The sudden escalation of the Ukraine crisis took many Western policy makers by surprise. Despite the intermittent flashes of dispute - such as the gas crises in 2006 and 2009 and the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the region has not been a priority focus for the Western policy establishment.
Even now, amidst the current serious crisis, it appears to languish low down the long list of priorities, which include the collapsing Middle Eastern peace process, the war in Syria, tensions between China and Japan, and, of course, domestic priorities in the US and Europe, and the ongoing problems of the European economy.
At the same time, however, there is much talk of a changed European landscape, and the need to return to Cold War-style policies regarding Russia. This is understandable.
But talk of a return to Cold War thinking and policies dazzles rather than illuminates. It emphasises a simplistic binary approach of diplomacy (which many appear to believe is simply a synonym for appeasement, that heavy burden of 20th century European guilt) or deterrence, particularly by increasing NATO’s presence on the territory of eastern European members, that inflames the situation.
It is more useful to see the Ukraine crisis as having crystallized what has been an intensifying strategic dissonance between Russia and the West over the last decade. The basis of this dissonance is the disagreement over the conceptualization of Euro-Atlantic security. Where Western capitals have seen the emergence of a Europe ‘whole, free and at peace’ over the last two decades, Moscow sees a continent fragmented, dominated by bloc mentality and burdened by ongoing conflict. For Russia, the crisis reflects both a confirmation and an acceleration of this problem.
It is the spread of Western organizations, particularly NATO, that is Moscow’s underlying concern, since it is seen to emphasise the division of the European space into two parts - the wider space, in which agreements are merely political, and thus open to change or abuse, and the ‘bloc’ spaces, in which agreements are legally binding.
At the same time, Moscow asserts that the current Euro-Atlantic politico-security structure has proven incapable of effectively addressing ongoing problems - such as arms control, particularly the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), and unresolved conflicts like Moldova/Transnistria.
Even if the immediate crisis in Ukraine is resolved, therefore, numerous points of conceptual and practical tension remain. Vladimir Putin has said that he now expects proposals from the West about how to address these questions. In the absence of such proposals, Western policymakers should expect Moscow to act to resolve pressing Russian security concerns.
Such action may take several forms, including another push at European arms control, perhaps by bolstering the Russian military presence in Crimea to make it a strategic military hub, or by putting arms control agreements under pressure.
Moscow may have another push at resolving the Moldova/Transnistria conflict. Western policy makers would do well to remember the Russian Kozak Memorandum of 2003, which proposed a federalized solution to the conflict - and should not be surprised if Moscow advances a similar initiative, led now by Dmitri Rogozin, who is currently in Chisinau.
Finally, Moscow appears likely to continue to hold snap military exercises. It is these exercises, rather than the infiltration of Crimea or pressure on eastern Ukraine, that unsettle eastern European members. This pressure has created a debate in the West about the strength of NATO’s Article V commitment to defend its members. By increasing doubt about this commitment, it may be that the Russian leadership can create a situation in which NATO becomes, like the Western European Union did, merely a paper alliance. This would be a major success for Moscow and for Putin.
What can Western policy makers do? First, knowing post-Cold War history is important. Policy makers should ensure they are well briefed on previous Russian initiatives, such as the Kozak Memorandum, the proposals for a debate on new European Security Treaty of 2008, and also on Russian positions on the CFE. There should be no more 'Kosovo referendum' style errors.
Second, immediate concerns about Russia are justified. But the responses must be appropriate. This will mean measures, that, like the effect that economic sanctions have on Western businesses, may sting Western interests in the short term. More important than NATO building infrastructure in the eastern European member states is a combined effort both to conduct a deep counter-intelligence operation and a push to complete security sector reforms in the new member states.
Third, it is time for a major reassessment of Russia itself. This has proven difficult in the past, as Western states have varying relationships with Russia, with the result that Western views of Russia are often out of date. For NATO this is particularly important: the reforms of the Russian military since 2008 have clearly had some effect. What are the strengths and weaknesses, and how is this evolving?
Russia is not the USSR, regardless of some of the old Soviet tropes and symbols that have re-emerged, and this crisis does not indicate a 'Cold War redux'. Yes, there is important tension between the West and Russia that will not simply fade away, but those who see Russia in such Cold War terms should remember that those who look back to prepare for the last war usually find themselves at a serious disadvantage as the future unfolds.
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