We must admit that the new security system in Europe will be based on mutual hostility. But this will be a variant of hostility that precludes provocative behaviour. Such behaviour is possible only in a situation where no one believes that the other side will attack you, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
Over the past decades, the need to take into account Russia’s interests has steadily declined in the West. “Gas station pretending to be a country” and “a regional power” are just some examples of the Western approach to Moscow’s politics. In other words, the image of Russia as a “paper soldier” — a country that is in systemic decline — was gaining popularity.
According to the West, as a vanishing strategic entity, Russia will not resist any US military or strategic decisions regarding Europe; the main thing is to give Russia bad news piece by piece. As early as 2008, then US Ambassador to Moscow William Burns wrote that three key US decisions in Europe — recognising Kosovo’s independence, endorsing NATO membership plans for Georgia and Ukraine, and deploying US missile defence systems in Europe — could not be successful if they would be presented to Moscow at the same time. “I believe that we can only manage one of these three upcoming crises without causing real damage to relationships that we cannot afford to ignore. I would choose to move decisively on the issue of Kosovo; postponement of the MAP for Ukraine or Georgia; direct talks with Putin while he is still in office to try and get a deal on missile defence.”
The system of relations between Russia and the West, which existed before February 24, included one major distortion. We were participants in an interdependent relationship based on Russia’s participation in the global economy, which was centred on the West. It was believed that Russia’s interest in participating in this system was much more significant than Moscow’s interest in ensuring its security. The outcome of the escalated drama consisted of one of two alternatives: either Russia would accept such a relationship and silently move into the second league of world politics, or the accumulated tension would explode into a major crisis.
Over the past few years, military episodes have taken place every week in the perimeter of Russia’s western borders, whether there were military vessels engaging in dangerous manoeuvres, encounters between military aircraft, unscheduled exercises and other provocations. The Western media drew the contours of an almost pre-war situation. For example, Spanish military aircraft were stationed in Lithuania last summer, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was invited to view them. Together with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, he gave a joint press conference in front of the hangar where these aircraft were based. At that moment, a combat alarm sounded, it was announced that the aircraft needed to leave the hangar to intercept a Russian fighter. Of course, all this was done for PR and the media.
After February 24, the NATO countries abruptly stopped all such provocative military activities along the perimeter of our borders — the realisation came that Russia is capable of a military response. But it has also become clear that the only real security player in the West is the United States, which is now arranging arms shipments to Ukraine but says it does not seek to escalate the crisis.
The Russian reaction to Ukraine’s relations with the West has always stood out against the background of other countries of the post-Soviet space. The peculiarity of Ukraine is that it is the only border country in Europe which poses a potential danger for Russia: it has a large population, formidable armed forces with modern weapons, a lot of social energy and the ideological motivation to oppose Russia. For us, relations with Ukraine are analogous to India’s relations with Pakistan. These two countries were born simultaneously in the process of the collapse of the British Empire. For Pakistan, the confrontation with India was a formative experience that determined the nature of the domestic policy of that country, the central role of the military establishment and intelligence, and programmes to create nuclear weapons and prepare terrorists to commit acts of sabotage in India. It also led to constant local border wars with India and the special nature of foreign policy alliances.
The costs of a protracted confrontation with a militaristic Ukraine would be significant for Moscow. Suppose, for example, that the predictions of the Russian military establishment turned out to be correct, and within a short time Ukraine would develop a “dirty bomb”. At the same time, the process of rearmament of the army would continue in full swing — and after some time, not 120 thousand well-armed soldiers, but 300 thousand would be concentrated in the east of the country. Over 40 million people live in the country, and the military budget of Ukraine is about 6% of GDP; this level of military spending is comparable to that of Israel. Weapons from the West entered the country on a large scale; Western military instructors prepared the best Ukrainian units. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine — young men with combat experience — participated in the so-called anti-terrorist operation in Donbass. The Ukrainian army is the third largest in Europe after those of Russia and Turkey. The goal of the military return of Donbass and Crimea has never been discarded.
The use of force by Russia in Ukraine creates a new negotiating reality. The old formula of Western politicians that “Russia is on the wrong side of history. It has its own version of developments, but we will disregard it,” really exhausted its meaning. It became clear that this was not just a “version of developments”, but a demanding negotiating position aimed at creating a security system in Europe that takes into account Russia’s interests. After such a large-scale shake-up, all the dust will settle, which previously prevented us from understanding the real outlines of European security problems.We must admit that the new security system in Europe will be based on mutual hostility. But this will be a variant of hostility that precludes provocative behaviour. Such behaviour is possible only in a situation where no one believes that the other side will attack you. After the outbreak of hostilities on February 24, there is no such belief among the NATO countries anymore. On the one hand, this will entail an increase in the military spending of European states and a change in the geography of the forward deployment of NATO forces and assets. They will be closer to Russia’s borders. But, on the other hand, there will be an increased responsibility for the use of these forces and means. Any incident will provoke a crisis that does not correspond to the vital interests of European states. The result of the system of checks and balances will be a “cold peace” — the best possible option for today.