Why is NATO once again talking of deterring 'resurgent Russia'?

Drawing by Iorsh

Drawing by Iorsh

Recent comments by high-ranking U.S. military officials show that the West is continuing to support the idea of a military build-up in Eastern Europe to “deter” Russia. What’s behind these statements? Some believe that the groundwork is being laid to change the balance of power in Eastern Europe in the West’s favor.

In early May two high-ranking U.S. generals made statements about the need “to deter Moscow” and build up military potential to that end. One of those generals represented not just the U.S. but NATO too.

The statements, made by generals Joseph F. Dunford and Curtis Scaparrotti are part of a battle of nerves around a revision of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, which the sides signed in 1997 and which laid out the rules of interaction between Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe.

One of the reasons why Moscow agreed to sign the Founding Act was NATO’s alleged promise not to deploy large military contingents and nuclear weapons on the territory of its new, East European, members [in fact former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted in an interview with RBTH in 2014 that no such promise was actually made – RBTH]. Now, after the conflict in Ukraine and a year before the renewal of the treaty set for 2017, it appears that NATO intends to revise the act.

Call for revising the Founding Act

It all started with the decision taken at the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014 to deploy additional military contingents in Eastern Europe, in violation of the Founding Act, although the alliance maintains that the deployment is being done not on a permanent but on a rotational basis. The Founding Act bans NATO from setting up permanent military bases near Russian territory.

One of NATO member states, Poland, has already declared that in its current form the Founding Act is inadequate. The question arises: what document will replace it? Russia would like to sign a new agreement that stipulates a demilitarization of the territory of NATO’s East European members.

Realizing that the alliance will not agree to this, since April 2015 Moscow has been proposing another option: signing an agreement that would guarantee the neutral status of and absence of troop groupings on the territory of four states bordering Russia: Finland, Ukraine, Moldova [Moldova does not actually border Russia – RBTH] and Georgia. There have been precedents of “imposed neutrality” in international law, e.g. the four-party agreement of the Allied occupying powers on Austria in 1955. However, it appears that NATO is opposed to this, too.

A tough war of nerves

The sides are testing each other’s nerves: Who will force whom to sign a new document? In this situation, several scenarios are possible. In the event of hostilities like those that took place in South Ossetia in 2008, the sides may end up without any agreements at all.

The second option is when the sides agree on the demilitarization of the Baltic and Black Sea region. Yetthis is likely to be just notional. For instance, the Americans may declare that they have no intention of accepting those four countries into NATO but the intention may arise in future. Then those countries will be granted the status of Major non-NATO Ally. In that case, the U.S. would in effect get its own way. 

The third scenario is that the sides manage to agree on a document banning the deployment of large military contingents in that region. This document could be a revival of the half-forgotten Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures in Europe that became part of the 1975 Helsinki Act. Unless events follow the first scenario, the sides are in for a tough war of nerves and efforts to work out a new document by May 2017.

The technology is not there

As regards Gen.Dunford’s statement that in order to contain Russia the U.S. needs new weapons, including in outer space and cyberspace, it is obvious that these are long-term projects. This is a matter of not the next three years but of 10-15 years from now, in the best-case scenario.

This is yet another manifestation of the same battle of nerves: It’s hard to interpret it as an arms race. It’s not as if there is a large-scale use of defense industry capacities or deployment of new types of weapons. Furthermore, the current level of science and technology simply does not make it possible to create these types of weapons, although the task to develop them was set out in the National Space Policy of President Bush Jr. in 2006.

The Founding Act will be turning 20 years in 2017 and the sides need to renew it by coming to a new agreement. 

Alexei Fenenko is assistant professor in the Department of World Politics at Moscow State University.

 The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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