Once in a hole, stop digging!
Ever since Russia started concentrating troops along its border with Ukraine the calls for ‘de-escalation’ have been widespread. So far, however, both Russia and the West are rather bracing for escalation scenario’s. Under these tense circumstances Russia will hold the ‘Allied Resolve’ military exercises with Belarus to the north of Ukraine while its Navy has announced live firing drills off the coast of neutral Ireland. Western countries are preparing a package of severe economic sanctions to be applied in case of further Russian military actions against Ukraine and the US may soon deploy additional troops to European allies. Washington also considers, if need be, sanctioning President Putin personally.
Having repeatedly complained about the European security order, Russia has at least managed to draw the West’s attention which has resulted in a series of high-level diplomatic exchanges. This is a win for Russia and a reminder of the fact that military assertiveness pays off. But the atmosphere remains febrile because Russia demands answers to a list of publicised proposals, most of which are clearly unacceptable to the US and NATO. Moreover, a classic security dilemma evolves in the sense that defensive measures by one party are interpreted as offensive by the other. The challenge is to sustain this delicate process and steer it towards a de-escalation dynamic. In order to get there, these meetings will have to yield some results.
Do we have a ‘Russia problem’, or a wider ‘European security’ problem?
Many Western countries maintain that we are dealing with a ‘Russia problem’, and that there is nothing wrong with the European security architecture that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Still, as long as a major actor, in terms of military capabilities, energy resources and nuisance potential, is profoundly dissatisfied with the state of play (and in recent times has invaded two countries to bring this message home) the question arises whether the West can afford to be complacent about the status quo.
History indicates that inclusive peace agreements stand better chances of durability. After the Napoleonic wars France was included in the ‘European Concert’, a multipolar system that, by and large, functioned during the 19th century. In contrast, having been defeated in World War I Germany was simply told to sign the Versailles treaties, and the Soviets had not been invited in the first place. No wonder that these two outliers, despite stark ideological differences, agreed among themselves: first in Rapallo in 1922, strengthening economic and military ties, and later in 1939, concluding the infamous non-aggression pact that set the stage for World War II.
History indicates that inclusive peace agreements are more durable
After this war, both West Germany and Japan became Western allies, which brought stability in the face of geopolitical strife with the Communist bloc. The ensuing Cold War ended with negotiations on nuclear weapons and German unification but, especially in the latter case, the Soviet Union was too weak to make its mark on the arrangements. Hence the Russian idea that from that period onwards their security interests have been progressively neglected. History also indicates that in international relations perceptions matter, and that (self-proclaimed) great powers tend to resent rivals encroaching on their immediate neighbourhoods.
If the ultimate goal is to avoid major military conflict in the heart of Europe, as it must be, the West doesn’t have to agree with Russia’s positions to take them seriously. Diplomacy is about give and take, and Russia’s proposals also include provisions on confidence building and risk reduction measures pertaining to military doctrines, planning, manoeuvres and exercises. This concerns topics that Western countries have been discussing with Russia in the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), so a renewed impetus to address mutual worries in this sphere should be feasible.
Russia’s proposal also include confidence building and risk reduction
However, as the draft treaties Russia presented make abundantly clear, a key issue revolves around the prospect of Ukrainian membership of NATO. This issue is compounded by the fact that back in 2008 NATO made an unforced error by guaranteeing membership to Ukraine and Georgia, prejudging accession requests (and parliamentary ratification procedures for that matter). It is difficult to see how the alliance can ‘undo’ this statement, yet there is still no ‘inherent right’ of Ukraine to join. As per article 10 of the NATO treaty, allies may invite countries that are “in a position … to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”; an assessment that is up to current members.
Since membership involves military protection guarantees through article 5, NATO has to take its strategic environment into careful consideration when deciding on new accessions. Nobody can deny that for the foreseeable future the odds are against Ukrainian membership. If NATO doesn’t contemplate the implementation of its earlier commitments vis-à-vis Ukraine (and Georgia), and Russia is adamantly opposed to such moves, somehow the twain ought to be able to meet halfway. In this regard, it would help if Ukraine itself, rather than being an item on the agenda of meetings by others, reconsidered its drive to join and instead re-engaged in the Normandy Four meetings.
There is no ‘right’ to join NATO; its current members decide
In these discussions with Russia, France and Germany on the stalemate over its eastern break-away regions, Ukraine could try to hammer out a quid pro quo. The fact that, after a long pause, representatives from these four countries met in Paris on 26 January to resume talks may be a promising sign. On the same day, the US and NATO handed over (undisclosed) written responses to Russia’s security demands that, according to US officials, offer a serious diplomatic path to resolve the situation. Unsurprisingly, Moscow’s initial reaction was critical but it said there is still room for dialogue.
Again, another military conflict would be disastrous. Primarily for Ukraine, given Russia’s superiority and the West’s prior announcement that its militaries will not get directly involved. Russia might enjoy a short-lived tactical victory of sorts but suffer the consequences of massive sanctions that are likely to recoil on European economies as well. Given its current dependency on Russia, Belarus might also be drawn into this conflict which could call its independent future into question. Finally, the West’s collective decision-making abilities would be put to the test, bringing risks of disunity that would play into the hands of the aggressor. With so many prospective losing sides, cooler diplomatic heads should prevail.