DEBATE: Both NATO and Russia continue to send strong signals that they have no intention of backing down in Europe. So what needs to happen for a de-escalation to occur?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 13, 2016. Photo: AP

The comments of Robert Legvold and Paul Saunders were kindly provided by the Valdai Discussion Club.

The recent NATO Summit in Warsaw highlighted the fundamental differences in how both Russia and NATO view the system of European security. From the perspective of NATO, moving more troops closer to Russia's borders and enlarging the Alliance to include other members would only make Europe safer. From Russia's perspective, such moves are viewed as threatening and confrontational.

Recently the participants of the Moscow-based Valdai International Discussion Club discussed the challenges facing both NATO and Russia as they attempt to de-escalate the security situation in Europe. One of these challenges is the legacy of the Cold War, which continues to shape perceptions of top policymakers.

As Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University, suggests, the two sides are actually taking a number of concrete steps to reduce tensions on the continent, especially with regard to the Baltic States. The problem, he says, is that each side blames each other for the current situation and is hesitant about taking any steps that might be perceived as a sign of weakness.

According to Paul Saunders of The Nixon Center, despite the rhetoric emanating from NATO at the Warsaw summit, there were actually attempts to keep the door open for future dialogue with Russia. The key determinant, however, will be the ability to reach some form of compromise over the current situation in Ukraine.

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University, expert of the Valdai International Discussion Club and author of “Return to Cold War”:

Yes, NATO is beefing up its forces in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, but at the Warsaw summit, members swore they did not want a confrontation with Russia. They are dusting off the old dual-track strategy from the late 1960s of “deterrence and dialogue” as the right way to deal with Russia.

Yes, Russia is adding divisions on its Western border, fortifying Kaliningrad, and building up its forces in the Baltic and Black Seas. But it, too, insists that it remains as before ready to cooperate with NATO in dealing with larger threats.

Also read: "The downward spiral in the Russia-NATO relationship"

And at last week’s NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels, the two sides, while protesting what each side sees as the aggressive actions of the other, agreed to take steps to increase “transparency and conflict prevention measures” in hopes of reducing tensions around dangerous military activity in the Baltic area.

Combined with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s [recent] mission to Moscow to push forward progress on Ukraine and Syria, might one hope that the harshest phases of the “return to the Cold War” may be easing?

Perhaps. But not much, and not to a degree altering the deeper sad reality: Neither side recognizes how deep a hole they have dug, what the costs will be, and the obstacles they are creating to an escape from it.

As was evident in Warsaw and Brussels, each sees the other as wholly responsible for the escalating military tension. Each bases its readiness for dialogue on first creating “a position of strength.” And each insists that progress can be achieved only when and if the other side fundamentally alters its approach to the issues that divide them.

In the meantime, Russia and NATO are busily undoing one of the post-Cold War’s most important accomplishments—the dismantling of the military confrontation in Central Europe. They are now rebuilding it, only farther to the east. 

Had Moscow and Washington thought deeply about the foolish course they are on, the Warsaw and Brussels meetings would also have been about ways to reverse direction, restore predictability and restraint to the military measures each side is taking, and revive the process of building-down, rather than up.

If the two sides begin to cooperate more actively in controlling the violence in Ukraine — even if this is without much prospect of reaching a genuine political settlement — and, if Washington and Moscow move more boldly to advance the Syrian “proximity talks” in Geneva, while reconciling their military roles in the Syrian civil war, and, if, as NATO prolongs its commitment in Afghanistan, they coordinate their efforts to stabilize this volatile region, they may be able to release some of the tension and rancor from the relationship.

But fundamentally the two sides are now and will remain estranged. Apart from the wasted energy and resources that they will invest in renewed military competition and the unproductive effects from the strategic maneuvering each will engage in against the other, the larger tragedy is in challenges that they will not be addressing together: the increasingly complex and dangerous dynamics in what is now a multipolar nuclear world.

The resource conflicts sure to follow if climate change goes unattended. The risk that the Arctic, the world’s new energy frontier, will become an arena of competition rather than cooperation. And the prospect that dealing with turmoil in and around Eurasia will remain a source of rivalry rather than the basis for constructive partnership.

Paul Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center, expert of the Valdai International Discussion Club and Associate Publisher of The National Interest:

The NATO summit was intended to send a strong message that the Alliance was going to be unified and prepared to take specific steps to deter Russia. I think that is what happened.

Regarding NATO’s criticism of Russia and people who may criticize NATO for that, I would say that there’s a widely held view in the West that it was unjustified and inappropriate for Russia to annex Crimea and for Russia to become involved in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. And in that environment I think it is not surprising that NATO would be quite critical of Russian conduct now.

At the same time, certainly there is a big gap in perspective between most people in most NATO countries and most people in Russia. They have different points of view not only about what happened in Crimea and Donbas but also about what happened during the 20-25 years that led up to that.

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was primarily perceived as a defeated power, which I think is very different of how people inside of Russia view their own country at that time. I think those differences in perception led to differences in how the governments involved approached a lot of different questions and problems at that time. And it has consequences until today. Ultimately, that is a challenge that NATO and Russia have to address.

Also read: "The NATO Warsaw summit: Back to the future"

In terms of cooperation, that’s a big challenge right now. It appears that discussions in the NATO-Russia Council are primarily intended to demonstrate NATO’s openness to dialogue with Russia. In view of the differences within NATO regarding policy toward Russia, this dialogue is likely one component in a broader compromise policy that allowed NATO to reach consensus on the new troop deployments and other steps.

Yet there are some governments in NATO where senior officials would argue that it is almost impossible to cooperate with Russia in a situation in which Russia is occupying Crimea and has some influence in the Eastern Ukrainian conflict. Many people view these two things as obstacles to cooperation. The situation in Eastern Ukraine is very difficult but of the two, it’s certainly the easier one to address through dialogue.

Even for its optimistic supporters within NATO, Ukraine’s potential NATO membership is a distant prospect. Setting aside Ukraine’s many domestic problems, which would require politically difficult steps to address and to satisfy many NATO members, some NATO governments clearly also see membership is unnecessarily provocative vis-à-vis Moscow.

In these circumstances, NATO assistance to Ukraine is overwhelmingly symbolic with three audiences: 1) Western elites and publics who want NATO to do more, 2) Ukrainians who may wonder about Western support, and 3) Russia, to demonstrate NATO solidarity with Ukraine.

As far as NATO or Russia had to promote greater dialogue, Western officials have been clear in saying that they want to see a political settlement of the fight in Eastern Ukraine and the Minsk Agreement fully implemented. But it’s very difficult to do in practice because the Minsk Agreement is more like a framework agreement than a final agreement - It sets some broad parameters but didn’t really get into a lot of specific details.

We still need further negotiations actually to clarify everyone’s obligations under the Minsk Agreement before it can be implemented and obviously it’s going to include obligations for Russia, Ukraine, for the separatists and for others. That’s probably the first step by itself that requires a lot from everyone.

The comments of Robert Legvold and Paul Saunders were kindly provided by the Valdai Discussion Club.