At present the cold war between Russia and Europe is at its most intense since the Cold War of 1950 to 1980. Russia is rapidly rearming and placing new intermediate range missiles aimed at Europe along its borders. It is developing new – supposedly undetectable – nuclear weapons. It is promoting risky confrontations in aerospace and underwater. It is actively meddling in elections, supporting ultra right-wing movements. It is using chemical weapons to murder dissidents in other countries. In return, the European Union (and the USA) are imposing heavy sanctions on an already weak Russian economy, affecting its growth prospects. In this note we examine whether something could be done to improve this dangerous situation. The answer is affirmative.
Any understanding of present Russian strategic policies needs to start with the recognition that the Russians have been dramatically betrayed by NATO. When Gorbachev met Reagan in 1989, he agreed to support German unification. His condition was that NATO should not expand to reach Russia’s frontiers. Reagan expressed his full agreement, as did NATO and Europe. There is a substantial body of literature which documents that assurances of non-expansion were made at multiple occasions (see Itzkowitz Shifrinson 2016; Adomeit 2018). But, somewhat surprisingly, these understandings were never formalised in an official declaration or treaty. Reagan also promised massive aid flows to buttress the crumbling Russian economy. These promises were broken. When Gorbachev met Reagan’s successor George Bush in 1990, Bush already dragged his feet on both NATO and aid to Russia.
NATO did subsequently expand to Russia’s frontiers. In 1999, Poland joined NATO. Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania joined in 2004. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia sought closer ties with NATO, against Russian opposition. In 2008, NATO promised that Georgia would eventually join the organisation. Ukraine applied for NATO membership in 2008, but this was shelved after the 2010 presidential elections. Following the Russian invasion in 2014, which was more in response to the economic Association Agreement with the EU than about NATO, NATO membership was no longer an option.
The overall effect of the eastward expansion of NATO was to undermine the cordon sanitaire of neutral Russia-friendly countries, which served as a historical buffer against successive invasions from the West. Aid did not materialise. This betrayal of Russian expectations created both fear and justified resentment on the part of Russia and helps us understand Russian strategic foreign policies to the present day.
So, any first step in a new policy is for Western countries to admit that Russia has been badly treated. The next steps – including a more comprehensive agreement – go much further. The West should accept the annexation of Crimea, on condition that a new plebiscite would be held, with foreign observers. The outcome of this plebiscite would not be in doubt. An overwhelming majority of the population would vote for accession to Russia. Second, the West should proclaim the complete neutrality of Ukraine. De facto, this would mean Ukraine would become part of the Russian sphere of influence. The condition here would be a full cessation of violence in Eastern Ukraine and recognition of the unity of the country.
The final step would be a complete cancelling of sanctions and the offer of aid, investment and a comprehensive economic Association Agreement with the European Union for Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia and the Western Asian former Soviet republics. Talks should start about reducing the nuclear escalation, withdrawing offensive weapons, halting the development of new weapons, removing provocative defensive weapons on the Western side and signing a new Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. All these steps would result in a more sane and stable pattern of East-West relations.
This article was originally published on 28 December 2018. It was updated on 18 January 2019.
Adomeit, H, “NATO’s Eastward Enlargment. What Western Leaders Said”, Security Policy Working Paper No. 3/2018, Federal Academy for Security Policy, 2018.
Itzkowitz Shifrinson, ‘Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion’. International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Spring 2016), pp. 7–44.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / P. Kazachkov.
Thanks to Michal Natorski for critical comments and advice.