Talk to the Сapable, Comfort the Weak: Russian Conduct after NATO’s Warsaw Summit


Once every two years, the NATO Summit takes inventory of all issues facing the alliance. The Warsaw Summit was not marked with new views and approaches.

The existing hierarchy of threats for alliance members set forward at the Wales Summit two years ago was confirmed: Russia’s policy, international terrorism and instability in the Middle East. None of these threats are vital; they do not threaten the bloc’s existence and do not force NATO member countries to use every measure to confront them. Because of that, NATO uses many half-measures, unfulfilled intentions and ambiguities. It lacks the most important thing: the readiness to soberly assess the new, completely uncertain international situation and hypothesize where the current trajectory will lead by 2030.

For NATO, Russia is a comfortable chief threat, the fight against which has successful precedents. NATO officials believe that since containment worked during the Cold War, it will work again now. Speculation about a “hybrid threat” are popular in the West because they fit into the narrative of containment, which has to be slightly adapted to Russian “hybridity” for everything to be as before. This conservative path not only leads to a dead end because it does not reflect the actual situation and Russia’s aims, but also contradicts the need for Russian-European cooperation on key security issues, which Europe feels more acutely every day. Every new terrorist attack, every new truckload of Middle Eastern refugees strengthen the perception of core European NATO members that the hierarchy of threats must be different.

Key for the Warsaw Summit was the EU-NATO cooperation declaration, which aims for deeper practical cooperation between the two organizations. It was confirmed that the Transatlantic solidarity between the US and Europe will remain the chief pillar of NATO’s existence. In Russia, this raises alarm because the topic of security becomes more entrenched within the EU’s functions and the union gradually drifts toward a complete linkage with NATO. There are increasingly fewer reasons to believe that the two organizations can go their separate ways. As a result, the exclusion of Russia from the European security system becomes de facto more entrenched, and so does the construction of this system and the entrenchment of the NATO – buffer states – Russia formula. The exclusion of Russia from the European security system would have great long-term consequences.

Alongside that, despite this key decision, the Summit’s communique points to the idea that NATO is dedicated to a partnership with Russia and continues to consider it to be of strategic value.  This implies that NATO is not aiming to make its faceoff with Moscow the foundation of its identity and fate in the near future. The declaration names conditions, under which cooperation with Russia could be restored, and a path is being contemplated, under which, from the perspective of NATO countries, this dialogue could renew.

Such a wording shows that NATO does not aim to intensify its confrontation with Russia and is not on the path of war with it. On the other hand, it bares the fact that inside NATO itself there is considerable controversy about how relations with Russia should develop. One indicator is the recent leak to the media revealing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ argument with US President Barack Obama about relations with Russia at the final NATO dinner. Inside the alliance there is a group of countries, which are against the anti-Russian position of other members, and this is becoming an issue when it comes to the alliance’s unity. This is an issue that NATO has not experienced for a long time, except perhaps the period of acute Greek-Turkish discord.

In Moscow, the evaluation of the NATO Summit’s results must be mixed. On the one hand, it could have been much worse. NATO could have proposed projects and decisions that would instantly undermine Russian security. For example, if there was a decision about accepting Ukraine into NATO, giving it access to arms, or putting US armaments and bases on its territory. The same could have been said about Georgia. This is not happening because NATO does not want to provoke Russia.

On the other hand, deep divisions between Russia and NATO on the issue of European security remain, or are even being entrenched. There is no prospect of Russian concerns about this issue being considered. This means that the neuroses regarding vulnerabilities of countries between Russia and NATO are being further entrenched. The lack of clear security guarantees for neutral countries will last another decade until NATO is able to make a constructive offer toward Russia, or until NATO itself changes in a direction, which would deprecate the issue of this bloc being a consolidated military alliance.

However, the Russian reaction to the actions of NATO countries should change. It should be understood that the alliance members are themselves atomized: there are some, that are afraid of the “Russian threat,” others are self-sufficient pragmatists, others are still indifferent. The key difference is that some NATO members are militarily capable, they are security providers, and others are weak and are security consumers. Those weak countries that border Russia fear it. It is in the Russian interest for the militarily capable countries to remain pragmatists, and for the weak countries to gradually turn away from their anti-Russian phobias.

Russia’s general line should be the reduction of ambiguity towards rules of the game on the European continent. Moscow’s arguments on the issue of European security are logical and justified. But it should seek new ways of cooperation with various audiences among NATO countries. The elites and society of these countries need different signals. Frightening the Finns with the idea of a military strike against them is a bad preventative measure against Finland’s joining of NATO. Both Finland’s society and elites do not think in terms of power relations. Quite the opposite, addressing a wide audience, Russia ought to speak of how many advantages the preservation of friendship gives, and how much we value the existing certainty in bilateral relations.

Pressuring the weak, inducing them to renounce their aspiration to secure themselves by joining NATO is a challenging path full of uncertainty. It would be more productive for Russia to talk directly to NATO’s security providers, the key countries of Western Europe and the US, this ‘coalition of the capable.’ In the end, it is they who determine whether NATO expands, and where it will apply force. The signal’s content should speak of how Russia, like NATO, does not aim to make confrontation with the West a foundation of its identity.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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