Russia and NATO: How Did We Get Here and How Should We Respond?

Eye of the storm: NATO defence ministers meet in Brussels on 16 June 2022. Image: NATO

NATO tried hard to forge a cooperative relationship with Russia. The effort failed, and being honest about the reasons for this failure will help devise a more realistic approach.

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compares the EU and NATO to Nazi Germany and claims that both organisations are preparing a war against Russia, shrugging one’s shoulders at such an unhinged accusation is not the right response. Much better is to admit the obvious. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not only conducting a brutal war of destruction against Ukraine, but is treating it as part of a duel with the West.

Don't mention the war’ – so went the line used in the Fawlty Towers sitcom that has since made it into the pantheon of humour. But repeating it today as a policy prescription would not be a laughing matter. And this most certainly applies to NATO – the only transatlantic Western institution that has both the mandate and the capabilities to prevent, and if that were not possible, to prevail in, a confrontation with Russia.

NATO Tried, Perhaps Too Hard

Preventing such a conflict is one of the key priorities that Allies have focused on since the end of the Cold War. One could argue that this objective has impacted every aspect of NATO’s policy and posture since 1990.

Cutting the number of military commands, withdrawing the bulk of US troops from Europe, reducing the nuclear arsenal and substantially drawing down defence budgets were of course driven by the newfound spirit of optimism and by understandable financial considerations. But avoiding any decision or policy that could undermine the prospects of better relations with Russia was a constant consideration for many Allies.

It became a classic ‘win-win’ mantra, treated as an unchallenged paradigm in many Allied capitals and NATO structures. It slowed down the enlargement process and – in the case of Georgia and Ukraine – actually put it on hold. The urge to do everything possible to make Russia ‘one of us’ meant that relations were viewed through rose-tinted glasses, colouring (or ignoring) security threat analysis and encouraging time- and energy-consuming efforts to negotiate special institutional arrangements with Russia (first the Permanent Joint Council and then the NATO–Russia Council). The pressure even led some leaders to accept suffering personal discomfort (if not humiliation) in dealings with Putin – various public testimonies confirm this being experienced by UK and French leaders, for example.

This mantra helped to argue for fewer – and smaller-scale – military exercises, stifled doubts about self-imposed restrictions unilaterally accepted by Allies in the NATO–Russia Founding Act (NRFA) of 1997, and cultivated a belief in the almost magical value of dialogue with Moscow. On top of this, the holy grail of international security of the last 30 years – turning Russia into a partner – was reinforced by short-sighted economic motivations, best exemplified by energy dependence deals and the selling of military technology to Russia. The inevitable result was turning a deaf ear to substantiated warnings about Russia’s aggressive plans and malign influence operations.

It beggars belief that four months into this war, there are still voices in the West who blame the Kremlin’s actions on alleged mistakes in the West’s approach to Russia

It is not my intention to argue that the goal of anchoring Russia in the camp of shared values and interests (as an aim in itself and as insurance against confrontation) was not worth striving for. It was. But once compelling evidence proved that Putin’s Russia was not going to become a partner of the West (in my view this became apparent by 2008 and more than obvious by 2014), the price paid for sticking to it was too high. In particular, it has hindered our collective ability to prevail in the confrontation that is already upon us.

We must shed these self-imposed restrictions, as we cannot fight this fight with at least one hand tied behind our back. In the week of the NATO Madrid Summit, here is my list of the five tasks that matter most.

A More Informed NATO Approach

First, the real starting point and the cornerstone for a paradigm shift must involve letting go of those assumptions about Russia that bear no connection to reality. It beggars belief that four months into a genocidal war waged by a despot with a megalomaniacal streak, there are still voices in the West (usually misleadingly labelling themselves as ‘realist’) who blame the Kremlin’s actions on alleged mistakes in the West’s approach to Russia.

Far too often, calls for a ‘more considerate strategy’ on Russia patronisingly ignore the views of Central and Eastern Europeans, despite the fact that they often go hand in hand with a reluctant admission that the same countries were right about Moscow prior to the war against Ukraine. Some analysts even point to existing prejudices that accept an implicit hierarchy between states, with Russia treated with a respect that it simply does not deserve. Both habits need to be shed now.

The simple truth is that European (or even global) security cannot now be built together with Russia, only in opposition to it. Why? Because Moscow is busy dismantling and challenging every security and stability foundation that we care about.

And we cannot expect the situation to reverse itself any time soon.

Russia’s democratic opposition, in its current form, does not seem capable of changing the regime anytime soon. Even the Anti-War Committee, composed of very respectable opponents of Putin, cannot agree on a joint political platform. The bulk of ordinary Russians are predominantly in denial as regards their country’s crimes and will only help to topple the regime when desperation sets in (or in support of an internal coup). And loopholes in the configuration of sanctions and help from BRICS partners will allow Russia – for the time being at least – to finance its aggressive policy abroad. So, while looking for opportunities to undermine Putin and his cronies, the West must rely primarily on its own combined efforts.

The simple truth is that European security cannot now be built together with Russia, only in opposition to it

Second, we must openly define Putin’s Russia as our opponent. As a hostile and aggressive power, it needs to be resisted and contained on many levels: political, economic and military chief among them. This is essential if we are to start playing to our advantages, while capitalising on Russia’s weaknesses. In fact, one of the most harmful self-imposed restrictions concerns the myth that creating difficulties for a regime that is openly threatening our countries (including in the nuclear domain) will make our situation more dangerous. One must not lose sight of the fact that the idea that ‘Putin’s successor could be worse’ is nonsensical: we know the dictator’s disastrous deeds, but have no clue as to who may replace him, or when. Other false arguments such as ‘we mustn’t provoke Moscow’ or ‘we shouldn’t play into the hands of Kremlin propaganda’ should also be discarded. As a confirmation of such a shift, the Allies should revoke the NRFA.

Third, Allies must agree on the key planks of a military containment policy and stick to them rigorously. It is better to err on the side of caution. When facing the reality that Russia has turned from a ‘neighbour from hell’ into an existential threat, NATO has to embrace the conviction that ‘hope is not an option’. A radical change in posture has to be on the cards. The response to the threat requires deploying substantial numbers of Allied troops, planes, naval vessels, air defence systems and anti-missile systems in critical locations and regions as soon as possible, on both a permanent and a rotational basis, as well as increasing the frequency and complexity of exercises and patrols.

This must cover at a minimum the Suwalki Gap, the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as the Mediterranean and parts of the Atlantic – all backed by significant prepositioning of equipment where needed, and underpinned by continuous defence budget increases. Moreover, defence industry production in Allied countries needs to be stepped up without delay. Creative solutions are needed to replenish stocks and economic capacity, so as to ensure the potential to maintain a ‘war economy’.

Fourth, we must vigorously nurture and support those NATO partners who can make a meaningful contribution to collective defence and/or the containment of Russia. Ukraine today tops this list: its heroic and effective resistance to Russia’s barbaric invasion buys NATO more time to get its house in order and constrain Russia. In order for Kyiv to be able to defend itself and Europe, supplies – ideally offered for free, a policy where the EU could follow in the US’s footsteps – of essential systems (artillery, air defence and so on) have to flow fast and without interruption. The accession of Finland and Sweden must be treated as a priority, both as a point of principle and for operational reasons. And NATO should work even harder to develop operational links with like-minded countries, in Europe and beyond.

Fifth, we must better communicate the facts about the ongoing confrontation to our societies and, crucially, prepare them for a possible military conflict that may become unavoidable. Yes, we must mention the war and explain forcefully to the public the paradoxical truth that preparing for conflict will help to prevent it. Opinion polls show that Russia is losing in the court of international public opinion, while support for NATO remains strong. NATO and individual Allies should thus act more boldly in the global and local information battlefield. There needs to be punchier deterrence messaging (including in response to nuclear blackmail), pressure to rid global social media of official Russian accounts, and a more ‘in-your-face’ presentation of evidence of Russia’s crimes, its blatant hypocrisy (such as its use of ultranationalists while spreading the myth of Nazis in Ukraine) and the regime’s incompetence. This is essential for raising morale in Allied countries and threatened partners (such as Georgia and Moldova). It may also help to turn the tables against Russia among its BRICS and other global partners, including members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation who in reality are afraid of its patron.

In Place of a Conclusion

If there is one thing that I have learnt during my time in Moscow as a NATO representative, it is that when confronted by aggressive members of the Russian elite, one has to stand firm and show consistent conviction and strength. Accommodation and appeals to principles (or even enlightened self-interest) will not work anymore in a traumatised society, governed by people trapped in their own corrupt and brutal system, where only power is accepted as a credible currency of interaction. The five tasks I list above are not herculean, but they do demand a display of collective grit and determination. We owe it to Ukrainians and to ourselves to deliver exactly that.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Robert Pszczel

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