A New Mission for Europe

The Western world is not anticipating the revival of the Cold War or nor does it have an appetite to remain obsessed with Russia. Nevertheless, the consequences of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its apparent support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have now to be considered by the Western alliance, NATO, and by the European Union (EU).

With the end of the Cold War, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) entered into relations with Russia and Ukraine. In May 1997 the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation was signed, and two months later, in July 1997, the NATO-Ukraine Charter was signed. The intention in both cases was to foster dialogue and cooperation between the two sides on a number of issues, political, economic, military, security, and to maintain peace in the area based on principles of democracy and security.

These arrangements were followed by an agreement in May 1998 to set up a joint parliamentary group to monitor the working of the NATO-Russia agreement, and in May 2002 by an Action Plan that included establishing the NATO-Russia parliamentary Committee. Until 2014, a delegation of the Russian Federation Assembly participated each year in the meetings of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA).

Political dialogue between Ukraine and NATO exists through bilateral contacts at various levels, particularly through the Joint Commission set up in 1997 that brings together ministers in defense, economic, and foreign affairs. In the parliamentary dialog, members of a Ukrainian delegation took part in a number of activities of the NATO (PA), and an Inter-Parliamentary Council was set up that held meetings in Brussels and in Kiev. In March 2014, during the crisis in Crimea, the PA affirmed its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence.

But will NATO or the European Union play any significant role regarding Russian activity in Eastern Europe? At least four underlying problems exist. One is that NATO has been expanding its membership. President Vladimir Putin has made his position clear. “We were once promised that after the unification of Germany, no expansion of NATO would happen to the east. Then it started to expand by adding former Warsaw Pact, Soviet Union, countries.” Putin considers this as a threat. Russia remains interested in the millions of ethnic Russians in these countries and well as in Ukraine. He sees any proposal for Ukraine to become a member of NATO as unwise and provocative; Ukraine is only 480 kilometers from Moscow. This suggests a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine, further interference into Eastern Europe is seen as aggression.

The second problem is the disproportional contribution of the U.S. in the 28-member NATO coalition, both militarily and financially. The U.S. pays 75 per cent of NATO military spending, and only three other countries, Britain, Estonia, and Greece, contribute the 2 per cent of GDP called for, and three others, France, Turkey, and Poland, contributed just less than 2 per cent. Collectively, the European contribution was 1.6 per cent of its GDP. Robert Gates, former head of the CIA, calling for a larger EU contribution, calls this “collective military irrelevance.”

The crisis in Eastern Europe comes at a time when European countries have drastically cut their military budgets, about $45 billion in recent years. Russia has dramatically increased its military spending, now 4.5 per cent of its GDP, by 79 per cent in the last decade, 92 per cent in the last 4 years and proposes further considerable increases of 44 per cent in the next three years. It has 150,000 combat troops on the eastern border of Ukraine.

A third problem is the assumption that European security is based on no change in borders by force or unilateral action. That change was made on March 21, 2014 when Putin signed the treaty making Crimea part of Russia, and set up two new Russian administrative districts. Russian intentions towards Ukraine remain unclear, and the country poses a threat to Transnistria which broke away from Moldova in 1990. Russia appears to be seeking to destabilize Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. Unquestionably, its efficient operation in Crimea in March 2014 shows it has improved its military capacity and organization since the war with Georgia in 2008. Putin’s intentions are clear. Russia aims to be a global power.

The Western response to this point has been limited, with most coming from the U.S. not from NATO or the EU. Minor economic sanctions have been imposed on 48 Russian individuals and 17 companies said to be linked to Putin’s inner circle. Included in these lists are some in the “inner circle” such as Gennady Timchenko, co-founder of Guvnor, the oil and gas company, and government officials such as Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff of the Executive Office, and the Bank Rossiya based in St. Petersburg, that is said to be the personal bank for senior Russian officials.

A fourth problem is the greater dependence of the EU than the U.S. on trade with Russia, especially on Russian oil and gas. In all, EU trade with Russia is ten times greater than the U.S. volume with Russia. Russia supplies, through at least a dozen pipelines, about one-third of the gas consumed by the EU, and all of the gas to the Baltic countries and Bulgaria. In 2012 Russia piped 30 billion cubic meters of gas to Germany; this was 28 per cent of the 105.5 million cubic meters sent to the EU as a whole. German-Russian trade is particularly important: this trade in which more than 6,000 German businesses are involved, amounts to 35 billion euros. An additional problem in this is that Gerhard Schroeder, former German foreign minister, is seen as being personally close to President Putin, and chair of the Gazprom joint venture pipeline (Nord Stream) which intends to build a pipeline, costing $22 billion, from Russia across the Black Sea and then to Italy.

On this issue two alternatives are possible. One is for Europe to find alternative sources. The other is to circumvent Russia by building alternative pipelines from Azerbaijan via Turkey and Greece to Italy and then to other European countries. The problem here is those lines are not expected to be available before 2019.

With Russian moves, the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union and have become members of NATO since 2004, feel uneasy about whether to expect help from NATO, though it has announced it will boost defense resources in those states.  However, the Baltic states recognize that NATO had not developed plans to defend them, or to hold training exercises in their countries, until 2009 after Russia’s five-day war with Georgia. For them, Article 5 of the NATO Charter, the provision that guarantees collective defense, should be upheld. Poland has called for NATO to station permanently 10,000 troops in its country. Russia sees this as a violation of the 1997 Founding Act, and few countries are likely to support the call.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, announced in April 2014 that NATO would increase its military patrols along its eastern border as a deterrent. But the U.S. is still carrying the main burden, militarily and financially.

Military action has meant the U.S. sending 600 paratroopers to Poland and the Baltic countries, reinforcing Baltic air patrols, the use of AWACS surveillance planes, sending F-16 fighters to Poland and F-15 fighters to the Baltics, and warships sent to the Baltic and the Black Sea. Intentions are to rotate more ground and naval forces for exercise and training in the area. However, the U.S. military presence in Europe has been reduced to 68,000 on duty. The U.S. is taking the lead in proposing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia. But the essential problem of dealing with Russia remains. Further U.S. action is likely to be limited. The EU and NATO in their different ways must do more.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.