Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, arrived for the Russia-Nato meeting in Brussels just five minutes after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Their planes were parked side by side. “Hello, Hillary”, the Russian minister hailed his American counterpart, as he descended the ramp. “Hello, Sergei”, Clinton beamed, as she got into her car. And with a welcoming gesture, she invited Lavrov into the back seat, so that they could drive to the hotel together.
Well actually, no, it didn’t really go like that. Given the current state of Russian-American relations, neither the Russian foreign minister nor the American Secretary of State would agree to go to the Russia-Nato meeting in the same car. For most Russians, the alliance is still the number one enemy, although the Russian military does not officially consider Nato countries to be potential enemies.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russian deputy prime minister in charge of modernising the defence industry, posts daily progress reports on his Twitter page. Hundreds of billions of roubles are set aside for the defence programme, which is planned for decades ahead. But these staggering figures, which will affect the lives of future generations, give people a sense of pride rather than provoke dismay over money that could otherwise have been used for social programmes.
Opinion polls show that most Russians approve of the official plans to spend budgetary funds on modernising defence. Why? The answer is simple: the Russian public does not trust Nato, believing that the alliance is playing a game that threatens Russia’s security.
These fears are not without foundation. Moscow points out that the alliance is establishing its presence close to Russian borders. New military bases are being set up in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. Nato patrols the airspace above the Baltic states, which was not the case before they joined the alliance. The combined military budgets of the Nato states are multiples of what Russia spends on defence.
Nato’s conventional forces in Europe outnumber those of Russia. The American military is developing new types of weapons, including offensive systems that will be deployed in Europe and might change the balance of power in the region.
Despite Russia’s assistance to the alliance in Afghanistan, the American military is building major military bases there without any prior consultation with Moscow. These bases, Russian experts say, are strategically important for controlling Central Asia. The Pentagon’s bases will remain in Afghanistan even after most Nato troops leave the country, a prospect Russia does not relish.
Yet the greatest irritant in the relations between Moscow and Nato is ballistic missile defence. The fact that both the US and Nato leadership refuse to offer Russia legal guarantees that these systems are not targeting Moscow’s nuclear potential forces Russia to take retaliatory measures. All that Washington is ready to do is “to offer safeguards in a political format”. Moscow, however, does not consider such political promises sufficient: in military affairs, it is the defence potential and not the intentions that matter.
Moscow has always tried to avoid becoming involved in an arms race. With respect to missile defence, Moscow has consistently advocated the so-called sectoral approach, whereby Nato and Russia would divide zones of responsibility and pool their defence efforts in countering common missile threats. That would save billions of defence euros for all the participants in the group.
Yet Nato has turned down the Russian offer under pressure from the US, the reason being the treaty signed by Nato in the Cold War. Under its Article 5, the alliance must protect its members independently, without counting on Russia’s potential. Nato has no intention of changing that article to bring it into line with current reality and avoid a new arms race.
On the contrary, many Nato countries are modernising their armed forces. The talk about these changes being routine and not threatening anybody does not convince Moscow. Russia has to take steps to ensure its own security under the new conditions and make sure it does not become “a colossus with feet of clay” in the eyes of its western neighbours. Allocating considerable resources to modernise the defence industry is an inevitable response to the military initiatives taking place in Europe.
Is there any way to put a brake on this arms race? Yes, of course. At the Russia-Nato ministerial meeting in Brussels, Moscow suggested as a first step that, at its Chicago summit, Nato pledges its “adherence to the rules of international law” in its final declaration. Such a commitment would mean that the alliance would respect the jurisdiction of existing international institutions, and renounce the independent use of force unless it was authorised by a relevant UN Security Council resolution.
Even so, it cannot be ruled out that Nato will pointedly refuse to change its agreement with the current international crisis-response mechanisms. If the refusal is articulated, it would turn Nato, in Russia’s eyes, into the main threat to international stability. Such a turn of events would force Russia to think about creating military counterweights to Nato. That would put paid to any chances of stopping the arms race in Europe.
All of the programmes for co-operation between Moscow and Nato would be gradually curtailed, as public opinion in Russia would reject any form of co-operation with a potential enemy. And this is not merely words. The recent Russian decision to open a transit centre in Ulyanovsk to deliver non-military cargoes to the coalition forces in Afghanistan has triggered strong protests at grassroots level.
Nato’s refusal to recognise the world order and its demonstrative refusal to reckon with Russia’s geopolitical interests render meaningless any joint initiatives aimed at countering common threats. They merely fuel the arms race that many European countries want to avoid.
Source: Daily Telegraph – Yevgeny Shestakov