How the Kremlin is likely to push back against NATO’s eastern flank deployments

In my previous post, I argued that a major offensive by Russian-separatist forces in the Donbas is unlikely because it would further undermine Russia’s geopolitical position and make Russia’s NATO problem worse. I also argued that the window for a successful Russian hybrid war on, or outright invasion of, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania has closed now that non-indigenous NATO troops, including American troops, are on the ground in those three countries.

Nonetheless, I believe Kremlin decision-makers when they tell us that they consider NATO’s eastern flank deployments, and NATO’s growing military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland, are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. (What matters here is not whether those beliefs are warranted, or what Russia did to provoke NATO’s deployments, but what Kremlin decision-makers believe.) I am likewise convinced that the Kremlin believes that its deteriorating security environment is the result of Western, particularly American, actions that are directed at establishing hegemony over Eurasia and at weakening, humiliating, and even destroying Russia.

Finally, it is not just the Russian elite that believes this. The Russian public does as well, which suggests that a change in leadership – which is in any case unlikely – would probably not produce much change in Russia’s strategic culture.

If so, it stands to reason that the Kremlin is going to respond to NATO’s moves, even if that response is not a major offensive in eastern Ukraine or an attack on the Baltic states. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A strategic response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis

Much the most worrisome aspect of the current crisis in Russia’s relations with the West is the unstable and dangerous security situation. Accordingly, I believe Washington and its allies should prioritize the military dimension in responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Donbas war. The primary goal should be to reduce the risk of war while living up to NATO’s Article 5 commitments to its eastern member-states.

The second most important strategic goal should be to assist countries on Russia’s periphery in preserving their sovereignty without precipitating a military response by Moscow.

Finally, and importantly, the West should begin positioning itself to enter into negotiations with Moscow over a new security arrangement for Europe, including conventional and nuclear force postures, that minimizes the risks of new proxy wars on Russia’s periphery and a direct military conflict between NATO and Russia. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is still very dangerous (long version)

[Following is an expanded and updated version of a talk I gave at the 39th Annual Berkeley-Stanford Conference on March 6, 2015. The conference title was “The Collapse after a Quarter Century: What Have We Learned About Communism and Democracy?”]

The title of the talk I was going to give today was “Mishandling Russia.” However, last week a recent Berkeley political science Ph.D., Andrei Krikovic, now an assistant professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave what I thought was an excellent talk entitled “The Ukraine Crisis and the New Cold War: The View From Moscow,” in which he made many of the points I was going to make. We also have a talk scheduled for Monday by Masha Lipman, one of Moscow’s most prominent political analysts, entitled “From a Model of Development to Evil Incarnate: How Russia Has Come to Loathe the West.” So rather than repeating their arguments, I thought I would address one answer to the question in the conference title as follows: One thing that we know for sure 25 years later is that Russia’s relations with the West are in crisis. And I don’t see a clear path forward for resolving that crisis in the foreseeable future.

I’m going to focus on the security dimension of the current drama, which I think is the heart of the matter and the reason why it is so dangerous. Continue reading

Ukraine’s hostage crisis

My impression is that the ceasefire called for in last week’s Minsk II agreement is being implemented along most of the line of contact. The principle exception is in the Debaltseve pocket, although there has also been some artillery/rocket exchanges in the south, in and around Donetsk/Horlivka, and near Luhansk. But with the possible exception of a Russian/separatist push to reverse the gains made by Ukraine’s Azov battalion last week in the south, I doubt that either side is pressing, for the immediate future, to make significant territorial gains. Continue reading

The Ukraine crisis in 2015

The Ukraine crisis is a complex drama with multiple dimensions, theaters and actors, which makes tracking, explaining, and predicting where it is headed particularly difficult. Its various parts are, however, interrelated, so while each dimension is important in its own right, it also impacts, and is impacted by, the others.

In what follows, I disaggregate the crisis to five dimensions and offer my take on what is likely to happen in each in 2015. In doing so, I will try to take into account the crisis’ “systemic” properties – that is, how the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Continue reading

Original Sin: The Clinton’s administration’s commitment to NATO enlargement

I’ve been working on a paper on NATO enlargement that is supposed to appear in February, and when it does I’ll post a link to it. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize a few broad points about the policy.

First, while there has been a good deal of discussion recently about what Western officials “promised” Gorbachev about NATO during negotiations over German reunification, the key decisions about enlargement were made after the Soviet dissolution by the Clinton administration, not the George H.W. Bush administration. What is true is that a commitment to preserve NATO as the foundation of Western security was made under Bush I, and as far as I know that commitment was supported by all NATO member-states at the time (see the 1990 London NATO Summit Declaration). The decision to enlarge NATO to take in new members other than a united Germany was made gradually, and without a lot of fanfare, by the Clinton administration over the course of 1993 and 1994. Continue reading