Caging the Russian Bear – are NATO and the EU playing a dangerous game?

This article is a part of The Perspective’s Open Mind Theme week. The aim of this week is to broaden perspectives and reveal new angles of subjects you may have thought were crystal clear. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of The Perspective or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund.

The current geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe is increasingly being discussed, not least after conflicts in Ukraine erupted. Russia is seemingly acting ever more aggressive after the annexation of Crimea and the increment of military activities along its borders. NATO, on the other hand, has enlarged their presence in their biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War. Russia is mostly portrayed as the threat and source of tension in Western media, while NATO and the EU are mostly considered to protect their spheres. A more nuanced look at the circumstances must also include a Russian perspective on the security measures taken by NATO and Europe. Who is threatening who?

“Russia is the No. 1 threat to the United States. We have a number of threats that we’re dealing with, but Russia could be, because of the nuclear aspect, an existential threat to the United States.” Those are the words of the former US Air Force Secretary Deborah James in an interview at the annual Reagan National Defence Forum in December 2016. The fact that Russia is increasingly being considered a threat to NATO and Europe has been evident in many ways during recent years. NATO has gradually placed numerous troops and military hardware in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, many directly facing the Russian borders.

This military build-up and expansion of NATO on Russia’s borders are in fact violating a deal made in 1990 between the Soviets and the US leaders. When the Berlin Wall had fallen, the George H.W. Bush administration was determined that a reunified Germany was going to be included in NATO. In order to ensure Soviet approval  an offer was made, in which the then-Secretary of State James Baker proposed that “NATO would not expand one inch eastward” if the Soviets agreed on the terms. In less than a week, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the deal. For the Soviets, this meant that the reunified Germany joined NATO in exchange for limits on the eastward expansion of NATO –implying NATO would never be present on Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe.

NATO General Secretary with Estonian military. (Picture: Estonian Foreign Ministry, Flickr CC)

A couple of decades later the situation is looking different. NATO has drastically expanded eastwards in terms of member states, with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltics, Romania and Bulgaria all joining from the mid-1990s and onwards. The alliance has also increasingly armed these countries with troops and equipment. NATO is subsequently right at Russia’s border, and no buffer-zone exists at all in some areas. There was never a formal deal established, and the West denies the existence of such a deal, but it seems unlikely that there is no truth to this supposed deal. However much argued and debated, it would be narrow-minded not to believe this development can be considered a form of aggression from NATO. For instance, when talks about integrating some ex-Yugoslav countries into the alliance took place in 2014, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov was very clear to a Bosnian newspaper when saying: “With regards to the expansion of NATO, I see it as a mistake, even a provocation in a way.”

The developments in the region, with further tensions, increased NATO presence and demonization of Russia have also had other consequences, concerning the Russia-EU relationship. EU countries, who are not members of NATO, such as Finland and Sweden, have also increased their military spending. The arguments supporting the build-up are increased Russian aggression and military presence in the Baltic area. Sweden claims that Russian jets have been flying too close to strategic zones and Russian submarines have been suspected in its territorial waters. However, no official evidence of these incidents exist and from a Russian point of view this is considered as yet another country pointing its finger at Russia to justify higher defence spending.

The tensions in the Baltic region have developed in other ways as well. Disputes have arisen when constructing the Nord Stream II, a gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany parallel to the Nord Stream I, delivering highly demanded Russian gas to Europe. For construction support, two Swedish municipalities were offered profitable deals for temporarily renting out two harbours to the project. With the possibility of regional self-determination in questions like these, they did not need the approval of the national government to go through with the deals. The Swedish government, however, reacted quickly to the proposed Russian deal and strongly recommended local officials not to proceed, due to national security interests. This led to refusal from one municipality, while the other one ended up using their self-determination and accepting the deal, hence going against the national government.

However argued, the fact of an increased demonization and fear of Russia remains. This is a commercial project with the purpose of delivering very desired gas to Europe. When it stumbles upon problems due to national security interest, because the gas is Russian, it becomes quite clear that fingers are constantly being pointed at Russia from several directions.

The increased military presence of NATO and worsened relationship with the EU could imply Putin is feeling more isolated and pressured than ever before. It reminds strikingly of old days, where Putin now is looking elsewhere for valuable diplomatic ties in the protection of Russian interests. (Picture: Karl-Ludwig Poggeman, Flickr CC)

In many senses it should therefore be realized in the ‘Western World’ that, with the history there is, Russia could feel quite isolated, squeezed and pressured with recent developments All of this is making a leader such as Vladimir Putin feel obliged to protect the national interest sphere. With  NATO military spending about ten times higher than the Russian, this view is confirmed. Considering the possibility of the West overestimating Russia’s military capacities, the great sensitivity of placing NATO troops on its borders must be understood. As Vladimir Putin, quite humorously, once put it in CBS News ’60 minutes’: “Maybe they have nothing else to do in America but to talk about me.”

So the question must be asked: who is really threatening who?

Alexander Edberg-Thorén

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