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What is Russia's problem with NATO and how should the West respond?

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By Alasdair Sandford
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Military vehicles and tanks of Poland, Italy, Canada and United States roll during the NATO military exercises ''Namejs 2021'' at a training ground in Kadaga, Latvia,
Military vehicles and tanks of Poland, Italy, Canada and United States roll during the NATO military exercises ''Namejs 2021'' at a training ground in Kadaga, Latvia,   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Roman Koksarov, File

For months now alarm bells have punctured the international preoccupation with the pandemic: over Russia's massive troop buildup on its Ukrainian border.

US intelligence warned that Russia may be preparing an invasion. Moscow denied it, but followed up with a series of specific demands from NATO and the United States that go far beyond Ukraine.

Both Washington and NATO responded on January 26 by offering dialogue but no concessions.

Many have asked, what are Putin's real intentions? Is there an adequate deterrent? And if Russia does attack, do NATO and the West have the capacity to respond in a sufficiently robust manner?

The crisis has called into question Western unity. It has also put the spotlight back on NATO in particular, two years after President Macron famously called the transatlantic military alliance "brain dead".

What does Russia want?

Tensions between Russia and the West have been building ever since Vladimir Putin started his proxy war in eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. In response, NATO sent reinforcements to countries seen as vulnerable to Russian aggression.

In December, Moscow set out its security demands in two documents: a proposed treaty with the US, and an agreement with NATO.

Essentially, Russia now wants guarantees that NATO will halt its eastward expansion, rule out membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Putin has now demanded a reset and wants all NATO forces withdrawn. In effect, he wants recognition that these nations are within Moscow’s sphere of influence," wrote Geoffrey Van Orden of the Gold Institute for International Strategy, in an opinion article for Euronews.

"What is Putin really up to? He is testing Western resolve. He wants recognition of his gains in the Donbas region and Crimea, full control of the Sea of Azov coastline, domination of the Black Sea, and ultimately the return of Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries to Moscow’s sway," added Van Orden, also a former British military officer and an ex-Conservative defence spokesman in the European Parliament.

"He is pursuing the same strategy he's been pursuing since 2014, through different means," analyst Fabrice Pothier from Rasmussen Global told Euronews in November, adding that a Russian military incursion into Ukraine was possible.

"However, I think he is already achieving what he wants which is to keep Ukraine weak, and worried, and to put always this question mark on Western support to Ukraine."

Some experts put Russia's intentions in starker terms. For historian Françoise Thom, a specialist on Russia, Moscow's demands amount to "an orchestrated blackmail".

"Reading the Western press, one is under the impression that nothing is happening. Westerners do not seem to understand what is at stake. They think that only the fate of Ukraine is being decided," she wrote for the website Desk Russie.

"In a word, Russia is demanding that NATO commit suicide and that the United States be reduced to the role of a regional power."

How dangerous are Russia's demands for NATO?

In the first week of January, the month tipped by some to be ripe for Russian military action, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spelt out the extent of Vladimir Putin's latest demands.

NATO, he wrote for Politico, would have to "seek consent from Moscow to deploy troops in Central and Eastern Europe, refrain from “any military activity” across Eastern Europe, the southern Caucuses and Central Asia, and halt any NATO drills near Russia".

Moscow was also demanding a written guarantee that Ukraine would not be offered NATO membership, and a draft treaty with the United States banning it from sending forces to areas such as the Baltics and the Black Sea, he said.

"Under no circumstances should the US or NATO give commitments on future enlargement, real or de facto," he added. NATO leaders promised future membership to Ukraine and Georgia back in 2008.

Rasmussen went on to list a series of international agreements on the NATO-Russia relationship, which Moscow was now seeking to ditch. They included a 1999 OSCE Charter on European Security which Russia signed up to. This grants a participating state the freedom "to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance", the ex-NATO chief added.

"NATO is an alliance of peace. It wants nothing but peaceful cooperation with Russia," he went on. "But that cooperation has been made difficult by Putin’s behaviour."

Judy Dempsey, editor in chief of the Strategic Europe blog, writes for Carnegie Europe that Russia's actions are primarily designed to test the United States, NATO, and Europe.

"They are about reversing the post–Cold War era by reasserting Russia’s pre-1989 military and political influence in Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries in the region. They reflect a dangerous clash of geopolitical and historical realities."

How should NATO respond to Russia?

The US State Department was forthright on "the need for a united, ready, and resolute NATO stance for the collective defense of Allies" after a joint call in early January between Antony Blinken and Russia's neighbours, the "Bucharest Nine" of eastern European countries.

A statement said the Secretary of State stressed Washington's commitment to "de-escalation through deterrence, defense, and dialogue", as well as "to Transatlantic security and to NATO’s Article 5", enshrining its collective defence principle.

However, in the case of non-member Ukraine, "it is limited what NATO can actually put on the table", Peter Dickinson, a specialist on Ukraine at the Atlantic Council, told Euronews in December.

"Obviously, Ukraine and Russia are aware that there is no real option of any military involvement from NATO's side. So what we're really talking about is economic sanctions, perhaps some political sanctions as well," he said, adding that these must be strong enough to deter Putin's goal of reasserting Russian authority over Ukraine.

"NATO is revealing little of how it would react to Russian territorial aggression," says Geoffrey Van Orden, noting that the alliance has pledged "political and practical support" for Ukraine. He calls for "serious financial pressure, including from a crash in crucial gas exports", as well as "targeted sanctions" against various Russian economic sectors.

"Escalatory options could include full blocking of major Russian state banks and investment agencies," he added in his article for Euronews.

"Will Putin invade Ukraine? Only he really knows," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "But if he does, we must send meaningful military aid to Ukraine and launch economic sanctions that will cripple the Russian economy, including cancelling the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline."

NATO's former chief goes further, calling on the military alliance to "call Putin's bluff" by acting on its promise in 2008 to give Georgia and Ukraine "seats at the NATO table". This, he argues, would end the Russian leader's "de facto veto" of these countries' Western goals by stoking low-level conflicts in their territories.

"NATO cannot negotiate down the barrel of a gun," Rasmussen concludes.

How united is Europe on NATO?

"It's vital that NATO is united in pushing back against Russia's threatening behaviour, and together we must hold Russia to its longstanding obligations," UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told parliament on January 6. "There can be no rewards for aggression."

Such unity has been lacking in recent years. When in 2019 he labelled NATO "brain dead", Emmanuel Macron accused the alliance of lacking a clear political strategy in the multipolar post-Cold War world.

Published in late 2020, a new strategic report "NATO 2030" acknowledged that in the recent past, its military response had been undermined by political hesitancy. In future, it envisaged more flexibility for member nations, for instance by allowing those who wanted to send forces to be able to do so in a "coalition of the willing".

NATO's tensions with France continued, however. In May last year it was reported that Paris was resisting a joint funding plan, a response to US accusations that European allies were not contributing enough.

Recently NATO has lauded France's engagement and its taking charge this year of the alliance's top readiness force. But the French president has also long promoted the need for a stronger European defence capability and has revived calls for a European army.

Outlining France's priorities for its six-month tenure of the EU presidency in December, Macron promoted a vision for the EU's "strategic autonomy", including "a stronger and more capable European defence" that contributes to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.

France is reportedly prioritising such goals over and above a renewed NATO-EU cooperation declaration, currently being drafted.

Peter Wahl of the alter-globalisation organisation Attac, argues that European aspirations for enhanced military autonomy are unrealistic and an example of "Brussels' wishful thinking".

The reality, he writes for the American left-wing review Jacobin, is that "NATO, in which Washington — actually a geopolitical competitor — calls the shots, imposes strict limits on genuine autonomy", adding that the EU's Lisbon Treaty states that member states’ security and defence policy must be “consistent” with that of NATO.

Is Russia winning?

In the run-up to January's flurry of talks with the US and NATO on Ukraine's security, Moscow pointedly sidelined the EU — despite the protestations of the bloc's top diplomat.

But several commentators say the reality is that when it comes to Russia, the EU and its member states speak with multiple voices.

Peter Wahl points out that NATO's European members often have contrasting interests and allegiances: "There is no end in sight to the complex crisscross of competition for defence profits, national security interests, and supranational integration attempts."

Whereas the likes of France, Germany and Italy have promoted dialogue with Moscow, the stance of countries to the east such as Poland and the Baltic states is distinctly more hawkish. Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine recently called for stronger sanctions against Russia.

Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe says the reaction of both Europe and the US to Russia's demands has been one of "confusion that played into Putin’s hands". Ahead of January's talks, "the transatlantic alliance is at its weakest. It has broken its own red lines," she added.

Geoffrey Van Orden of the Gold Institute for International Strategy says the need for Western unity is urgent, and "Ukraine needs tangible support".

"Russia thinks, after the Afghanistan debacle, that the West is on the back foot and unwilling to get embroiled in another messy military situation. Deterrence will not work unless the West demonstrates its resolve. It must minimise its internal differences and act with unity and solidarity over Ukraine," he wrote for Euronews.

"For the EU, that means downplaying any idea of separateness from the US or UK in pursuit of its ideas of 'strategic autonomy', and strengthening its economic and political support for Ukraine, including for enhanced military capabilities," he added.

"Both NATO and the EU now need to demonstrate a concerted effort in addressing Russia’s dangerous military build-up on Ukraine’s border."

This article originally published on January 10 has been updated.

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