After Ukraine: The potential for conflict between Russia and NATO

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After Ukraine: The potential for conflict between Russia and NATO
Published 9-02-2015, 11:13

Alexey Fenenko

Alexey Fenenko is an associate professor at the Faculty of World Politics of the Moscow State University. Previously, he was a leading researcher at the Institute of International Security Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2004-2013), a project coordinator at the Academic Educational Forum on International Relations and a co-editor for ˝International Trends˝ magazine (2004-2011). He has a Doctorate in History (2003).

The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated how both Russia and NATO are using the post-Soviet space as a new geopolitical battleground to resolve issues left unsettled after the conclusion of the Cold War.

The conflict in Ukraine, if allowed to deteriorate further, could push Russia and NATO into the uncharted waters of a dangerous new rivalry. Unfortunately, the current conflict has thus far not produced any new modi operandi in cooperation between Moscow and the West. In fact, if anything, it has opened up the prospect for the United States to provide lethal military aid to the government in Kiev.

Instead, the Ukraine crisis has demonstrated once and for all that Russia opposes the U.S. view of the world order, which consists of applying measures designed to maintain the interests of the United States and its closest allies in the former Soviet Union. For its part, the U.S. and the EU have reaffirmed both their unwillingness to revise the outcome of the Cold War as well as their willingness to defend it through military and diplomatic means.

There are now grounds to posit that the U.S. and Russia are developing scenarios for a limited war against each other. They are making purposeful, practical arrangements. Recent reports suggest that U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. military establishment are preparing to arm Ukrainian forces. A limited war between Russia and NATO is no longer being viewed as a means of last resort for achieving geopolitical goals.

Understanding the Cold War context of today’s confrontation

In 2012 the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) presented a report entitled "Towards a Euro-Atlantic Security Community,” which pulled no punches. In their expert opinion, the Euro-Atlantic area in the early 21st century still has a mindset geared towards bipolar confrontation. The Ukraine crisis seems to have proved that Russia and NATO have entered a far more dangerous period of rivalry — a "game without rules.”

The first decade after the Second World War was dominated by the four victorious powers. It took until 1956 for two of them (the Soviet Union and the U.S.) to lower the status of the other two (Britain and France) to the level of regional powers. That was also when Moscow and Washington entered a period of direct military-strategic opposition.

For the Soviet Union, confrontation with the United States meant confrontation with the entire Western world. In the mid-1960s the Soviet Union made a bet on the so-called Euro-Atlanticists and the politics of certain continental European countries calling for limits on U.S. influence. France’s exit from the NATO military command structure in 1966 handed it the role of mediator between Moscow and Washington. But around 1974 France too began to return to joint operations with Washington. Soviet diplomacy failed to create a real breach between the U.S. and Western Europe.


But the threat of a direct military conflict between the superpowers was minimal. The reason was not so much the presence of nuclear weapons, but the steady decline in the number of pretexts for direct U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Neither superpower was inclined to resolve issues by unleashing a major military conflict. Neither the White House nor the Kremlin housed political fanatics ready to risk all for the sake of a few abstract ideological goals.

How the collapse of the Soviet Union increased the chances for a more dangerous confrontation

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation changed. The two comparable powers in terms of nuclear capability were compelled to forge a relationship within a single global world order. That only served to heighten the potential for conflict.

The collapse of the Soviet Union caused a wave of illusory assertions that Russia and the United States had no ideological contradictions. In fact, they started to appear right after 1993. Russia officially refused to recognize the U.S. concepts of leadership and "expansion of democracy” by proposing an alternative in the form of a "multipolar world.”

The United States withdrew its initial support of the former Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, citing the failure of the democratic transition in Russia and the establishment of a "neo-tsarist” regime. In Russian society, the view that U.S. policy threatened the very existence of Russia held sway.

The American elite focused on two major controversial issues. First was Moscow’s retention of its Soviet-era military capacity, as Russia remained the only country in the world technically capable of destroying the United States and of waging war with comparable weaponry. Second was Russia’s inherited status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which allowed it to block the actions of the United States or to deny it the necessary legitimacy.


The Russian authorities and some experts held the view that, despite all the declarations about "strategic partnership,” the objective of U.S. policy on Russia was to cripple its strategic potential and ensure it could not recover quickly. For Moscow, the most alarming aspect of Washington’s behavior was its reform of international law, as the Kremlin understood it. Moscow believed that, through a chain of precedents, American diplomacy sought to affirm the right to forcefully remove leaders of sovereign states and forcefully disarm dangerous regimes. The Kremlin continued to harbor doubts all along, perhaps unfounded, that the ultimate target of U.S. policy was none other than Russian itself.

On top of that, Moscow was let down by the policy of the EU. Starting in the mid-1990s, Russian diplomats looked once more to the Euro-Atlanticists, seeking to play the Franco-German card against the U.S. in all international crises. The situation changed after the Kosovo crisis in 1999, which indicated for the Russian authorities that there were no fundamental differences between the U.S. and the EU.

To bring the United States into the dialogue, Russia had to give periodic demonstrations of power. The White House for its part viewed Moscow’s actions as an attempt to revise the new post-1991 world order. This increased the risk of collision.

The post-Soviet space as a new geopolitical battleground

The battleground for U.S.-Russian confrontation was the post-Soviet space. American diplomacy was focused on making geopolitical hay from the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Russia cautiously tried to reverse the outcome thereof through a revival of the integration processes in the former Soviet Union.

By late 1997 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had essentially split into three groups of countries focused on different objectives: developing integration projects with Russia in one form or another (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan); balancing between Russia and the other powers (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia); and opposing Russia and blocking Russian projects (the GUAM countries: Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova).


It is the "third group” of countries that turned into a source of indirect rivalry between Russia and the U.S. First, they all harbored ethno-political conflicts and considered Russia to be a violator of their territorial integrity. Second, the United States saw in these countries the critical mass it needed to prevent the restoration of the former Soviet Union. Third, for as long as it was focused on reintegration of the former Soviet Union, Russia needed to weaken these countries, or at least alter their attitude towards Washington. This geopolitical context casts the "Putin doctrine” in a different light. The Kremlin is not focused on the destruction of the current world order, but rather, on a coordinated revision of the world order. Its aim is to force the United States to recognize Russia’s right to govern a sphere of "special interests” on its borders.

Competing Russian and NATO objectives in the post-Soviet space

Such tasks require from Moscow periodic doses of force in the post-Soviet space. In each instance, the Kremlin has sought to achieve three objectives: to compel Washington to compromise, to maintain a buffer zone of neutral countries between Russia and NATO, and to create the conditions to replace the most overtly anti-Russian regimes.

The objectives of the White House in that regard have always been the opposite: to force Moscow to recognize anti-Russian regimes and derail Russia’s integration projects. The result was three crises of varying degrees of intensity: Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.

The latest crisis in Ukraine formed an important component of the U.S. plan to disrupt Russia’s integration project in the shape of the Eurasian Union, as the Kremlin probably believes. Russia wanted to stop Ukraine from drifting into the West’s orbit, which, according to Moscow, was threatening to undermine Russia’s positions in the post-Soviet space. Moscow is well aware that it was Kiev that blocked all integration processes within the CIS. From that perspective, "punishing” Ukraine would automatically strengthen the position of Russia.

For all the significance of the regional aspects of the Ukraine conflict, it is the global component that is of greater concern. Before, during and after the conflict, the new Ukrainian leadership emphasized that its actions were based on NATO support. U.S. politicians do not deny that the White House was aware of Kiev’s military plans. In addition, the United States applied tremendous diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia, trying to impel it to abandon its support of the new Donetsk and Luhansk republics and pinning responsibility on Moscow for unleashing the conflict.

An additional source of trouble was the position of the European Union. During the five-day war in Georgia in 2008, Germany and France tried hard to mediate an end. Now EU leaders have effectively abandoned dialogue with Russia.

The parameters of a future compromise are beginning to emerge. Ukraine, having lost some of its territory, has nevertheless maintained its statehood, generally based on anti-Russian sentiment. The southeast of the country seems to be locked in a new frozen conflict. The protest mood is apparently shifting to the south. These parameters are important for securing a ceasefire, but they do not solve anything from the perspective of NATO-Russian relations.

Future stress points in the Russia-NATO relationship

The logic of "mediated confrontation” has the potential to create new stress points in the deteriorating relationship between Russia and NATO.

The most serious contender for conflict potential is the Baltic region, which is Russia’s most vulnerable point. First, the geographical position of the enclave of Kaliningrad complicates its protection by Russia. Second, the Baltic countries are part of NATO, making it much easier for them to conduct anti-Russian policies. Third, the neutrality of Finland and Sweden is critical. Without it, Russian maritime traffic to and from Kaliningrad would cease.

A less visible, but no less dangerous problem, is posed by Transnistria. Russia has no land or sea connections with its locally stationed 14th Army. For Moldova, and possibly Ukraine, the temptation exists to try to solve the problem of Transnistria by military means. The situation is further complicated by the possible involvement in the conflict of Romania, a NATO member.

Strangely enough, conflict is less likely to develop in the Caucasus. Georgia has managed to preserve its territorial integrity (within the 2008 borders) and partially improve relations with Russia.

Looking further ahead, a major knot of contradictions could arise in the Far East. It is here that Russia and the United States have territorial disputes including the problem of carving up the continental shelf of the Bering Sea, the dispute over the demarcation of the Chukchi Sea, and America’s non-recognition of the status of the Okhotsk Sea. The knot of contradictions has the potential to become even more tangled.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Ahead of the Munich Security Conference, which will be held from Feb. 6-8, Russia Direct is releasing a new Brief that takes a look at the implications of the Ukraine crisis for global security. Register for free now to be the first one to read it.

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