Taking the War Out of Warsaw

NATO will be holding a landmark summit in Warsaw on 8-9 July 2016. It takes place at a time when the Atlantic alliance and Russia appear to be preparing for an extended period of confrontation, if not war. This is a period of unprecedented danger – unprecedented certainly in the post-Cold War years. The whole post-Cold War settlement has now been exposed not to be a settlement at all. It was clear from the earliest days that Russia was not satisfied with the way that the Cold War had ended. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader and the man who did more than any other to bring the confrontation to an end, had anticipated that a new mutual security order would be established in which the Soviet Union (and later Russia as the continuer state) would be founding members. This would have represented a transcendence of the logic of the Cold War. Instead, the logic of enlargement predominated that consolidated a unilateral power shift. Instead of a transformation of the European security order to encompass the whole continent, a part claimed to represent the whole. Russia was faced with the choice of subordination or resistance, and after a period of veering between the two, it is now on the path of resistance.

The road to Warsaw

The USSR disintegrated, the Soviet bloc evaporated, and Russia emerged weak and dazed. Despite its weakness, even under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s Russia kept hold of the idea that it was by rights a constituent member of an expanded post-Cold War order, a joint keeper of right and law. This is conventionally described as Russia’s aspiration to great power status, but it is far more profound than this. It is the belief that in some way the possibility of transcending the logic of conflict in the European continent had been missed, and that Russia had been cheated of the status it deserved. The smoldering resentment of the 1990s by the mid-2000s burst into a flame that has now become a fire.

The status that Russia sought was not a new incarnation of imperial or hegemonic power, but it sought to become a sovereign force fully integrated into European and global international society. Instead, the institutions and ideational apparatus of the Atlantic alliance claimed universality in the post-Cold War system. Russia initially was ready to make its peace with this Atlantic system, as long as worthy place for Russia was reserved in that system. In other words, there needed to be some sort of mode of reconciliation. This required some institutional adaptation, such as the creation of a European Security under the aegis of what is now the Organisation for Security and cooperation in Europe, or indeed the transformation of the OSCE into the main provider of collective security. It also required a degree of ideational pluralism flexible enough to incorporate a Russia that was engaged in managing its own historical challenges of modernization, maintaining state integrity, polity building, national identity formation, and democratization.

Instead, the two wings of the Atlantic alliance, the European Union (EU) and NATO, already effectively fully-formed and satisfied in the belief that, at least for this era, they had satisfactorily solved the problem of history, enlarged not only in physical terms but also with an overweening ideological charge that they really had won the Cold War. The solutions to the historical problem of Western European security, forged in antagonism to the USSR, were assumed to be an adequate response to the security challenges of the Soviet Union’s successor, an act of historical obtuseness that stoked the fires of resentment in Russia and provoked the present impasse.

Genuine attempts were made to bring Russia into this expanded community, notably in the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations of May 1997. This spoke in ringing tones of the onset of a new era in which “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries”. Above all, NATO promised not to station forces in Eastern Europe on a permanent basis. On 28 May 2002 the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established as “a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action in which the individual NATO member states and Russia work as equal partners on a wide spectrum of security issues of common interest”. In practice, on every occasion when the NRC was most needed, as during the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the western powers suspended the NRC, only confirming the Russian belief that the body was in fact embedded in the logic of enlargement and not of security transformation.

Despite repeated warnings that bringing NATO to Russia’s borders would be perceived as a strategic threat of the first order, the momentum of NATO enlargement continued. Even liberals such as Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the social liberal Yabloko party, warned that it did not matter if the tank was painted pink and a flower stuck in its barrel, there was still a great hulking machine lumbering towards Russia’s front door. At the Bucharest NATO summit of 2-4 April 2008 Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership.  This was the turning point that demonstrated to Russia that it remained substantively an outsider to a European order that not only failed to incorporate its security interests but that in certain respects ran directly counter to them.

Although the language of equality figured prominently, care was taken to ensure that Russia did not become a veto player. Russia could be associated with the Atlantic community, but as a subaltern player in institutional and ideational terms. No Russian leader could accept enlargement on these terms, not Boris Yeltsin, not Vladimir Putin, and not any future leader – and it is a dangerous delusion of the Atlantic community if it believes that this sort of enlargement will be accepted by Putin’s successor.

Russia hoped to become part of a new security community that would change its character by Russia joining; whereas existing members saw Russia as a threat to the normative and hegemonic foundations of the community. It is important to stress that although Russia’s language of foreign policy management is deeply traditional, possibly even archaic, this does not mean that the country is stuck in some nineteenth century great power theme park. Russia has never learnt to use effectively the post-modernist language of shared sovereignty and post-nationalism, and stresses instead the universal principles of the UN system. This is too often redolent of the language of Yalta, where the foundations of the UN system were forged but also the interests of the smaller powers were disposed of in their absence.

Despite the traditional language, Russia’s ambition are not simply to recreate “spheres of influence” but, in Europe, in keeping with Gorbachev’s idealism and ideas about a common European home, to create what in current parlance is known as “greater Europe”, a way of transcending binary choices through the creation of a new European community that encompasses both Russia and the EU as equals. Where the US fits in this model is not clear, and in the end the periphery (the US and Russia) prevented a powerful and autonomous Europeanism from thriving. The lack of an autonomous European vision of continental reconciliation and development, accompanied by the perception that the EU is becoming increasingly subsumed into the US-led Atlantic security community, is one of the drivers of the potential disintegration of the EU in its entirety.

Russia’s advocacy of greater Europe was perceived as an attempt to drive a wedge between the two wings of the Atlantic alliance. Instead, Atlanticism consolidated and then advanced to Russia’s borders. Somewhere in this formula the idea of Europe “whole and free” was appropriated to become a project of the Atlantic system, and not a common endeavor of all Europeans. The Gaullist vision of European continentalism was lost. Enlargement rather than transformation became the order of the day.

This meant that the European security order curved back in on itself. Enlargement generated not only increased resistance from Russia, but changed the nature of the bodies that enlarged, but not in the way that Russia had originally intended at the end of the Cold War. Neither the EU nor NATO originally had been hostile towards post-communist Russia, but benign intentions were soon subverted. Enlargement assumed an ideological form whereby the assertion of the sovereign right of states to choose their security preferences only reinforced the partial nature of the European security system. The former Soviet bloc countries, and even some former Soviet states, only too eagerly sought to associate themselves with the enlarging dynamic, but as they were incorporated within the Atlantic community much of the old Cold War “captive nations” rhetoric was internalized. The enlarging agenda in the end precluded the possibility of the transformational transcendence of the logic of conflict. Europe ended up where it had begun a quarter of a century ago, divided and ranged against itself. The “hedging” strategy against Russia hastened Russia’s transformation into a state that apparently needed hedging against.

Putting the “war” into Warsaw

The slogan of the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels in mid-May 2016 was “deter and dialogue”, but in the event the emphasis was more on the former than the latter. The Warsaw NATO summit in July is likely to confirm that “Russian aggression”, Iranian adventurism, Chinese land reclamation and Middle Eastern instability pose a threat to the US and its allies. The year 2014 marked a rupture, and it was clear that there could be no going back to “business as usual”. There was now a deep well of mistrust between the Atlantic community and Russia, and although they could work together over Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, arms control, trafficking of various forms, and other matters of mutual concern, there was no foundation for a sustainable relationship based on trust. Instead, the security positions of the two sides were consolidated, and European security was once again militarized. In that context, for both sides, “business as usual” would mean returning to a condition that had given rise to the crisis in the first place.

NATO and US policy tends to move at a glacial pace, but once set in motion, it is hard to stop. The Pentagon’s budget request for 2017 envisaged a fourfold funding increase for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to $3.4 billion. As far as the US was concerned, it hoped to see the Atlantic alliance consolidate its position at Warsaw, included the development of closer security cooperation with the EU. The central challenge in its view was to “reassure” its Eastern European allies, thus consolidating the curve back mentioned above. As we know from the experience of Richard Nixon, an insecure person can never be reassured, and this logic of behavior is potentially dangerously open-ended.

The attempt to reassure these potential allies in large part provoked the breakdown of the European security order, and now their defense institutionalized the division of Europe. Poland and the Baltic states considered themselves vulnerable to a Russian attack, even though there was no evidence that such an attack was part of Russia’s strategy. The conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine from 2014 had very specific contingent causes, although their roots lie in the structural conditions outlined above.

It is therefore worth noting that it was Polish President, Andrzej Duda, who called during his Brussels meeting with the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg on January 18, 2016, for NATO’s presence to become “as permanent as possible” in Poland to safeguard his country and region from “an aggressive Russia.”

“Today everything suggests that we need a significant presence of infrastructure and of troops there, on the ground, in Central and Eastern Europe. We need a good system of support for these forces and a system of defense in case of any act of aggression,” the Polish President added.

In fact, it looks like NATO is keen to satisfy Poland’s request as according to Jens Stoltenberg: “NATO now has a persistent military presence in the region of which Poland is a part. And I trust that after the Warsaw summit we will see more NATO in Poland than ever before.”

Indeed, the US at Warsaw is looking to bolster NATO’s forces on its eastern flank, as a token of the US commitment to their defense. The US is agitating for greater support from its allies for this task. Poland and the Baltic states, despite the Founding Act of 1997, are looking for the permanent deployment of forces, but even the deployment of rotational forces was proving difficult. Germany in particular, not surprisingly given its history, proved recalcitrant, and was not keen to contribute to the new force. To compensate, the US sought a deployment model based on “permanent presence” based on the stationing of a battalion in each of the Baltic states and in Poland on a 6-9 month rotation, which it hoped to be able to announce at the Warsaw summit. A united NATO effort, in the American view, is required to deter further Russian action. The idea resonates with the dangerous plans of other Eastern bloc and formerly neutral countries. Romania suggests the creation of a Black Sea fleet, following tighter cooperation with Sweden and Finland regarding military exercises in the Baltic Sea, as well as a significantly greater involvement of Ukraine and Georgia in Black Sea NATO exercises.

Furthermore, President Duda believes there is a need to give a “clear signal that the door to NATO remains open,” and the presence in the July summit of countries already cooperating with NATO (Sweden, Finland, Australia, Jordan, Georgia, as well as Moldova and Ukraine) should therefore be encouraged.

Nonetheless, From the Russian perspective, the Warsaw agenda only confirmed the threat coming from the West. In response, it modified the brigade structure, the keystone of the military reforms launched in autumn 2008. Division-level forces were reconstituted on its western front to prepare for a conventional war against its conventional enemy, NATO. In February 2016 the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District was reactivated, combining heavy armor and artillery forces, ready to defend against a potential attack on a broad land front across the vast expanses of the North European plain. Three more of its brigades were also being reconfigured into division-sized units on its western front. All this is eerily reminiscent of the 1900s, when shadow boxing swiftly and unexpectedly turned into a real fight.

The difference today is the nuclear component. In May 2016 the ground missile complex “Aegis Ashore” was commissioned in Deveselu in Romania as part of the US BMD system. In 2018 its counterpart in Redzikowo in Poland is due to be commissioned. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) as constituted poses a limited threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, but from Moscow’s perspective the threat is long-term. Advances in ballistic missile technology in conjunction with other technological developments could provide the US with a devastating first-strike capability. Hypersonic missiles accompanied by increasingly precise ballistic missiles and a reliable antiballistic missile network could allow the US to launch a decapitation strike. This would destroy Russia’s leadership and nuclear arsenal, and any surviving Russian retaliatory missile strike would be intercepted and destroyed by the new advanced ABM systems. This is why Moscow is devoting considerable resources to modernizing its nuclear forces, including the introduction of a new generation of ICBMs, and calling for a new multilateral ABM treaty. If all this sounds like MAD, it is – because it is mad.

From deterrence to dialogue

As the NATO alliance moves towards the historic Warsaw summit, it is important to place it into historical context. Although the narrative above may appear simply to reprise Russian themes, the issues raised are far wider than those advanced by the Kremlin leadership. The agenda of transcendence has long been defended by many in the West. The election of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the “Stop the War” coalition, to the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015 is a sign of the recrudescence of the transcendence agenda, as is the strong showing of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries in the US. The odd and hitherto hegemonic alliance of liberal internationalists, neocons, Atlanticists, Glucksmanites, German Greens, East European revanchists and normative Europeanists championed enlargement as a holy mission to tame the East, but in the end subverted their own principles.

Instead of “Europe” being a peace project, it became a militant crusade to tame Russia. Eastern Europe curved over the historic West to undermine the normative value system that it had been so keen to join for reasons that had little to do with those values. Thus it is highly appropriate that the process of internal erosion should culminate in Warsaw, to symbolize the end of a process that had begun there – namely the destruction of the idea of “Europe” as a way of overcoming its own demons of conflict and endless civil war.

The assumption, as suggested above, was that the solutions to the historical problems of one time and place could be applied ready-made to another.  There could be no negotiation other than acceptance of the given terms. For Russia this came to be unacceptable. Thus, while the return of geopolitics would represent a recognition (although not repudiation) of the dangers inherent in the old-style enlargement model, it has all of the detrimental effects from which Europe has suffered so long.

The terrible paradox of our times is that the benign enlargement model brought Europe to a state of contestation that it was by its very essence intended to repudiate. Eschewing the modernist tropes of geopolitics, the enlargement model rekindled the European civil war by other means. For many, the return of geopolitics would at least entail recognition of the true state of affairs, and a possible way of managing them, by recognizing the interests of the other.

This is most certainly accurate if it comes to Central and Eastern European countries, where history and geopolitical position determines their civilizational identity. These countries tend to define their national interest, friends and enemies, psychological distance in the neighborhood policy and the willingness or unwillingness to normalize relations through the prism of old foreign policy habits and the harms endured. In this regard, Poland is not an exception as the country is still firmly attached to geopolitics, trying with its help to explain its historical disasters and current threats.

Nonetheless, the level of today’s conflicts decrease depending on the level of integration among geopolitical entities, and it is well known that currently in the European Union few statesmen seriously consider the impact of geopolitics. What counts instead is mutual economic interest, the dynamics of development, and far-reaching consolidation of “mutual” goals and activities. This means, for instance, that Poland is no longer competing with Germany or France on geopolitical grounds. Having mutual interests and seeking similar solutions to economic and political problems, Warsaw aims with other European capitals to achieve the complementarity of their interests, and the smooth coordination of their projects.

Obviously, there is no doubt that Poland is situated in a very sensitive geopolitical region, but there is a false belief that through fundamental changes in the immediate vicinity and institutional affiliations with the West, Poland’s geopolitical situation has ceased to be something unique.

According to this year’s NATO summit hosting country, whose attitude towards Moscow is still deeply rooted in Jerzy Giedroyc’s doctrine, it is obvious that Russia still secretly wants to subjugate the Poles, and Warsaw has to defend herself from the historic oppressor. The Crimean crisis and continuing conflict in Ukraine only further aggravates these fears.

Under these assumptions, the mainstream media and politicians deploy extremely emotional rhetoric, resulting in the groupthink syndrome, focusing their attention only on the so-called “Moscow’s aggression,” and lacking the context and understanding of the events prior to the Maidan revolution. The syndrome is well-known from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Groupthink stimulates national hysteria and thus prepares nations psychologically for war.

It emerges out of deep historical and psychological complexes towards Russia, which are accompanied by the conscious identification of anti-Sovietism with anti-Russianism. Polish historical memory still equates Russia with the enemy – the repressive state, which is aggressive towards its neighbors.

What’s more, the country has done very little to overcome these fears, which are successfully preventing it from perceiving Russia as a “normal” state, with a right to define its own interests. The normality, admittedly, may be overwrought and overblown, but ultimately the Russian regime is rational and its policies logical, given the historical challenges it faces at this time.

Instead of which, the current government in Warsaw is taking its biggest chance since the end of the Cold War to discredit the image of Russia, and to portray its leader as an enemy of the West, and America in particular.

Nevertheless, the acceptance of a geopolitical interpretation of European order would be a retrograde step. Geopolitics is rooted in linear and competitive understanding of territory and historical space. It treats countries as “buffers”, talks of “spheres of influence” and assumes that a “concert of powers” can manage common affairs over the head of the concerns of smaller powers. Given the present impasse, generated by a quarter century of a narrow-sighted politics of enlargement, a geopolitical approach to European politics would mark a significant step forward. It would mean the restoration of traditional diplomacy, where the real interests of states are defended and thereby their autonomous political subjectivity respected. The enlargement era had been accompanied by a normative arrogance that treated outsiders as the subjects of a transformative process generated elsewhere.

Towards a new transcendence

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, balance and sober analysis has been lost, and instead increasingly radical and militaristic language has come to the fore. Between the absolutization of a norms-based enlargement agenda and the return of geopolitics a third way needs to be devised.

It is true that the Ukraine crisis was the symptom of a broader failure that had long been in the making, as it is been very well known that Russia is not going to refrain from defending its “vital” interests. It was Paul Nitze who during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 formulated the thesis that in the long run the winning state is the one whose interests are objectively more vital.

Following Nitze’s logic, there are many examples which suggest that the view that Russia in Ukraine has defended its vital interests is gaining traction in some Western countries. This is a view also echoed by Henry Kissinger: “The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s. So, what happens in Ukraine cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe.”

“We should explore the possibilities of a status of nonmilitary grouping on the territory between Russia and the existing frontiers of NATO,” one of the greatest “Realpolitikers” in America added. The idea also resonates with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s suggestions for Kiev to adopt a “Finland option.”

Therefore, the response should be not to exacerbate the factors that provoked the crisis in the first place, but to step back and to address the root causes. Even today, it is not too late for the EU and NATO to de-escalate their rhetoric and find a path towards substantive dialogue.

But geopolitics is not about dialogue. It is about diktat, the return of power politics, and the arrogance of imperial projects (including that of the EU). Europe can do better than that, hence the return to geopolitical thinking is liable to be deleterious to all. It would compound an error with another mistake. The error was to believe that a one-sided post-Cold War settlement, in which the institutions of one could endlessly advance towards the other side in the absence of a robust mode of reconciliation, could proceed without provoking a reaction. The mistake is simply to accept the logic of contestation, and to re-engage in the conflict that was putatively ended in 1989. That is the worst sort of return to “business as usual”, a “business” that provoked the present confrontation.

Instead of piling more fuel on a fire that is already in danger of going out of control, it would be wiser to start a diplomatic process. NATO insists that there can be no “business as usual” until the Minsk commitments are fully implemented, yet some of the most important provisions are up to Kiev to fulfill. Thus Russia, and with it the peace of Europe, is held hostage by the political impasse in Ukraine. The Minsk agreement requires elections in the Donbas, and decentralizing constitutional reforms, followed by the return of the borders to Ukrainian control. These are not impossible demands, and ultimately are underwritten by the parties to the conflict.

What form could dialogue take? First, it should be accepted that the foundations for a comprehensive deal need to be laid before any serious dialogue can take place. The fundamental condition for this is a reevaluation of the threat perceptions of both sides, and that can only be achieved through confidence building measures and a recognition of mutual interests. All of this is strikingly reminiscent of the final period of the Cold War, but it appears that the lessons of at that time have to learned again.

Second, although the present confrontation is wide-ranging, it is not deeply-rooted. Both Russia and the US consider themselves “exceptional” powers, and thus their foreign policies are imbued with messianic elements, but neither is seriously bent on territorial acquisition or wars of conquest. The US is certainly concerned to maintain its hegemonic status, but this is now deeply embedded in liberal internationalist institutions and tempered by commitment to universal values. As long as these values serve US interests – and they mostly do – then the US is a satisfied power, and the revisionism of the George W. Bush period and the project for unchallengeable American primacy (while certainly not entirely overcome) is now far less salient. Indeed, the fact that American Republican presidential contender Donald Trump could even express the view that NATO is obsolete indicates that some new thinking is in the air. On the Russian side, discussion of a possible Russian attack on the Baltic republics is ludicrous, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Russian political realities would know. Moreover, despite Poland’s phantasmagoric fear of Russia, Moscow’s elites do not pay the Poles any special attention, as even according to Aleksandr Dugin, Poland and the Baltic states are excluded from the “Russian World (Russkiy Mir).” Why it would be in Russia’s interests to reoccupy territory that had proved so troublesome for so long defies logic and commonsense.

Both sides are now trapped in a series of “defensive” reactions that ultimately constitute threatening postures to the other. While the Warsaw meeting is likely to consolidate the preparations for war, there remains the potential for new forms of engagement. The warriors of Warsaw condemn these as appeasement and argue that there can be no basis for dialogue or the reduction of sanctions until Moscow fulfills the Minsk agreement in full, but without some serious attempts to imbue the second part of the “deter and dialogue” strategy with content, then we really are on a slippery slope of a confrontation that could inadvertently lead to war. Thus it is the responsibility of our generation to ensure that we take the war out of Warsaw.

Adriel Kasonta is London-based editorial board member at the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, and European affairs researcher at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C. Kasonta is also a member of the Conservative Party (UK), and former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the United Kingdom, The Bow Group. He is the editor and leading author of the Group’s report titled “The Sanctions on Russia.”

Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. After graduating in History from the London School of Economics, he took a PhD from the University of Birmingham. He held lectureships at the Universities of Essex and California, Santa Cruz, before joining the University of Kent in 1987. He has published widely on Soviet, Russian and post-communist affairs. Books include Communism in Russia: An Interpretative Essay (Macmillan, 2010), The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky – Yukos Affair (I. B. Tauris, 2014) and Putin Redux: Power and Contradiction in Contemporary Russia (Routledge, 2014). His latest book is Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (I. B. Tauris, 2016). He is currently working on Russia Against the Rest: Problematising the New Cold War (contracted for Cambridge University Press).