The risk of outright conflict in Europe is higher than it has been for years and the confrontation between Russia and the West shows no sign of ending. To prevent misunderstandings and dangerous incidents, the two sides must improve their methods of communication.
Whereas the 2014 summit in Wales marked the end of the NATO-Russia partnership, the 2016 Warsaw summit in July coincided with something that many have thought would never return: a military standoff in Europe. The new confrontation between Russia and the West that begun as a result of the Ukraine crisis is acquiring a measure of permanence. Rather than deploring this situation (which is certainly deplorable) or engaging in a blame game with the other side (which will certainly continue), the main issue at hand now is to ensure that this new confrontation does not lead to a new major European conflict. This means stabilizing the standoff, learning to manage the adversity, and keeping the channels of communication open for serious exchanges.
To make these exchanges more productive, each party needs to understand, to begin with, where the other one is coming from. The Russians have to acknowledge that Moscow’s response to the Kiev Maidan—first in Crimea and then in southeastern Ukraine—materially challenged the global system presided over and guaranteed by the United States, and delivered a shattering blow to the concept of a peaceful European order, which had become an article of faith for Germany and other European politicians. This challenge is fundamental, and the resultant confrontation cannot be merely patched up. Both sides will have to compete hard before there is a clear outcome.
The West needs to acknowledge that the standoff with Russia is not merely the result of Russia turning authoritarian, nationalistic, and assertive. European history suggests that a failure, after a major conflict—and the Cold War was such a conflict—to create an international order acceptable to the defeated party—and the Soviet Union did not survive the Cold War—leads to a new round of competition. The famous phrase of U.S. President George H.W. Bush about a “Europe whole and free” applied only to all countries west of the Russian border. Russia was to be a partner, but not part of the arrangement. As a result, NATO enlargement, which was promoted by Western powers as a symbol of consolidation of a continent-wide democratic peace and development in Europe, became, in the eyes of the Russian elites, a means of consolidating a strong Western strategic position vis-à-vis a weakened Russia.
This mutual “acknowledgment” should not constitute acceptance of the other side’s narrative. There is virtually no common ground between the two visions of the recent past. What is more important, however, is the present and the future. With regard to the present, the most urgent task is to prevent incidents in Europe’s skies and seas between Russian and NATO aircraft and naval ships. Dangerous incidents could result in collisions and casualties, which would send the confrontation to a qualitatively more dangerous level. On a recent visit to Finland, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the problem and suggested addressing the issue. This proposal absolutely needs to be taken up immediately.
Looking ahead, as a new military standoff along Russia’s western border is already a fact, the task should be to keep the level of forces appreciably low. The reinforcements announced before Warsaw—4,000 allied personnel stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic States—would not make the Russian General Staff overly agitated. The Russian countermove of deploying two divisions to the Western Military District is entirely predictable. Ideally, both sides should leave it at that. Otherwise, a totally unproductive and senseless cycle of remilitarization of Europe’s divisions will follow.
Missile defense is another area where the action-reaction logic can lead to an arms race. The Romanian site, the Russians acknowledge, as presently configured, is not a major issue. However, should it be reconfigured for a different kind of missile, which is technically possible, it might become one. Confidence-building measures are needed to allay Russia’s suspicions and to prevent Moscow’s threatened response. The Polish site, which will not become operational until 2018, presents the Western powers with a similar dilemma: either convincing the Russians that they have no reason to overreact, or facing the likelihood that they will. The Kaliningrad region, an enclave of Russia surrounded by NATO territory, is already being turned into a forward position for Russian countermeasures potentially reaching deep into the alliance’s rear.
To keep the revived rivalry under control, the two sides need to keep up constant communication at appropriate levels. In recent history, NATO-Russian contacts were severed each time there was a crisis in Europe: in 1999 over Kosovo/Serbia, in 2008 over South Ossetia/Georgia, in 2014 over Crimea/Ukraine. Both sides viewed contacts with the other as a privilege that could be withdrawn at will. Now that the formal partnership is over, this should no longer be allowed to be the case. On the contrary, the NATO-Russia Council needs to be reconfigured to serve as a conflict management mechanism, designed to work overtime each time there is a new crisis in the relationship. This also means that the continuing crisis in the Donbas needs to be brought under much tighter control.
During the Ukraine crisis, top military commanders and spokesmen for both sides were liberal with public statements about the bad behavior of the other side. They talked to domestic and international audiences, but never to their counterparts across the new divide in Europe. Yet, the Kremlin-White House hotline is not a sufficient crisis management tool, even in combination with a direct link between the U.S. Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) needs to be able to get in touch with the commander of Russia’s Western Military District, and the Russian Chief of the General Staff needs a direct line to the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Now that the shock of the sudden rupture is over, Russia and NATO have to come to terms with the new reality, which promises to last a number of years. Their conflict is anything but trivial, but it is clearly not worth a European war, which should be securely prevented through joint precautionary measures. It is probably still too early for Russian and Western officials to talk about a new security architecture for Europe: the current round of competition is just starting. However, they need to be permanently in touch with each other to ensure that what remains of the existing architecture does not fall down onto their heads and those of their citizens.
Republished with permission from Carnegie Moscow Center