The neighbour from hell
Dec 10th 2009
Cack-handed Russian tactics are boosting NATO in eastern Europe
IN THE 1990s, when enlarging NATO to take in the ex-communist countries still seemed perilous and impractical, help came from an unexpected source. Yevgeny Primakov (pictured), a steely old Soviet spook who became first head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, then foreign minister and even, briefly, prime minister, liked to say that it would be “impermissible” for the alliance to admit ex-communist states.
His remarks, and others in similar vein by leading Russian politicians, proved counterproductive. The more the Kremlin huffed and puffed about ex-captive nations deciding their own future, the harder it became to dismiss those countries’ fears: if your neighbour terms it “impermissible” for you to install a burglar alarm, people will start taking your security worries seriously. Some wags even suggested that a “Primakov prize” be established to mark the boost he had given to the cause.
Now the same tactics are at work again. As readers of this column may know, the black hole in NATO’s security guarantee is that it has no formal contingency plans to defend its weakest members: the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. If Russia is NATO’s friend—so the thinking went in the early years of this decade—no such plans are necessary. America has its own military plans: chiefly putting powerful naval forces in the North Atlantic to, if necessary, sink Russian warships and shoot down planes menacing the Baltic states. But NATO is paralysed by the fear, felt strongly in countries such as France and Germany, that any real military planning will be intolerably and destructively provocative towards Russia.
Faced with that constellation of forces, a sensible Russian response might be to adopt softly-softly tactics. Make it clear that the war in Georgia was a one-off (and a response to provocation). Give the Baltics and the Poles no reason to worry. Keep on using economic ties to make friends and influence people. The pressure for NATO to take a firmer stand will soon fizzle out.
Instead, Russia is adopting the opposite course. It habitually violates Baltic airspace. It maintains a vocal propaganda offensive (such as a report being launched in Brussels this week by a Russian-backed think-tank, which criticises Baltic language and citizenship laws). This autumn, it scandalised NATO opinion by running two big military exercises, without foreign observers, based on highly threatening scenarios (culminating in a Strategic Rocket Forces drill in which Russia “nuked” Poland). The exercises demonstrated weakness and incompetence, as well as force of numbers and nasty thinking. But they made life hard for peacemongers and strengthened the arguments of NATO hawks and the twitchy eastern Europeans.
Russia’s latest political move adds insult to injury. It has formally proposed a new security treaty to NATO, which would specifically prohibit the alliance from making military plans or positioning forces in a way that Russia does not like. This is the latest iteration of what is commonly known as the “Medvedev Plan”—the idea of creating a new, realpolitik-based, security architecture for Europe which would weaken NATO, bypass the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and sideline America.
Apart from the ever-enthusiastic Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, there seems little enthusiasm for any version of this plan in Europe. It might have had a better chance when the Bush administration was testing Atlanticist loyalties to destruction, and when Gerhard Schröder was running Germany and Jacques Chirac was president of France. Now it looks like a non-starter.
It is just what Polish, Czech and Baltic politicians need to bolster their arguments. But it is hard to see how this sort of thing helps Russia.
Thursday, December 10, 2009