Russia and NATO appear to be locked in a vicious circle, in which the Kremlin counters each NATO attempt to expand eastward toward Russia with a military or political move of its own.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a press conference at the start of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales. Photo: AP
On Sept. 4-5, NATO is poised to hold what some have called the most important summit since the end of the Cold War, where lethal military assistance to Ukraine may be approved. Any move to arm Kiev, however, would likely be met with a military counter-move from Moscow, furthering escalating the crisis in Ukraine. This has been the pattern since 2008, when similar attempts to include Georgia within NATO were met with a firm military response by Russia.
There can be little doubt that the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, whoever is to blame for it, is largely rooted in the incessant NATO-Russia “divide and conquer ” game in Eastern Europe. Moscow has blamed NATO for breaking a promise once given to Soviet leader President Mikhail Gorbachev by continuing its expansion to the Russian border, while the alliance claims it is disturbed by Moscow’s attempts to destabilize NATO’s Eastern European members.
A new round of contention between the two is over Ukraine. The decision that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will make regarding Ukraine’s future relationship with the alliance at the NATO summit this week will also determine how Russia views Eastern Europe in years to come.
For as long as Vladimir Putin has been in power, he has been trying to get his message through to Western leaders that Russia is against NATO’s eastward expansion. Feeling that he has been unheard, Putin’s rhetoric has become more aggressive and defensive over time.
Feeling cornered, the Russian leadership made a decision to engage in a war in Georgia at a time when this country was making steps toward NATO. Putin’s current strategy seems like a case of déjà vu, albeit on a larger scale, reflecting the desperation to convey a message that Russia’s vital national interests are being infringed upon by the West.
Since the outset of the crisis in Ukraine, Putin’s every strategic decision has been preceded by what Moscow perceived as the threat of NATO expansion. The Kremlin spotted first signs of this threat in late February, when Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, fresh from prison, as well as other members of the Batkivshchyna party, the party of the interim government in Kiev, were speculating that democratic Ukraine would see itself as a NATO member.
This course of events would have meant the eviction of the Russian Black See Fleet from Crimea for the Kremlin. At the same time, in July 2014 NATO announced the Exercise Rapid Trident 2014 military exercise to be held in Ukraine on September 15-26, further angering Moscow.
At that point, Putin might have thought that the annexation of Crimea would be enough of a signal to the West that NATO would not be tolerated at the Russian border. The Kremlin’s strategists were hoping that as long as there is a simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Kiev’s accession to NATO would be a no-go.
In late August, however, the blow to Moscow came from two fronts at a time, from Kiev and NATO’s Eastern European members. Poroshenko was invited to the NATO summit in Wales and is the only non-NATO head of state to negotiate with alliance leaders. The Ukrainian president is likely to be offered joint security arrangements with NATO as well as a modernization package for the Ukrainian armed forces.
A second blow to Putin came from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all of which have agreed to host new alliance bases with permanent deployment of 600 servicemen at each. This move is expected to give NATO a more tangible presence in Eastern Europe and deter Russia from even thinking about violating the sovereignty of alliance members.
On the same day as the establishment of NATO’s new rapid response force was announced, Russia was reported to have launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. On August 28, reports coming from various sources claimed that Russia had deployed no less than 1,000 soldiers in Ukraine backing these claims up with fresh satellite images of Russian military hardware inside Ukraine.
One cannot help but notice the pattern behind Putin’s intervention in Ukrainian affairs: Each step is generally preceded by increased NATO activities at the Russian border. However strange it may seem to a Western audience, Moscow’s advance in Ukraine is Putin’s attempt to communicate his country’s concerns. What is worse, this type of response on Russia’s part shows the Kremlin’s resolution to secure its interests in Ukraine by any means.
Most likely, Moscow is proactive and has already prepared steps to respond to any NATO decision on Ukraine. On Sept. 2, Russia announced that it would amend its military doctrine to address the “external threats” created by NATO’s infrastructure at the Russian borders. These amendments are likely to be announced right after the Wales summit, once Moscow assesses its outcome.
The response from Moscow will undoubtedly be strong and will include the initiation of Russia’s own security arrangements. One such arrangement could include the creation of large permanent military bases at the Ukrainian border in order to perpetuate the contingent that Moscow has amassed there since the crisis erupted, and an even more aggressive policy toward Eastern Europe. And, if such moves come to fruition, the vicious circle between NATO and Russia would have just become more vicious.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.