Why the West should be pushing for a buffer zone between Russia and NATO

In my view, Western decision makers should be thinking hard about an endgame to the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. What is a realistic, least-worst outcome in, say, five years? Where will NATO’s and the EU’s eastern borders be? Where will NATO’s and Russia’s military assets be deployed? Will there be any arms control agreements still in effect that limit force dispositions and reduce the risks of war? What kind of constraints on economic relations will there be?

In considering the big picture, it strikes me that there are three realistic possibilities: (1) a return to “normalcy,” in the sense that Russia and the West are again cooperating and can reasonably be considered “partners”: (2) an unstable hostile relationship in which the dividing line between Russia and “the West” is contested, rules of engagement are uncertain, arms control measures have little effect on force dispositions and fail to enhance military stability, and where there is a significant and constant risk of war – so essentially more of what we have today; and (3) a stable hostile relationship where the dividing line between Russia and the West and rules of engagement are reasonably clear and accepted, where arms control measures enhance strategic and regional stability, where Russia has little incentive to attack its neighbors, and where the risks of a conflict between Russia and NATO are very low – so more or less where we were with the Soviet Union during the second half of the Cold War.

These three possibilities are not exhaustive, but all others (e.g., Russia joining Europe and becoming part of the Western institutional order) strike as either very or extremely unlikely. They should probably also be treated as ideal types – that is, we are likely to get some combination of the three. For example, we might well see a measured return to normalcy in some aspects of the economic relationship along with some progress on rules of engagement, confidence-building measures, and force disposition agreements. Nonetheless, any outcome is going to fall broadly into one of these three categories.

My view is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its role in the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine, and the political atmosphere in Russia in general makes Option 1 very unlikely. That is, I doubt that we are going to see a return to normalcy over the next five years, either as a result of regime change or some kind of dramatic shift in policy in Moscow, or because the West ends up accepting the annexation of Crimea and Russian hegemony in its “near abroad.” To put a number on it, I would say the probability of Outcome 1 is maybe 10%.

Outcome 2 strikes me as very undesirable for all parties, including Russia and its immediate neighbors, not only because of the ongoing risk of war but also because an ongoing zero-sum geopolitical struggle is going to hurt all parties economically and politically. Unfortunately, I think its probability is pretty high – maybe 55%.

That puts the probability of Outcome 3 – a stable adversarial relationship – at around 35%. Outcome 3 is, however, not nearly as bad as Outcome 2, so given that it is reasonably possible, it’s the one that prudent policy makers in the West (and I would add in Russia) should be pressing for.

What, then, might the specifics of Outcome 3 look like? And specifically, just where will the dividing line between Russia and Europe be, and how could the relationship be made reasonably stable?

Readers of this blog will know that I have been advocating a security arrangement entailing a buffer zone between Russia and NATO consisting, ideally, of Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The basic arrangement would be straightforward: no security alliances, bilateral or multilateral, that include mutual defense commitments for the buffer zone states, and no foreign troops, rotational or otherwise, on their territories. Each “neutral” state would be free to receive outside military assistance from other countries and alliances, but joint training would have to take place outside the buffer zone. Each would also be free to make non-security arrangements with other states or multilateral organizations (e.g., the European Union or Eurasian Union) as it saw fit.

The arrangement would be contingent upon a genuine ceasefire and a separation of forces in eastern Ukraine, along with an international peacekeeping force in a demilitarized zone, one that will probably require some kind of a Russian contingent to get a separatist buy-in (so a frozen conflict on something like the Transnistria model but perhaps with an EU contribution to the peacekeeping force). Kyiv’s insistence on elections and other laws in the separatist zone complying with Ukrainian laws, and its desire to exercise some degree of control over the border between the separatist zone, would be dropped, as would Russian/separatists’ demands for any institutional arrangements in Ukraine proper.

One model, among others, would be to institutionalize a buffer zone through a treaty among six states – Russia, the United States, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In practice, however, the arrangement would require agreement between two states only – the United States and Russia. If both agreed not to remain part of any alliance (NATO or the CSTO) that included any of the four neutral countries or that placed troops in those countries, that would be sufficient to make it happen.

There are variations on the overall design of the arrangement. For example, Belarus might be allowed to remain part of the CSTO, just as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain part of NATO, but with limitations on the size and capabilities of Russian forces in Belarus and non-indigenous NATO forces in Estonia and Latvia. So some Russian forces would be allowed in Belarus (there are very few now) and some non-indigenous NATO troops would be allowed in the Baltic states. But not many. Moldova might also be included as a neutral state, or Azerbaijan left out of the arrangement entirely given its location.

I am of course aware that there are major political obstacles to any such arrangement, particularly in the short term. It would be difficult for the Kremlin to sell the arrangement to the Russian public generally and to security hawks in particular given the mood in Russia today. It would be ever more difficult for the Obama administration to do so, given that it is already hard pressed on the Iran nuclear deal and the transpacific and transatlantic trade agreements. Nor does it help that a U.S. presidential election is already underway, or that whoever replaces Obama is likely to be considerably less willing to compromise with Moscow on security matters, at least initially.

Perhaps most importantly, many Georgians and especially Ukrainians would feel that formally closing the door to NATO membership and coming to an agreement with Moscow on security matters would be a disgraceful betrayal of their interests and their liberal-democratic aspirations.

The problem, however, is that the likely alternative is worse for all parties, and particularly for the border countries themselves: acute political tensions, economic disruptions, and military instability, with a real risk of war between NATO and Russia, along Russia’s very long western borders and the Caucasus for the indefinite future.

To put the point differently, I don’t see how hawks in the West, or in Ukraine or Georgia particularly, have good answers to the following questions:

  • Is NATO collectively, or the United States individually, prepared to spend the money, and take on the risks, entailed in establishing a credible military deterrent all along Russia’s western and Caucasus borders, including Finland but above all in the Baltic states? (I should note that a senior NATO military official just publicly stated that Russia could occupy the Baltic states in two days if it chose to – I think that is a considerable exaggeration, but it certainly highlights the problem.)
  • Were it to come to a military conflict with Russia, would NATO necessarily prevail given that Russia would be fighting near its borders, has a very large and now formidable military apparatus, and above all has thousands of tactical and strategic weapons at its disposal, which I suspect it would use if push came to shove.
  • If and when large and unannounced Russian military exercises take place near the border with Estonia and Latvia, how large and menacing should those exercises be before NATO orders the deployment of its rapid reaction forces to the Baltic states? Will political decision-makers do so if they fear that it might precipitate a preemptive strike by Russia and given NATO’s consensual decision making rules? (NATO’s website states the following with respect to a deployment order: “Any decision to use the NRF is a consensual political decision, taken on a case-by-case basis by all 28 Allies in the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body.”)
  • How will the West respond, for example, if Russian forces from Kaliningrad suddenly occupy Gotland, other Baltic islands, and/or parts of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Kremlin then announces that it will use nuclear weapons before allowing Russian forces to be dislodged from those areas?
  • Are Western hawks confident that the Kremlin will not succeed, sooner or later if the current unstable hostile relationship persists, in sowing more divisions within an already stressed Europe, in contributing to an unraveling of the European project, or in dividing the Western alliance over matters like military assistance to Ukraine, responses to Russia’s military provocations and acts of brinkmanship, or military spending and NATO’s buildup of forces on its eastern borders?
  • Is it reasonable to expect “regime change” in Moscow, or even a significant change in policy toward the West in the foreseeable future? Are Russian decision makers likely to become more sanguine about NATO expansion or NATO’s growing hard power near Russia’s borders? (I should make clear I think reinforcing NATO’s eastern defenses is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.) Is it not safer to assume that we are in for a long period of adversarial relations with Russia? If so, should we not seek to minimize the risks of war during that period?
  • Finally, is it reasonable to expect Georgia and Ukraine to stabilize politically, prosper economically, or become “European” if they share borders with a very large, powerful, and angry neighbor that is determined to make life miserable for them for the indefinite future?

I don’t believe Western hawks have good answers to those questions. I am even more confident that Russian hawks don’t have good answers to similar questions for Russia. Russia’s economy was slowing down even before the Ukraine crisis, and a Russian “pivot” to China is going to be extremely costly and not without its own geopolitical risks, as many Russian specialists are aware. Most importantly, how does a country with a GDP of roughly 1/20th of the West’s come out ahead in a long geopolitical struggle with the EU and United States, let alone if it finds itself in a direct military conflict with NATO?

In short, a prolonged period of military instability along a long and contested border, with Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan variably “in play,” and with the world’s leading nuclear powers engaged in periodic acts of brinkmanship, is objectively not in any party’s interest. So it would be wise to try to avoid it. And I don’t see that happening unless there is some kind of agreement with Moscow on a buffer zone and conventional and theater force dispositions.

That said, let me make seven important points about the implications of an institutionalized buffer zone between NATO and Russia.

  1. Neutrality does not mean disarmament

Under international law, neutral countries have certain rights and duties with regard to belligerents, but they are under no obligation to disarm. This is as true for “permanently neutral states,” like Switzerland, as it is for non-permanent ones (that is, states that declare neutrality in a particular war). So again, neutrality does entail military restraints on the country’s ability to develop its own defense capabilities. With respect to what I’m proposing, Ukrainian and Georgian troops could continue to train jointly with NATO troops abroad, contribute to peacekeeping missions, and receive military assistance, and purchase weapons including lethal weapons, from Western or other governments. Belarusian troops and officers, if Belarus were to be included in the arrangement, could do the same in Russia or elsewhere.

While there would not have to be restrictions on arms procurements or deployments by the neutral countries, they might be parties to multilateral arms control agreements (e.g., a new CFE treaty), or they might even enter into bilateral arms control agreements, eventually, with Russia (e.g., on air defense systems or short-range ballistic or cruise missiles near the border).

  1. Neutrality can enhance security for neutral countries

National security has both a supply and demand dimension to it. That is, security can come from unilateral defense measures and foreign alliances (the supply side) or by not posing a threat to other states or otherwise inviting attack (the demand side). Consider Costa Rica, which has not had armed forces since 1948, or Switzerland, which has not been attacked since it was recognized as neutral at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The same has been true, more or less, of Lichtenstein since 1868, and Austria, Sweden, and Finland were all neutral during the Cold War and remain so (more or less – see below) today.

The obvious point is that the demand side of security is particularly important – albeit not sufficient – for small countries bordering on large and powerful ones. Given the nature of their current relations with Russia, the goal for Ukraine and Georgia should be to enhance their defense capabilities in a way that does not pose an objective threat to Russia while otherwise reducing Russia’s incentives to attack them, such that the costs of attacking exceed any likely gains. So both sides of the security equation are going to have to be enhanced for either country to be secure and to have the freedom of action they need to develop internally.

  1. Neutrality and economic prosperity

Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Lichtenstein are all extremely wealthy countries. What is not conducive to economic prosperity is war. ‘Nuff said.

  1. Neutrality would not preclude Ukraine and Georgia from joining the European Union

This is a rather more tricky than it appears at first blush, however, because the EU’s Lisbon Treaty includes a mutual defense clause as part of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy.

Were aspirant countries to agree, however, I suspect some kind of opt-out from the CSDP could be arranged for accession countries. Moreover, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden are all members of the European Union in good standing but have not formally renounced their “neutrality.” In any case, Moscow is far more concerned about bordering states joining NATO or having American troops on their territory, so I suspect something could be worked out eventually that Moscow could live with with respect to EU membership.

I should also note that becoming “European” and joining the European Union are not the same thing. Neither Switzerland nor Norway is an EU member, but each is as European as it gets, not to speak of extremely prosperous. Whether Georgia and Ukraine become “European” is going to be driven primarily by domestic institutions and internal practices and beliefs, not by E.U. membership. (This is not to deny that the goal of membership has been and continues to be very helpful tool for becoming ““European” – rather the point is that membership is not a necessary condition.)

  1. Ukraine and Georgia are not going to be invited to join NATO in any case

Controlling external borders is an informal condition for NATO accession, as is enhancing the overall security of the alliance. Neither criterion would be met by Ukraine or Georgia. Joining NATO would put each country in a position to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which would in effect mean that the member-states of NATO would immediately be at war with Russia. That is not going to happen. Moreover, accession requires ratification by all the alliance’s member-states. What is the likelihood that the French, German, or even the British governments, let alone the Greeks or Hungarians, would agree to bring Ukraine into the alliance if doing so risked war with Russia?

In my view, we currently have the worst of all world with respect to NATO enlargement: NATO officials repeatedly asserting that membership for Georgia and Ukraine is on the table; almost no Western governments actually prepared to press for membership; Russia convinced that NATO will relentlessly expand if Moscow does not make dramatic and dangerous steps to stop it; and almost no chance that either country is ever going to benefit from the deterrence effect of accession.

  1. Reaching a security agreement with Moscow does not mean recognition of the annexation of Crimea or independence for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, the DPR, or the LPR.

Entering into a security agreement with Moscow does not mean accepting the legitimacy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or intervention in eastern Ukraine, any more than signing the Helsinki Final Act meant that the United States or its allies recognized the legitimacy of the incorporation of the Baltic republics into the USSR or Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. (Were Ukraine and Russia ever to come to an agreement whereby Kyiv agreed to some kind of compensation for the annexation, Western countries would and should endorse whatever Kyiv agrees to, but not until then.) Nor would it mean denying that Putin’s regime is deeply illiberal and that Russia is, at least for now, an adversary of the West, and a powerful one at that. On the contrary, it takes that for granted.

  1. NATO is under no obligation to take in aspirant countries that do not enhance the Alliance’s collective security

The Atlantic community’s stance is that every country has a right to determine its own external orientation and enter into military alliances as it sees fit. That may be reasonable, but it does not mean that every state or alliance system has an obligation to form an alliance with other states, democratic or otherwise. To put it bluntly, Ukraine and Georgia have every right to seek to join NATO, but NATO has every right to refuse their applications. Indeed, as noted above, NATO accession requires approval by all existing member-states – in the U.S. case, that means approval by at least two-thirds of the Senate, as with any treaty. The obvious implication is that the Senate has every right to deny an application if it sees fit.

Likewise, it misses the point to assert that no third party (read Russia) has a right to keep other states from joining the Alliance. That too may sound principled, but NATO members are fully entitled to take into consideration not only their own national interests, the interests of the Alliance as a whole, and the interests of aspirant countries in making accession decisions, they also have every right to consider the interests of other affected parties – notably Russia. Indeed in my view they have an obligation to be pragmatic about the geopolitical consequences of accession decisions. That was true when Western powers agreed to neutrality for Austria as a condition for withdrawing Soviet troops from the country under the terms of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, and it is true today with respect to NATO accession for Ukraine and Georgia.