As NATO cranks up the rhetoric against Russia and deploys troops on Russia’s border, ever more insistent calls for dialogue get made.
The French, Italian, Bulgarian and Greek leaderships have all distanced themselves from the rhetoric coming out of the NATO summit in Warsaw, with all of them saying that they consider Russia a partner rather than an enemy. Germany appears split with Merkel predictably taking a hardline but her SPD and CSU coalition partners making it quite clear they disagree with her.
The clearest view of SPD thinking is set out in a lengthy article that recently appeared in Der Spiegel. As has to be the case in Europe today the author of the article, Wolfgang Ischinger, has felt obliged to fill the article with lengthy denunciations of Russian policy and absurdly exaggerated claims of Russian weakness. Whilst these ritual comments doubtless cause great offense in Russia, they should be seen for what they are: an affirmation of loyalty by the writer to the Western Alliance without which he would have no hope of being heard. Russian writers who lived through the Soviet period will be familiar with this device.
The key point about the Der Spiegel article is that it attacks both NATO enlargement and strategic missile defense. The key paragraphs – written in highly elliptical language which all but confirms that the article forms part of a high level discussion within the German government, are these:
“One of two key pillars of NATO’s policy from the 1990s, developing the relationship with Russia, has not been successful. The two pillars — NATO enlargement on the one hand, and a new quality of NATO-Russia relations on the other — were supposed to be equally important. That was the understanding reached in Madrid in 1997. Unfortunately, we failed to develop the second pillar as planned, while further enlargement rounds were prepared and successfully implemented. When US President George W. Bush tried to advance Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership prospects in 2008 against stiff Russian opposition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy finally pulled the emergency brake. But by that time, the relationship with Russia was already seriously damaged, as President Putin pointed out in Munich in 2007.
In 2008, Georgia and Ukraine were promised NATO membership — without any date attached. Do we stand by this promise? Or has this become an empty pledge? If so, does this mean that we carry some responsibility for the fact that both countries have de facto lost parts of their territory since? Should we encourage both countries today to continue on the NATO track, or should we instead encourage them to follow the Finnish or Austrian models, in order to ease the situation politically and militarily, and in order to normalise their economic relationship with Russia? But would that not mean that we abandon our own principles, in particular that of the free choice of alliances? Would that not lead to a massive loss of our credibility? Or, if we invite them to stay on the NATO track, are we prepared and determined to assure the economic survival of both countries by offering sustained and comprehensive political and financial support? Are we prepared to say we will do whatever it takes in order to create a greater sense of stability and confidence in Kiev and Tbilisi? We have to confront these and other questions, even if they may require painful responses. Strategic clarity is required if we want to bring the current crisis of European security to an end.
We might also ask ourselves whether now was really the right time to take the next steps on ballistic missile defence, which has long been the subject of such heavy criticism from Russia? Would it not have been better to take a breather? Why the rush?”
Ischinger is being frankly disingenuous in his list of open questions in his key middle paragraph. He knows perfectly well the answer to all these questions. He also knows that the German elite also knows the answers. The German and European publics are not willing to make the sort of political, economic and military sacrifices required to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Therefore, following his logic, it is a mistake to put in jeopardy peace in Europe and the future of the NATO alliance by admitting them. In place of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine the Finnish and Austrian models her refers to are obviously the ones he favours for these countries, which is why he mentions them.
Not only is this a call to stop further NATO expansion but the first paragraph also clearly shows that Ischinger thinks earlier NATO expansion was misconceived and is what has caused the crisis in Europe. In other words, despite all that Ischinger says elsewhere in his article, it is Western not Russian policy that is the problem.
Whilst NATO expansion is being criticised in Germany, it is coming in for more criticism in Britain, the one Western country that has up to now been its most vocal supporter.
The British parliament’s Defence Committee recently delivered a lengthy report on the state of British-Russian relations. As with the Ischinger article much of the report contains the usual criticisms of Russia that have now become standard in the West. However buried within these criticisms is a series of recommendations that point in the diametrically opposite direction.
Firstly, the report urgently calls for a resumption of a high level political dialogue with Russia and expresses dismay that this is not happening. In doing so it makes it clear that the fault for this rests wholly with the British.
Secondly, the report expresses alarm at the lack of qualified experts of Russia advising the British government. As I know for myself this criticism is completely valid. The situation is indeed every bit as bad as the Committee says. I would add that this recommendation seems to me an implicit criticism of the quality of some of the experts (who included people like Lilia Shevtsova and Peter Pomerantsev) the Committee heard from.
Far more important however is what the Committee says about NATO expansion. It finally admits that Russian concerns about NATO expansion are sincere even if it says they are wrong. More importantly it warns against expanding NATO to include states NATO is unable or unwilling to defend. The relevant paragraph – written in extremely careful language but written in bold for added emphasis – reads as follows:
“However, in our view, we should be aware of the dangers of undermining the credibility of the Article 5 guarantee—and thus of the entire alliance—by offering NATO membership to states which a potential adversary would not believe we would go to war to defend. We should therefore make it clear that NATO would take Article 5 action in respect of any new member country before it was allowed to join the Alliance.”
It is impossible to see this as anything other than a warning against extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two countries which in the recent past NATO has shown it is not prepared to defend. Moreover the justification – an unwillingness to bear the sacrifices of expansion – is the same as the one made by Ischinger.
The Defence Committee report is not intended for a wide readership. Unlike the Der Spiegel article it is therefore definitely part of an internal elite dialogue. None of the people who sit on the Defence Committee can by any stretch be considered pro-Russian appeasers and in the rest of their report they go to inordinate lengths to make that clear. Thus they even call for the renewal of sanctions against Russia even whilst admitting they are not working.
Nonetheless it is striking that in two leading NATO states – Germany and Britain – calls for dialogue with Russia and a halt to further NATO expansion are – however elliptically – now being made, and that these are being justified with the same reasons.
The debate within NATO is not ended but the neocon agenda of perpetual NATO expansion and confrontation with Russia is now finally being challenged – though very late in the day – from within the heart of the NATO elite. It seems that regardless of the outcome of the election in the US in November the high tide of NATO expansion may be over.