How NATO Should Respond to Russia’s Alternative Reality
Forced into negotiations with Moscow at gun point, the United States and its European allies need to get out of the corner that President Vladimir Putin has pushed them into. NATO should state its own preconditions and not shy away from applying economic sanctions.
According to press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the return of a small part of his troops from the Ukrainian border. Talks with the United States are to begin on January 10 in Geneva and the NATO-Russia Council is due to meet for the first time in more than two years on January 12. Are these the first signs of a de-escalation of the conflict over Ukraine?
Certainly, Putin's latest steps are only the prelude to a longer power struggle between Russia and the West. The Kremlin can dial the military posture it deployed on Ukraine's eastern border up and down. But Russia’s president is concerned with much more than Ukraine, whose sovereignty he considers a chimera. With Ukraine held hostage by Russian military forces, he wants to force the Americans and their European allies to renegotiate the European security order.
What Putin is bluntly claiming is the recognition of an exclusive Russian zone of influence that stretches from Central Asia across the Caspian Sea all the way to Eastern Europe. Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus are meant to form a buffer zone, giving Moscow the long-desired strategic depth along its western borders. In the future, all former Soviet republics, now independent states for more than 20 years, are to become a kind of “no go zone” for the West. Actually, Putin would be thrilled if NATO officially recalled its “open door” policy in the alliance’s new Strategic Concept that is supposed to be adopted in summer 2022. In other words, President Putin has declared a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine and is calling on the West to recognize it.
For Putin, the timing seems ideal: at home there is no serious political competitor in sight. His approval ratings are currently at 63 percent. Large parts of Russia's conventional armed forces and its nuclear arsenal have been continuously modernized and regularly tested in recent years, be it in Syria or during large-scale military exercises. On the international stage, Russia has cultivated its network of influential partners. Above all, Putin can rest assured that China stands firmly by his side. From Beijing's point of view, Moscow’s current spectacle in Europe is of profound interest; after all, the Chinese government can watch the political responsiveness of the Americans and their European allies from a safe distance and evaluate it for its own Taiwan options.
While Putin feels strong, he views his Western counterparts as being weak. In his eyes, Europeans lack the political resolve to assert their power consistently and guided by their strategic interests. On the other side of the Atlantic, things don't look much different. US President Joe Biden is under considerable pressure domestically. The US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has damaged Washington's global reputation. Biden wants to focus on the growing strategic competition with China and has no interest in opening a military arena in Europe.
Against this backdrop, Putin has been dragging the West along for weeks. The military escalation initiative is on his side. And with his daily accusations, he is trying to dominate the public narrative about Russia's security that is supposedly threatened by NATO and the Americans.
For sure, Putin will thoroughly weigh the risks of a grand-scale military incursion in Ukraine before giving his troops a green light. Despite the technological-operational superiority of the Russian military, the Ukrainians would vehemently resist. This could end in a similar scenario the Soviet Union encountered in 1980s Afghanistan, with a bloody and tenacious insurgency that could generate high losses for Russia.
More likely than a risky Russian military offensive in Ukraine is the full-sized application of “active measures.” During the Cold War the Soviet leadership swept all of Western Europe with what is now called hybrid warfare. The spectrum of possibilities is wide: it ranges from military intimidation, targeted disinformation, espionage, and cyberattacks to the suspension of gas supplies to Europe. As a former KGB officer, the “active measures” approach is second nature to Putin, as it is part of the fixed repertoire of the Russian secret service.
On the Back Foot
In this difficult situation, the most important thing for the Western allies is to find a way out of the corner into which the Kremlin has managed to push the them. While the threat of economic sanctions and talk of a "high price" to be paid by the Kremlin in the event of a Russian invasion are important signals of deterrence, it does nothing to challenge Putin’s escalation initiative.
In short, Washington and its European allies must do more than publicly stressing the need for diplomatic de-escalation. To refute Putin's false narrative of NATO's alleged violation of Russia’s security, the allies should loudly and clearly underline a few basic facts about Moscow's assertive foreign policy record in recent years: from the military occupation of South Ossetia, increasing cyberattacks on Western allies, the illegal annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, as well as the various breaches of international treaties, the list is impressively long. This would be particularly important in Germany, where a considerable part of the public thinks that Russia should be granted an exclusive zone of influence in exchange for keeping up gas supplies.
Talks with Preconditions
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the West signaling its preparedness to talk to the Russian leadership, but the Western allies should only enter into talks with Moscow if the Kremlin withdraws its troops completely from the Ukrainian border. From Putin's point of view, the willingness to negotiate at gunpoint is a sign of the West’s weakness. To underline its demand, the West should not hesitate to give Moscow an ultimatum of its own. Should the Russian leadership choose to ignore this, the gradual activation of the economic sanctions adopted by the European Union and the G7 would be appropriate. They should also include the suspension of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline.
A written Western response to the two draft treaties published by Moscow, calling for legally binding security guarantees from the US and NATO, would be another way of explaining to the Kremlin which of its demands are negotiable in principle, and which are not. Above all, four points cannot be compromised:
First, the future of European security can only be discussed on an equal footing with all the sovereign states involved. The appropriate forum for this is the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. A 2022 edition of the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, where the victorious Allied powers rearranged Europe’s political map of Europe, is out of the question.
Second, a veto right claimed by Moscow on the principle of self-determination of other states is a non-starter. It contradicts not only the Helsinki Final Act (1975) but also the OSCE Charta of Paris (1990), according to which all states can determine their own fate. Moscow signed both international norms.
Third, when and under which circumstances NATO would invite a future new member country to start accession talks falls under the right of the 30 sovereign Alliance members to decide. Whether NATO wants to revise its “open door” policy, which has been in place since 1949, will not be decided in Moscow, but in Brussels.
And fourth, a de facto demilitarization of the allies admitted after 1997, as demanded by Russia, would significantly curtail their right to self-defense. Conversely, Moscow has so far failed to explain under which conditions it would be prepared to significantly reduce its own troop levels on the western border. This particularly applies to Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskandr missiles in Kaliningrad (which could reach Berlin in minutes) and forward missiles bases in Crimea. NATO's multinational battle groups stationed in Poland and the Baltic States do not pose a military threat to Russian security.
Hot Lines and Missiles Moratoria
These points aside, there are aspects on which discussions could make sense. These include the full range of improved military transparency and risk reduction measures between NATO and Russian contingents, as well as Moscow's proposal to revive consultation mechanisms and hot lines between the two parties. NATO may also consider talking about the proposal to ban the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in areas from which they could reach the other territory.
The 1987 INF Treaty banned all US and Soviet intermediate-range missiles. However, Russia's deployment of the 9M729 medium-range cruise missile violated the INF, which ultimately led to its collapse. Overall, Moscow's current proposal sounds very much like the moratorium for intermediate-range ballistic missile that Putin proposed already in 2019. NATO could take a second look, provided that Russia affirmed that it would also apply to the 9M729 and be secured by appropriate verification measures.
Finally, there is Ukraine. Undoubtedly, it would be desirable for Kyiv and Moscow to return to the negotiating table. But relying solely on the revival of the Normandy format, as new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has indicated, will not suffice to resolve the conflict. At best, it could be defused for a limited period of time.
For the Kremlin, however, the freezing of the Ukrainian conflict would already be a political victory. Western allies should, therefore, make it clear to Moscow that Ukraine is not a sort of “no man's land,” whose future fate Europe is indifferent to. Hence, both NATO and the EU should consider how to strengthen Ukraine's defense capability and energy security needs, ideally in tandem.
Clearly, the future of the European security order lies primarily in the hands of the transatlantic community, but NATO should also seek diplomatic support from some if its key democratic partners, including democracies in the Indo-Pacific, for which military blackmail is not an appropriate form of reasonable international cooperation. Ultimately, Moscow may soon want to apply its current Ukraine approach elsewhere.
Stefanie Babst, a former Deputy NATO Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Head of the Secretary General‘s Strategic Foresight Team. is a Principal and Global Policy Advisor at Brooch Associates, London, and a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium).