The admission of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to NATO was the “fattest of red line” warnings to Russia to stay clear of the western European military, a transatlantic expert on foreign policy and security on Wednesday. But that move has not tempered tensions on the continent as both NATO and Moscow have stepped up military operations.
“Our alliance is not just a military one; it’s a political alliance” of like-minded nations who will come to each others’ defense if attacked, German-born Constanze Stelzenmuller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
NATO is showing new resolve in that regard from stepped up security spending, the European Reassurance Initiative investment by the United States and movement of troops and aircraft to “frontline countries” on Russia’s borders.
Before the alliance was formed in 1949 it would have been unthinkable that citizens of the three Baltic nations would welcome German ground troops and its air force, but they do now as part of NATO’s rapid response deterrence to possible Russian invasion.
Looking at the same situation from Moscow’s perspective, Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said the alliance security blanket would never have to have been put across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if the Kremlin had been treated differently after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“The core of the problems was Russia was marginalized in the European security system” from that time on, he said.
Marginalization set in motion of series of events across Europe that is still playing out. One is Russia’s intense focus on what kind of neighbors are on its borders and another has been the expansion of NATO as Russia’s threats turned to aggression.
“The jury is still out,” William Hill, a professor at the National War College, said about NATO expansion making Europe more secure in the long run. The alliance is “still trying to deal with that question” of territorial defense of member states while “while still trying to operate out of area” as it is doing in Afghanistan.
An example of the continuing tensions is occurring in the Balkans where at one time the Soviets maintained a naval base. Newly named North Macedonia is expected to join the alliance over Moscow’s loud protests. This is occurring despite the disappointing turnout on an advisory referendum on pursuing NATO and European Union membership. More than 90 percent of the voters who went to the polls voted to make the moves toward the West.
Russian disinformation and false news campaigns are blamed for the low turnout, slightly more than 30 percent of those eligible.
Ivan Timofeev, director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council, said Moscow’s concern about political leanings of the “near abroad,” referring to former member states in the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, particularly in the last five years when a pro-Moscow regime fell, have risen dramatically.
As the pro-Russian government was falling and in the chaos that followed, President Vladimir Putin seized control of Crimea, saying the turmoil threatened the Russian Black Sea Fleet station in the Ukrainian Province. He then backed separatists in the eastern part of the country with forces, arms and supplies that were opposed to the new government in Kiev.
Michael Kofman, a CNA senior research scientist, said, “Russia made a case [that it] poses a threat” to NATO and countries along its borders with its actions in Ukraine and early moves against Georgia to support Kremlin-leaning forces in two breakaway provinces.
“I think stalemate is the best condition we can hope for” in Ukraine where both the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other believe the cost is affordable and predictable. “The risk of miscalculation” and possible wider conflict comes with trying to forcibly breaking the stalemate, Timofeev said.
The questions for Moscow is “how long can they sustain” what they are doing in Ukraine militarily in Russia’s case and for Washington and Brussels how long can they maintain unanimity of sanctions in the West’s case, Kofman said.
Timofeev viewed the analogy of a new Cold War to describe today’s relationship as wrong. “It’s a different military environment” with China a major power, not just two sup powers. There also is “a different generation in power” who are governing in a world, including non-state actors, that is challenging established post World War II assumptions of order.
Stelzenmuller said, “As far as ‘stalemate,’ we should be so lucky” in describing the political environment in Europe. With the rise of “populist” governments in Italy most recently and Hungary almost a decade ago, “the real challenge here is the future of liberal democracies” and the European Union. These government and others like Poland’s share “an illiberal vision of Europe,” favoring autocracy.
In short, “the terrible simplifiers” across Europe and in the United States “are getting the upper hand” in shaping the future away from human rights, rule of law and economic development toward authoritarianism, she added.
The liberal democracies have been slow to defend themselves in the digital age, the panelists agreed. Examples mentioned included the 2016 American presidential election, recent results in Italy and the low voter turnout in North Macedonia.
The manipulation of big data and social media allow authoritarian governments to affect the political environment in their countries and in others that were unknown 20 years ago, Kortunov added.
While the United States’ national defense strategy identifies Russia and China as competitors, Timofeev said he didn’t see that leading to a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing.