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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

The Baltic of today is a most intricate area for Russia-NATO interaction. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, all of them members of the alliance, serve as its frontier zone in direct contact with its Eastern neighbor. The Ukraine events have drawn the Russia-NATO relationship into a deep systemic crisis, with Moscow seen by Brussels as the key security challenge, which implies that its containment has become an inherent component in their bilateral activities. The Russian view is symmetric, the only difference being in the fact that NATO and prospects for its expansion had been seen as a challenge long before the Ukraine predicament.

The Baltic of today is a most intricate area for Russia-NATO interaction. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, all of them members of the alliance, serve as its frontier zone in direct contact with its Eastern neighbour. Even before the Ukrainian crisis, these countries had been sceptical about security cooperation with Russia. Moscow also had some questions and disliked many things, among them Poland's intention to deploy elements of the American BMD system; the Polish, Estonian and Lithuanian boycott of the adopted CFE Treaty; their interpretation of the Soviet past, etc. At the same time, all these issues had never caused any sort of a serious crisis in Russia-NATO relations and brought upon no systemic impact that would make matters worse. Moscow had a quite low-key reaction on joining the alliance of these countries in 1999 and 2004, although later it became increasingly wary about the bloc's further expansion, as Russian diplomacy worked hard to hamper the process.

The events in Ukraine have drawn the Russia-NATO relationship into a deep systemic crisis, with Moscow seen by Brussels as the key security challenge, which implies that its containment has become an inherent component in their bilateral activities. The Russian view is symmetric, the only difference being in the fact that NATO and prospects for its expansion had been seen as a challenge long before the Ukraine predicament. Moscow has re-examined its Ukraine policy after March 2014 as a result of lengthy and gradual erosion of relations.

Currently, Russia and NATO have set their mutual attitudes at the lowest points since the Cold War. Reciprocal rejection seems to be the new normality. However, this stability is superficial, since it conceals imbalances and escalation risks. Escalation may be swift and has a snowball effect, even on a catastrophic scale. Incidents at sea and in the airspace, the defrosting of the Donbas conflict or growing antagonism on Syria may ignite aggravations that make a risk of opening a local confrontation. Today, such a scenario seems unlikely, but both NATO and Russian top seriously consider such possibility.

To this end, the Baltic appears to be a weak link, as it may become a theatre for more, although unintentional, provocations. On the other hand, the area seems quite suitable for decreasing risks and a gradual normalisation of relations. A breakthrough in this convoluted region could push the entire relationship toward a brighter future. This duality gives rise to several fundamental questions. In what way does Russia-NATO relationship determine the Baltic security? What factors define the dynamics of relations in the regional security realm? What are the probable scenarios? What could be done to reduce the risk of disagreements escalating into an open conflict?

Of course, these questions might unveil the strategic perspective for the Russia-NATO relationship, i.e. specific intentions and a way to reconcile the interests and goals in the context of a changing environment in Europe and its periphery. Also important are the relations between Russia and NATO with the still neutral Sweden and Finland. Their rapprochement with the alliance seems inevitable and irreversible, which may aggravate their relations with Russia.

The Relationship System Russia-NATO: the Security Dilemma

Flickr / Jörg Lange CC BY 2.0
Vladislav Vorotnikov, Sergey Kulik,
Ivan Timofeev, Igor Yurgens:
Russia and the European Union in the Baltic
Sea Region

The security dilemma appears to offer the best way to describe the Russia-NATO relationship after 2014. The dilemma contains several key features that often come up asymmetrically, emerging in the varying dimensions in political and the official discourse, and materialising with different intensities.

First of all, the security dilemma suggests a high degree of uncertainty, including the goals, the potentials and determination of the parties to use available assets. NATO's perception appears more accentuated, to a large extent because of the suddenness of Ukraine developments. Brussels seems to have been taken unawares. As a matter of fact, the 2013 report of the NATO Secretary General (published in January 2014) describes Russia exclusively as a partner on Afghanistan, terrorism and other areas. But six months later at the Wales NATO summit presented an opposite reality, with European security after a long period becoming issue number one and Russia perceived as a threat to the European order. Other surprises for NATO include the Syria operation, the swift collapse and even swifter restoration of the Russia-Turkey relations, as well as a series of smaller episodes and incidents. Brussels was taken by surprise by Moscow's determination and depth in employing force and political methods. Some of Russia's steps were absolutely unprecedented during the post-Cold War period, among them military operations far from its territory, reunification with USSR territories, etc.

In a nutshell, Russia has been firmly labelled as a dangerous and unpredictable actor. While previously Moscow was reactive and stayed in the wake of the West (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq), after 2014 it turned the tables to place NATO in a qualitatively novel environment.

The Russian vision was somewhat different, with the expansion of NATO seen as its long-term and irreversible endeavour that aggravated the already substantial violation of the balance in NATO's favour. The problem remained unsolved after the collapse of the adapted CFE Treaty, with the blame put on NATO partners, since none of them has so far ratified the new treaty. The situation was exacerbated by the impairment of strategic stability through the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and deployment of the BMD infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition, Kremlin made its Western partners partially responsible for the colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space, regarding it nearly as a form of the hybrid war. Beginning from the mid-2000s, Moscow was coming to the idea that Western leaders were sure about Russia's decay and the need to softly oust it from European politics, preserving the façade of friendship and partnership in areas where cooperation was helpful for NATO. Moscow perceived the 2013-2014 Maidan as a provocation, if not launched then tacitly supported by the West. Russia must have overestimated the role of the West in the Ukraine revolution set off by a complex of intra-Ukrainian processes, but European leaders have definitely underestimated the need for an equal dialogue with Russia, pushing Moscow to the extremes when its attitude was ignored again.

The Ukraine crisis has delivered a hard blow to practically all mechanisms of Russia's cooperation with NATO, EU and the U.S.A., and exacerbated Europe's security dilemma. As a result, even imperfect communication mechanisms mitigate the security dilemma, alleviating disagreements and escalation risks. Relations have been frozen or suspended in practically all areas, even those unrelated to Ukraine, among them, not only and not so much as the streamlined partnership on Afghanistan and countering drug traffic and terrorism. Much more important was the emerging pressure on the basic regimes in the nuclear realm. The BMD dialogue has been deadlocked, with Moscow perceiving the deployment of its components in Romania as a direct challenge. Russia's withdrawal from the weapon-grade plutonium agreement has become a symbolic gesture to indicate an end to cooperation with the United States in the control over nuclear weapons. The sides are building mutual grudges over short- and medium-range missiles. Although a Russian-American issue, it also directly affects European security. Even cooperation on Syria collapsed despite the existence of the Islamic radicalism threat that seemed common to Russia, the U.S.A. and its NATO allies.

Escalation of the arms race and the potential for containment are the basic components of the security dilemma. Both Russia and NATO proceed from the notion that they are building up their defensive rather than offensive potential. In an almost absolute absence of trust, these arguments hardly make both Moscow and Brussels happy. The West insists that in 2000-2015 Russia tripled its defence spending (according to SIPRI, USD 28,838 mln to USD 91,081 mln in 2014 dollars). Moscow fairly reasonably replies that the rise is connected with military reform and improvement of the forces after the collapse of the 1990s, and that the rise is hardly comparable with the dimensions of the U.S. military build-up. A comparison with NATO figures will make the gap even more visible.

The security dilemma is aggravated by NATO's and Russian military activities, at least reflections that the sides regard each other as a priority threat and are taking appropriate measures. Nonstop exercises, the deployment of additional contingents (as of now, insignificant in number), and incidents in airspace and at sea hardly make the borders more tranquil.

Finally, there is the so-called spiral of fear, an integral feature of the security dilemma. To this end, the media of both sides acquire much importance, which on the tip from establishments boost the enemy image and iteratively exaggerate even routine military activities. The information war mechanisms have a different nature and structure but work really hard on both sides. Politicians and the top brass have become hostage to the simulacrums and phantom threats generated by mass media.

The Security Dilemma in the Baltic

The systemic changes in the Russia-NATO relationship have given the Baltic security a new colour. While previously the scepticism of the Baltic alliance members about interactions with Russia could be attributed mostly to domestic goals (Russia as the "significant other" and a reference point for building one's identity), the Ukraine crisis has made Brussels take their concerns very seriously. Consequently, Moscow responded badly by driving the security dilemma to a higher level. After the Ukraine crisis, the Baltic turned into a most vulnerable point for escalation due to a number of factors that correlate with the above common Russia-NATO framework after the Ukraine crisis.

Factor number one is the overall uncertainty about Russia's further intentions. Brussels and other Western capitals are serious about scenarios of hybrid and open military actions against Baltic states. Their argumentation is often far-fetched and inconsequential, bringing Moscow to a loss. The freakiest include the restoration of historic justice by capturing Narva (a sort of repeat of Crimea ) or landing on the Gotland Island, with the Swedes already preparing to repel this aggression. However, due to the misunderstanding of Russia's general strategy or its perception as intentionally anti-Western, even these bizarre grounds have drawn a wide response, especially as Russia has been long perceiving NATO's actions there as potentially hostile. At the same time, the Baltic states of NATO are well known as lobbyists for containing Moscow. No wonder, the post-communist countries of the region demand from the alliance a demonstration of readiness for their defence if things get worse. No wonder, real steps to contain Russia have been made in the Baltic. This uncertainty is intensified by differences in the institutional structure of Russia and NATO, as the former is a sovereign state and the latter – an international institution, which generates differences in the promptness in taking decisions and in institutional inertia.

Factor number two relates to the strategic decisions of the two sides for building up their regional potential. Quantity-wise, they should be hardly exaggerated, as the three NATO battalions can hardly change the regional balance of forces. The same goes for deploying the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad area, which are normally used to scare the EU public. In essence, these moves are minimalist and symbolic. However, their qualitative role is high. NATO has taken concrete steps to contain a possible threat and displayed the bloc-wide solidarity. The battalions are multinational, so any action against them would mean aggression against the entire alliance. For its part, Russia also demonstrates a determination to counter both NATO reinforcements and possible BMD threats. Due to a high degree of uncertainty, even such small steps may have disproportionally high repercussions, which are of course specific to various airspace incidents. Moscow is irritated by American reconnaissance flights along Russian borders, some of them with shut down transponders. The interception of such flights traditionally gives rise to biased criticism in the West. But in some cases Western grudges are quite grounded, as it this relates to Russian military aircraft flying over NATO ships or airliners.

Factor number three concerns regional geography, primarily direct border contacts between Russia and NATO members. Of particular significance is the spatial compactness, which raises the probability of unintentional air incidents. And of course, it concerns the detachedness of the Russian territory, as Kaliningrad Oblast is isolated from the rest of Russia and surrounded by NATO members. Naturally, Moscow is worried. Until now, Moscow showed restraint about the militarization of Kaliningrad but under the current conditions, a buildup is very likely. Note that the sides tend to suspect each other of possible unexpected military activities around Kaliningrad.

Factor number four is the presence of two neutral states that could act as game changers. Theoretically, the neutrality of Sweden and Finland could promote stabilization of the region, with Helsinki working as a mediator between Moscow and Brussels on the basis of its experience and prestige. But in practice, both tend towards a close partnership with NATO. At the extreme, they have discussed joining the bloc, with the trend gaining ground at the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis. In the current environment, the rapprochement of Sweden and Finland with NATO appears irreversible. The question is how far it will go and how Moscow will respond. Either way, these developments should deepen the regional security dilemma, with the least evil outcome being their close partnership with NATO in the absence of formal membership.

Factor number five lies in the lack of progress in settling the Ukraine problem and the aggravation of other differences. The Ukraine controversy provides the long-term negative grounds within the Russia-NATO relationship, with things likely to get worse. Differences with the U.S.A. on Syria and other matters also solidify the downbeat background for the Baltic. In a nutshell, there seems to be a systemic paradox, with the cause of the Baltic trouble lying beyond the region that at the same time is gathering a potential for the power play.

The Baltic Scenarios

REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
Ivan Timofeev:
Russia and NATO: a New Normal?

To this end, the Baltic scenarios may take the following routes.

Scenario 1. Sustained containment, with the security dilemma preserved. The sides rely on mutual containment and minimal dialogue. Marine and airspace incidents are highlighted by the media but fail to cause a military escalation even if accidents occur. The buildup of potential is symbolic, as the sides prefer to save their resources. The negative backdrop in Russia-NATO relations holds, among other things due to the lack of progress over Donbas. The sides use containment for domestic and political mobilisation. The Post-communist NATO states win, with the political clout rising and the real military threat low. Finland and Sweden drift toward NATO but stay out. As before, Russia does not make the region a priority for military construction.

Scenario 2. Inconsistent containment. The security dilemma intensifies, with the external environment deteriorating: the Minsk process is deadlocked and military action in Donbas resumes. Antagonism on Syria grows. A series of incidents at sea and in the airspace gives rise to drastic weapons buildup to be taken up by the other side. Russia prioritizes the region for military concentration. Finland and Sweden accelerate rapprochement with NATO. The region becomes an arena for a local political crisis, although communication channels remain.

Scenario 3. Regional conflict. One of the sides ups the ante in order to receive concessions from the opponent. One of them regards the move as a way to solve other problems. Either side is able to take this line of action. The region plunges into a conflict situation. However, the opposing side does not yield and openly counteracts to generate a brief conflict that ends in a draw. The relations rise to a new level of hostility, with the dialogue discontinued. The situation balances on the verge of a massive Russia-NATO conflict. Finland and Sweden join the alliance and offer unconditional military support. The scenario is also likely if one of the sides loses the local conflict.

Scenario 4. The security dilemma shrinks. The set of common or specific challenges makes mutual containment hurtful for both sides that switch to confidence-building measures. The Donbas conflict remains but acquires a positive dynamic. Russia and the United States selectively cooperate in the Middle East. Mistrust still exists, with the uncertainty level gradually goes down.

Scenario 5. An overhaul of relations is initiated by a side to improve the situation. Such steps are likely to be related to the role of a concrete political leader or leaders, which are to overcome the resistance of the containment-oriented institutions. We see a drastic revision of Russia's relations with NATO and the EU, as well as a compromise on the Donbas settlement. The sides launch a review of the Founding Act, work to strengthen the OSCE as the Europe-wide security institution, and discuss conventional armaments control. NATO is reformatted to counter new challenges.

Of course, these scenarios are schematic while the political reality is much more complicated. At the same time, they show possible vectors in the development of the situation and make one ponder about the basic goals of Russia and NATO in their policies toward each other.

Russia and NATO: Choosing a Future

The inertia or projection of today into the future is an intrinsic feature of the human mind. We tend to believe that situations will develop in steps and in a linear mode. I am sure that most people would find Scenarios 4 and 5 highly unlikely. Scenarios 2 and 3 seem suitable for the current state of affairs but are also unlikely because of the high price for both sides. Most probable seems the Scenario 1 which allows for some low-cost muscle flexing.

The problem is that linear scenarios shed linearity much more frequently than we expect, which means that sustainable containment may as well bring about surprises and boil down to a deep crisis unmanageable by the sides. The loss of control over Russia-NATO relations in the Baltic and other areas is a real threat.

On the other hand, any initiatives on the partial or complete amendment of the logic of the relationship (Scenarios 4 and 5) will seem marginal both in Russia and in the West. At that, the perestroika and new political thinking experiences of the late 1980s would retard rather than speed up changes for the better. In the long run, both Russia and the West are deeply frustrated by the outcomes of the Cold War. However, history shows that any qualitative change begins with initiatives launched by the minority side which is normally better knit, coherent and determined vis-à-vis the majority. It is the minority that makes up the centrepiece of the discussion and often achieves qualitative changes. In contrast to the idealistic belief in the future of the 1980s, the sides will have to display an utmost pragmatism and expect disappointment any moment. Diplomats and statesmen of today are facing problems much more convoluted than in those days because they will have to simultaneously seek solutions for the 2014 crisis and for the deep-rooted causes emanating from the Cold War outcomes. At that, their activities would be legitimate only if their parties manage to evade losses, save face and bring results to both sides, a most complicated and non-trivial task.

First published in "The Baltic Sea Region: Hard and Soft Security Reconsidered" (LIIA)

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