Thursday, December 1, 2022

Tactical cunning, strategic disaster?

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By Maarten Katsman, Editor Atlantisch Perspectief (journal of the Netherlands Atlantic Association)

After Russia annexed Crimea, several parts of Ukraine remain disputed by separatist groups, who are probably actively supported by Russia. Some observers argue Russia has a valid reason to act in Ukraine specifically, or the wider Eastern European region in general. They say NATO ‘surrounded’ Russia militarily with its enlargement after the Cold War ended.[i] Following this argument, future Ukrainian and Georgian membership of the alliance would severely enhance this Russian sense of insecurity. Moscow made it clear it would not tolerate deeper bonds between the West and countries in Russia’s (former?) sphere of influence. Hence the war against Georgia in 2008 and the recent seizure of Crimea and other violent actions in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may ‘feel’ surrounded or even threatened by NATO (NATO enlargement is the ‘main external military danger’ in Russia’s official defence doctrine), it does not mean Moscow has permission to infringe upon the rights of sovereign states. Regarding President Putin, who never fails to display his macho image, be it bare-chested on horseback or hunting dangerous animals, it certainly seems strange he acts aggressively based on some ‘feelings’ of insecurity.

Let’s be clear: NATO is a political-military alliance of like-minded sovereign states, that share values and interests and base their decisions on consensus. The allies are willing to consult each other about security issues, and to help or defend each other if necessary. New member states can join, when they meet certain criteria, by their own choice and of course when the existing members agree. Historically, Russia has legitimate concerns about its security interests along its borders (although it is certainly not ‘surrounded’ by NATO: Russia shares only a tiny portion of its borders with NATO members). In the end, however, NATO enlargement was and is based on agreements between a sovereign state and an alliance of sovereign states. Third parties have to accept and respect such decisions.

It is a pity the events in Ukraine forced NATO, the EU, and Russia back to ‘old’ methods of power politics. Maybe the West naively thought this type of conduct in international relations was over. Putin might be better at this kind of game than Western leaders and he probably achieves some tactical wins. In the long run, however, his reactionary actions will hurt Russia. As Tomas Ries (Swedish National Defence College) stated at a recent seminar of the Netherlands Atlantic Association and the Clingendael Institute: “Putin has tactical cunning, but he is a strategic disaster”. Both the West and Russia would benefit from a constructive partnership that addresses the real, common problems both sides have to face, rather than being distracted by outdated and old-fashioned rivalry.

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