The security situation in Europe is far from ideal. Although still in search of a mission, NATO has been focusing on deterring Russia as its key objective since 2015. The forward deployment of forces in Eastern Europe is back, and large-scale military exercises have become more frequent. However, if you look at the actual steps and forces mobilized by the NATO countries, it is clear that they are not even a tenth of the preparations that existed during the Cold War.
The situation could be aptly described as ambiguous since loud-mouthed, harsh words are barely supported by concrete steps that fit the bill of minimally required political actions rather than an actual physical military presence, one that resembles an invading army or serves as a means of conventional deterrence in Europe. At the same time, the overall security climate between Russia and the West remains acutely negative. The parties are deeply divided in the way they assess the situation in Eastern Europe and, in particular, Ukraine. NATO’s agenda has actually been dominated by the Baltic states and Poland. No constructive idea can be found against this background.
However, NATO continues to keep the idea of expanding the bloc on its agenda. Recently, the organization expanded in the Balkans. At the same time, there are no conditions for expanding NATO to Ukraine or Georgia. The alliance realizes that this step might trigger a crisis in its relations with Russia, as it would provoke it into reciprocating. In addition, there’s a risk of provocative behavior on the part of Kiev and Tbilisi with an eye toward receiving support from the West, as was the case in 2008. Admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO would indicate that the Alliance has made up its mind on a military operation against Russia. The fact that we do not see any actual move to bring Ukraine or Georgia into NATO indicates that such plans do not exist.
In general, most Western countries see relations with Russia as low priority as if no one is sensing any real threat coming from it. It is traditional to be afraid of Russia, but this is a familiar ritual between the financial market news and the weather forecast. Most Western countries are overwhelmed by their domestic political problems. If the Ukraine crisis failed to make confrontation with Russia a key priority for the West, it’s difficult to think of anything that can.
Russian analysts – however, like anyone else – overlooked the symptoms of Turkey becoming an independent center of power in the Middle East, ready to defend its interests without respect of persons. Despite its deep integration into NATO, Ankara’s track record includes the use of force against the majority of its neighbours, including its NATO ally, Greece, the invasion of Cyprus, and the hostile neutrality toward the American operation in Iraq. The Russian-Turkish crisis of 2015, as well as the ongoing escalation of the conflict in relations between Ankara and Washington, is a sign of Turkey’s desire to play in the top league of world politics. We can say that Ankara’s behavior is one of the signs of multipolarity, but the one that we don’t necessarily like.
The situation in the Baltic region, where dangerous encounters involving aircraft and ships are frequent, is the second significant stress test. However, there is a communication system between the parties, which indicates a lack of intention to escalate the crisis. Although there is no shortage of hotheads in the region and a destructive information campaign in the media accompanies any Russian step in the region (let us recall at least the recent Zapad Russian-Belarusian military exercises), none of these incidents has led to an aggravation of confrontation.
The Ukraine crisis is the most complex and protracted. A car accident caused by reckless driving is probably a good metaphor to describe it. The West underestimated the significance of Ukraine for Russia and Russia’s capabilities, which was risky behavior for it. For Russia, it was risky to draw its red lines in Ukraine too late, to underestimate the general nature of the Ukrainian political class and to bet on an unpopular government led by Yanukovych. However, this situation shows that if NATO or the United States had plans to wage war against Russia, Ukraine would already have a military alliance with the United States, which is much easier to achieve than becoming a NATO member. As part of this alliance, Ukraine would have already received the forward deployment of US troops, the deployment of a fleet in its waters and air defense and missile defense systems. This is not happening, and we are seeing only minimally required political steps to support Ukraine. All of this suggests that the danger of military confrontation in Europe is often exaggerated.