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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 33 New Delhi August 6, 2016

Nato Pushes Russia into Conflict Zone

Wednesday 10 August 2016

by R.G. Gidadhubli

The NATO—Russia relations have entered into a conflict zone subsequent to the decision taken by the NATO at its Summit held in Warsaw on July 9, 2016. This raises several questions—What is the significance of decision? What are the objectives of the NATO? And what is Russia’s response to the NATO decisions?

At the outset it may be stated that an important decision was taken to deploy NATO forces in the countries of its allies bordering Russia. As per reports, four batallions of 1000-strong multinational forces of the USA, Canada, Germany and UK will be stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The NATO’s stated objective of this deployment of forces is to reassure its allies against Russia. Thus the NATO officials termed the deployment a direct response to Russia’s belligerent policy towards the states in the region.

Secondly, justifying this decision, the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, stated on July 9 that a “more assertive” Russia has built up its military capabilities, modernised its armed forces, and tripled its defence spending in recent years. Hence the significance of this Summit lies in the fact that Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s Defence Minister, was proud in stating that it was “a turning point in the history of the alliance”. While this is factual, at the same time it is ironical that these states, which were protected by Kremlin—and the three Baltic States were part of the former Soviet Union— being part of Warsaw Pact for over four decades before the Soviet breakup against NATO forces, now contend that there will be a possible military threat for their existence from Moscow.

Thirdly, equally significant is the fact that coinciding with this Summit, the NATO which is a hard power has entered into an agreement with the European Union which is a soft power and hence the NATO alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has expressed his achievement calling it “a historic deal”, which could just be the start of a new process. This is mainly because the NATO and EU have pledged to coordinate their actions and cooperate on a series of security issues, including cyber-defence, terrorism, and countering “hybrid threats” and disinformation campaigns from Russia.

Fourthly, the objective of the NATO in deploying forces is to focus on the gray zone, namely, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Because they are not members of the NATO and the issue of their membership is kept on hold which is subject to compliance of Article 5. Yet there is speculation by analysts as to what will happen in the gray zone between the NATO and Russia? According to John Herbst, Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Centre at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, this is far from an academic question as it is in this gray zone where conflict and instability are most likely to occur. This is because in his opinion any instability on the NATO’s frontier can easily turn into a security threat for the alliance itself.

In fact the gray zone is the NATO’s priority and it has been accusing Russia’s alleged support and involvement in eastern Ukraine. The West has been critical of Russia since 2014 alleging annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The US President, Barrack Obama, has also said on the eve of the Summit that Moscow has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent European nation and engaged in provocative behaviour toward the NATO allies.

Fifthly, the objective of the NATO and EU is to contain and challenge what from the Western

perspective are Putin’s national security goals, namely, to enhance Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; a new security architecture in Europe and Eurasia; a weakened and divided NATO and EU; and expand its influence into Europe.

Moscow’s Reaction 

In quick succession of the NATO Summit, there was a scheduled meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) fixed on July 13, 2016. Even as it was set up in 2002, the NRC has been more of conflict than cooperation. But under the prevailing conditions there was no positive outcome of the meeting. In fact, as expected, Moscow’s reaction to the NATO decisions has been strong and negative.

Firstly, Russia has slammed the NATO decision of deployment of forces and focusing on what it called a “nonexistent” threat from Russia. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has been candid in stating that it was “absurd to speak of a threat from Russia” and that Moscow hoped “common sense” should have prevailed at the Warsaw Summit. In fact even before the Warsaw Summit, on July 8, addressing journalists he said: “Russia was and is open to dialogue and interested in cooperation but only on a mutually beneficial basis and taking into account mutual interests,”

Secondly, on July 10 the Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement: “Contrary to the objective interests of maintaining peace and stability in Europe, the NATO alliance concen-trates its efforts on deterring a nonexistent threat from the east.”

Thirdly, in an interview in the newspaper Kommersant, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, said the alliance has a “confrontational agenda” and that Moscow would take countermeasures.

Fourthly, Gorbachev, who was the architect of new Russia being instrumental for the breakup of the Soviet Union, has been very unhappy with the latest developments and has been candid in stating that the NATO seemed to be preparing for ‘Hot War’ against Russia.

Fifthly, while condemning the NATO decision and to counter the deployment of forces, Russia has decided to deploy the advanced S-400 missile-defence system in the region of Crimea by August. This could be either a substitute for S-300 or in addition to that which are already there. This was, as per Russian media reports, on July 15 by the Deputy Commander of the Russian Army’s 18th Air Defence Regiment, based in Feodosia. So this seems to be a countermove by Russia against the NATO decision. Hence conflict might further increase in the region.

Lastly, there are accusations and counter- accusations between the NATO and Russia. Western critics and political leaders allege that Russian warplanes routinely probe the NATO air defences with incursions into the NATO airspace over the Baltics and have buzzed the NATO ships in the Black Sea. Countering this, Moscow calls the NATO’s planned deployment of additional multinational forces to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland a “dangerous build-up” close to its borders and that will create new military divisions in response. In view of this there is little chance that the NATO-Russia Council will ever return to its original role as a partnership because the two sides no longer seem to agree on the original post-Cold War architecture it was founded upon in 2002.

In lieu of conclusion it may be stated that the contention of the West to deploy military installation and provide security to Poland and the Baltic states against the alleged perception of Russia’s threat is a figment of its imagination.

In the ultimate analysis the main objective is that the NATO wants Russia to pay a heavy price for its involvement in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, even as Russia is unlikely to give up Crimea. The West may succeed in further aggravating economic crisis that Russia has been experiencing due to economic sanctions imposed on it since 2014. Moreover, deployment of forces in the region by the NATO on one side and by Russia on the other will only increase conflict in the region.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, Mumbai.