment of an almost absolute evil. Historical experience is projected both onto the present and into the future. Identity imparts a fair share of ideology to relations with Russia. By contrast, Russia has considerably more "mature" relations with Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Moscow has a much smaller role to play in these countries' national mythology.

The Baltic political discourse is certainly being affected by mutual perceptions in both the West and in Russia. One specific trait of this discourse is that the West perceives Russia as a civilisationally "incompetent" country that has deviated from the "correct" trajectory. Calling for regime change in Russia is currently a matter of courtesy in the West. Clearly, trying to build a dialogue with partners who believe, either overtly or by default, that your country is illegitimate is a difficult task. Such a stance will only serve to further marginalise Russia, thus weakening the already unstable security balance. We should note that in Russia, the attitude towards °the West is also often exaggeratedly unhealthy; it combines phobias of conspiracy on the part of Western elites with the idea that the West will soon fall. Anti-Western sentiments have become a significant component of Russian political identity. Overcoming this political discourse would be very difficult for both parties. The situation is aggravated by the current media environment and the emergence of the post-truth phenomenon, which holds that the truthfulness of an opinion is determined by its source rather than by hard facts. This deepens "group polarisation," with both parties trusting their own sources and rejecting any opinion coming from the other camp. On social media, propaganda follows its own logic, sometimes reducing official positions to absurdity.

The clash of identities, amplified by growing competition in the digital environment, is the fifth component of the Euro-Atlantic security formula. The West has come to perceive Russia as the main threat to its cybersecurity. Russia, for its part, is taking measures to strengthen its "digital sovereignty." The problem lies in the absence of clear rules for the game, the ease with which incidents in the digital environment lend themselves to polarisation, and the extreme difficulty of identifying the actual perpetrators of cyberattacks. In other words, incidents in cyberspace are extremely difficult to translate into the language of tangible factors, meaning that it is difficult to turn political speculation into court action, or even use it for rational bargaining. Today, digital space is the ideal environment for hybrid warfare. This poses a problem both for Russia and the West. The stakes are growing higher as the digital vulnerability of modern societies increases at a breakneck pace. Anything can become the target of an attack: databases, infrastructural facilities, communications channels, etc. This is a common problem. Therefore, the hysteria around the Kremlin's alleged meddling with elections and encroachment into the fundamentals of democracy in the US and beyond needs to give way to a rational dialogue on the parameters of vulnerability as well as measures of trust and control. Given the inertia of the US cyber scandal, such dialogue could be initiated by Germany.

The sixth component concerns peripheral conflicts in Russia and Europe. The most serious of these is the situation in Donbass and the civil war in Syria. In both conflicts, Russia and the West are on opposing sides. Symptomatically, even the common threat coming from the Islamic » State and other radicals does little to bring Moscow and Washington together. For the Baltic region, the Ukrainian situation is naturally the most important. Moscow and its Western neighbours have diametrically opposite takes on Ukraine. It is clear that the situation in Ukraine will remain a long-term negative factor. The Minsk Agreements appear to be impossible to implement, even though, ironically, all the parties involved, including Russia, insist on their full implementation. Even worse, the situation inside of Ukraine, including in Donbass, follows its own logic and is not fully controlled by Moscow, Brussels, Washington or even Kiev. The parties involved are being held hostage to the situation and cannot influence it in any way. In the future, there is a chance that political reality will force the parties to revise the Minsk Agreements. This will most likely be accompanied by a worsening of the situation for one of the parties, allowing the others to impose their logic on it. This is why all the actors have assumed a wait-and-see position as they look for the right moment to arrive. Cooperative movement towards a compromise is hardly possible. In this situation, freezing the conflict appears to be the lesser evil.

Finally, the seventh factor is the role played by external actors. Unlike during the Cold War era, the global politics of today does not boil down exclusively to the rivalry between Russia and the West. External actors will play an indirect role in the Euro-Atlantic region at first, but over time, their role will become more substantial. Moscow is gradually strengthening its politico-military partnership with Beijing. The joint Sino-Russian naval manoeuvres recently conducted by partners in the Baltic region were merely symbolic. However, they demonstrated the possibility of a new reality forming in international relations. It is not yet a military alliance for the time being. Today, China is unlikely to take the risk of souring relations with the US and the EU for the sake of Russia's interests in Europe. Further development of the Russo-Chinese partnership could, however, create a new politico-military environment whose parameters and influence are difficult to predict. Whatever the case, the Baltic region, and Europe in general, will find themselves on the side of the road in the new global "game." Asia will become central, and the dynamics of the world order will be dictated by the interaction between China and the US.

In the medium term, Germany will play an increasingly notable role in the Baltic region. This powerful actor has not yet fully realised its politico-military potential. Much will depend on the paradigm of Berlin's foreign policy. Germany's significance will be determined by the potential of its resources and military. One important factor to keep in mind is that, unlike Poland and the Baltic states, Germany has no identity problems, meaning that it can afford a more pragmatic and unbiased policy. At present, German diplomacy is capable of proposing and consistently implementing security-related compromise solutions. If Germany manages to lead the process of building a new European security architecture and find solutions to key problems in relations with Russia, then Berlin's political role on the international arena will change radically. The Baltic region could become an excellent testing ground for new approaches. Germany has already demonstrated its ability to effectively mitigate the damage of ongoing crises, and its role in stabilising mutual deterrence should not be underestimated. The current objective is more difficult: to achieve a reduction in deterrence. Russia could use this opportunity to reset relations with its Western neighbours and become an equal co-author of a new security system in the Baltic region and beyond.

First published in Security in the Baltic Sea Region: Realities and Prospects: The Rīga Conference Papers 2017

1. Data taken from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's report on 2015 defense spending


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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