Those who have read Clausewitz, not least of all the Russian military establishment, know that war is a tool of policy. Paraphrasing Clausewitz, Lenin stated that conflict and war are inseparable from the political conditions that engender them. The recommendations recently produced by a working group of experts from Russia, the United States and Europe depart from these insights.
In its view, their recommendations ‘should be pursued whether or not we make progress in reducing the serious political disputes among our countries’. There is reason to dispute this contention. Nevertheless, a document signed by 16 former ministers of foreign affairs and defence, 27 retired generals and admirals, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and a former Deputy Secretary General of NATO demands considered analysis.[i] We offer these initial reflections as a prelude to a more detailed assessment from experts at ICDS.
In our judgement, the recommendations of the group of experts fail to engage with four elements of political and military reality.
Russian State Policy. Russia’s military instruments are a principal means of supporting interests articulated since 2014 that are designed to produce material changes to the security order in Europe. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the military (and security service) perspective has been brought into close alignment with the political objectives of the state. Compared to the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, there is now an uncommon degree of political-military integration in pursuit of Russia’s state objectives. There is no indication that reduction of tension is one of them. Instead, Russia has sought to transfer the locus of tension to the West by a variety of (hybrid) means. This is an adversarial relationship in all but name. Russia is not seeking reassurance. It is seeking changes.
Structural Asymmetries. The Russian Federation is a unitary state actor with an authoritarian political framework, a centralised military and defence system and a vertical hierarchy of command and authority. The challenges of withdrawing and redeploying military forces within such a jurisdiction are small by comparison to those faced by a pluralistic, de-centralised alliance such as NATO, whose members comprise 30 democratically governed sovereign states and whose military systems are far from unified. NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states and Poland and its tailored Forward Presence in the Black Sea region are the products of deliberation and consensus. Modifications to unit deployments and other elements of this force posture could prove exceedingly difficult to reverse in a timely manner.
No less important is the political purpose served by NATO’s forward deployed forces. They reassure Allies that an attack on one or more will be treated as an attack on NATO as a whole. They give substance to NATO’s commitment to oppose the emergence of different levels of security in Europe. Given the dramatic imbalance in capability between these forces and the Russian forces adjacent to them, any force reduction is likely to have a deleterious impact on cohesion and confidence.
This is all the more likely in view of the dependence of NATO’s forward deployments on rapid reinforcement by large combat formations that should be (but are not) on high readiness. For this reason alone, we must reject the equation between stability and ‘de-escalation’ (enunciated in recommendation 2.1), insofar as deterrence rests on persuading the opponent that, no matter how limited his aggression, escalation will be swift and ineluctable.
Compliance. Since Crimea’s annexation in 2014, important elements of the treaty-based regime that ended the Cold War have been abridged, denounced or declared no longer relevant by Russia. Russia invoked internal changes in NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partner, Ukraine, as a justification for abrogating the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Interstate Treaty, the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Inter-Governmental Black Sea Fleet Accords and the bilateral 2010 Kharkiv accords. In 2019, in contravention of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia summarily closed 25 percent of the Black Sea to commercial shipping in response to the lawful, US-led multinational exercise Sea Breeze-19 and the US-Georgia exercise Agile Spirit. Since 2014, it has repeatedly engaged in provocative and reckless air and naval activity against Allied naval vessels, in disregard of several of twelve bilateral agreements to prevent incidents at sea, concluded between 1972 and 2004. To suppose that agreement on additional measures will enhance stability represents the triumph of hope over experience.
Risks and their Alleviation. We do not question the merit of focused, formalised discussion at official level or Track-2 efforts. But the group of experts overstates ‘the need for dialogue’ (Section 1) and misunderstands its utility. Russia’s revival of the principles of Yalta and Potsdam was not caused by an absence of dialogue, and there is no reason to suppose that its expansion will alter its ‘principled’ views or its course.
In fact, there has been considerable dialogue since 2014. Although practical military cooperation was suspended in 2014 as it was after Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, high-level discussion (e.g. Obama-Putin, Merkel-Putin) notably increased, and some formats (Minsk Group Normandy Format, US-Russia Space Security Dialogue) have emerged that are entirely new. Since 2018, the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee and SACEUR have met in person or spoken by telephone with the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation three times per year. Political dialogue takes place in the NATO-Russia Council, which meets two-to-three times a year. Some of these discussions are useful. Most would agree that their impact on the outlook of Russia’s state leadership has been negligible. In conditions of systemic antagonism, it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. But dialogue, like diplomacy, can and must serve three other purposes: to identify differences, to clarify positions and to warn. For these reasons alone, it is important.
Far more troubling than the expert group’s over-emphasis of dialogue is the absence of substantiation given to its assertions (Executive Summary) that tension is building and that ‘urgent actions’ are required to ‘reduce the risks of military conflict’. In FY 2017, the budget of US European Command increased by 40 percent. Since then, the level of tension in the Baltic region has gradually declined from its level in 2014-15, when both political tensions and the imbalance in capability were at their height. In the Black Sea, in contrast to the Baltic, NATO has far fewer means of counter-balancing Russian capability, owing to restrictions imposed by the Montreux Convention on non-littoral powers and the militarisation of Crimea, which has been proceeding without interruption since its annexation in March 2014. In an antagonistic relationship, armament sometimes strengthens security; disarmament can endanger it.
Finally, and most fundamentally, we question the linkage between ‘risk reduction measures’ and security that lies at the heart of the report. How many confidence-building measures survive the first crisis? The potential for war is inherent in what Russians call the ‘conflict of systems’. But war itself invariably arises from an amalgam of political urgency and military opportunity. No state goes to war safe in the knowledge that it will lose it. The omission of deterrence as a component of stability is one of the report’s major shortcomings.
The distinguished French Foreign Minister, Georges Clemenceau warned that definitions of aggression are a ‘trap for the innocent and a signpost for the guilty’. Unfortunately, ill-judged confidence-building measures will achieve the same results. To avoid this eventuality, risk-reduction measures must be stress-tested and gamed against an adversary determined to extract unilateral advantage from even the most commendable proposal designed to enhance mutual security. We can be confident that Russia will conduct such an exercise whether we choose to do so or not.
[i] Institute of Europe, Institute of the USA and Canada, European Leadership Network, Recommendations of the Participants of the Expert Dialogue on NATO-Russia Military Risk Reduction in Europe, December 2020 en.instituteofeurope.ru/publications/other-monogra…