Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of the American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. Gilbert Doctorow is a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow
It is improbable that any of the glaring contradictions and sources of weakness in NATO will deal it a fatal blow. However, in conditions of near-hysterical concern over how to cope with the refugees and still more fears of terrorist attacks, the true role of NATO in undermining rather than bolstering European security is becoming more widely appreciated.
The fate of economic blocs and military alliances in Europe:
A Speech to the European Russian Forum, Brussels, 30 November 2015
The confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which has continued and found a new field of growth in Syria all goes back, formally speaking, to economics from which it shifted over to the geopolitical dimension which is its primary face to the world today.
By economic conflict of interests, I mean precisely the EU initiative within the scope of the Eastern Partnership program launched in 2008 to bring Ukraine into a close and exclusive economic relationship with the ‘trade bloc’ that the European Union has always been at its core. The EU insisted on negotiating its planned Association Agreement with Kiev on a bilateral basis, rejecting the insistent calls by Moscow for trilateral talks to discuss its likely impact on Ukraine’s trade with its most important partner to date, the Russian Federation. The ultimate refusal of Ukrainian President Yanukovich at the 3rd Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013 to sign the Association document when faced with clear reports on the costs of implementation and meager financial support coming from Europe, led to the Maidan demonstrations and finally to the overthrow of his government in February 2014. That, in turn, triggered Russian action to reclaim the Crimea and the war of words with the EU and USA that has dominated the international political landscape ever since.
Of course, the economic blocs and military alliances were intertwined from the very start of the EU feelers to Ukraine over association. The draft agreement was known to contain a military covenant whereby Ukraine would align its foreign and defense policy to EU priorities. All of this was quite separate from the question of Ukraine joining NATO, in which most of the same EU Member States also were involved as members of the Atlantic Alliance.
What happened after the Crimean Spring and most certainly after the onset of troubles in Donbass, seen in the West to be instigated by Moscow, was the switchover from competing economic blocs – the EU and Russia, with its evolving Eurasian Union – to a geopolitical and military competition between the West, meaning the EU and USA, on one side and the Russian Federation on the other side, with its fellow BRICS members providing moral support.
Whether by intent or by happenstance, this new situation appeared to be a godsend to the liberal hawks and Neocons who jointly run US foreign and defense policy. NATO is a major instrument through which US global hegemony is maintained . The US has control of nearly all the levers in the Alliance. The emerging confrontation with Russia breathed new life into NATO, which was at that point looking once again for a mission to justify its existence. First, it lost the Soviet Union and Communism as its raison d’être back in 1992. Then the post-Cold War justification of out of area military action in global hotspots became deeply discredited by the costly and failed NATO interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO would now return to its roots, most narrowly defined as an alliance defending Europe from Russian aggression.
Quite apart from the personal vilification of President Putin, whereby major US politicians including the leading presidential hopeful in the Democratic Party Hilary Clinton, have likened him to a modern day Hitler, NATO members could sink their teeth into more seemly and substantial policy issues. They highlighted the dangers of Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare,’ its use of its ethnic Russian diaspora in the Near Abroad to pursue territorial expansion and recreate the Soviet Empire. The Baltics were immediately brought up as requiring special attention, while Poland also argued for its own need of permanent NATO ground forces.
In response, the US and its NATO allies at their summit in Wales in September 2014 launched a program to raise military budgets across Europe, to create rapid response forces to deter and if necessary counter Russian military expansion. US tanks and other heavy materiel began coming back to Europe. The latest nuclear weapons are being repositioned in Europe. And NATO forces began a program to rotate troops to the front-line countries facing Russia so as to stay within the limitations on deployment enshrined in treaty with Russia from the 1990s while getting around their intent of de-escalating tensions. The Alliance began a series of military exercises intended to reassure public opinion in Western Europe and show determination to contain Russian recidivism.
It was long said about Russian trade policy towards the EU that it was designed to ‘divide and conquer’ by exploiting differences in commercial interests among the Member States so as to frustrate coordinated action vis-à-vis Russia on energy and much else. This charge now was brought up with respect to NATO, where the strongly anti-Russian sentiments of the Baltics and Poland contrasted with more cautious analysis and policies of long-time Members, particularly Germany, who were and are wary of expanding NATO to areas that the Russians clearly delineated as red lines: Ukraine, Georgia.
However, NATO’s seeming return to relevance in the aftermath of the Ukrainian coup d’état and Russian moves in Crimea and Donbass has also turned up fundamental conceptual flaws in the Alliance which may be its eventual undoing.
First, the change in language as relations worsened with Russia over the past 2 years has revealed the military as opposed to political essence of the Atlantic Alliance. Notwithstanding all the cuddly talk about Russia-NATO cooperation, about protecting and furthering values of democracy and rule of law, NATO has shown that it is first and foremost a military alliance directed against Russia. In so doing, it has flushed out the falseness of its expansion since the start of the new millennium, not to mention its pretensions to move still further to Russia’s borders by bringing Ukraine into its orbit.
The logic that propelled NATO expansion from the second term of Bill Clinton was that the US and existing NATO members were merely acceding to the insistent demands of the various countries, former members of the Warsaw Pact or former Soviet republics, not to be left out of the security and political infrastructure. The fundamental question of whether bringing in any incremental members would add to or subtract from the security of those already in the Alliance was never addressed. And this is no accident, since if it were addressed the utter foolishness of bringing in the Baltics, for example, would have been plain to all. There is no way that the Baltic States can be defended from a determined Russian strike that would be politically acceptable to the other NATO members. In the past year, there have been a plethora of authoritative military experts who have come out publicly with the acknowledgement that the Baltic defense would begin after they are overrun or neutralized. Of course, this does not stop the bluster from the Washington foreign policy establishment.
The latest development between Turkey and Russia over the shooting down of the Russian bomber at the Syrian-Turkish border highlights another fundamental conceptual failure of NATO: notwithstanding all the seeming control exerted by the US over the remaining 27 members, the tail can easily wag the dog. The Chapter 5 obligations of all NATO members to come to the defense of any one under attack is a blank check to a member like Turkey to behave in unconscionably provocative manner towards Russia and then come crying to mama for protection.
However, the greatest possible inconsistency in NATO’s conception and its continued existence today comes from yet another recent development: namely the decision of Francois Hollande one week ago to appeal not to NATO’s Chapter 5 but to fellow EU Member States for military action against the terrorist bases that struck in downtown Paris. He invoked Article 42(7) of the Treaty of the European Union also known as the ‘mutual assistance clause’ (MAC). Invoking this little known provision is a first baby step of the EU to operate a common defense and foreign policy going beyond paperwork to actually pooling resources for a mission of self-defense defined in Europe, not in Washington. The terms of this combined effort exclude participation by either the USA or Turkey, two powers that have been flagrantly frustrating the objectives of the present mission to wipe out the Islamic State, restore political process in Syria, stem the flood of refugees into Europe, and possibly to initiate a back current to where they came from.
It is improbable that any of the glaring contradictions and sources of weakness in NATO that I have mentioned will deal a fatal blow to this malign and misguided institution on which the security of the Western world is widely believed to rest. However, in conditions of near hysterical concern in European capitals over how to cope with refugees and still more fears of terrorist attack, the true role of NATO in undermining rather than bolstering European security may be more widely appreciated and direct a sympathetic ear to Russian calls for reinventing the security architecture of the Continent. Certainly the emerging allied force against the Islamic State comprising France, Russia, Germany and possibly the UK has chances of guiding thought in this direction among the most serious and consequential statesmen in Europe.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015