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Commentary: Russia Versus NATO In The CIS

By Stephen Blank NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (left) meets with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2007 (file photo) (epa) After the April NATO-Russia summit in Bucharest, Russia's government promised to fight NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine in every possible way. Yet the issue at hand was not membership, but rather issuing Kyiv and Tbilisi Membership Action Plans (MAPs) whose implementation NATO would review before deciding about membership.

Russia's storm of threats and attacks against Ukraine, Georgia, and NATO prompted Germany to block the granting of these MAPs. But Moscow's hysteria (no other word fits) led NATO to declare that Ukraine and Georgia will be members and gave the meeting of foreign ministers scheduled for December the power to decide about the MAPs.

At the NATO-Russia Council, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush: "But George, don't you understand that Ukraine is not a state." Putin further claimed that most of its territory was a Russian gift in the 1950s. Moreover, Putin said, while western Ukraine belongs to Eastern Europe, eastern Ukraine is "ours." Then he said that if Ukraine does enter NATO, Russia would detach eastern Ukraine (and the Crimean Peninsula) and graft them onto Russia. Thus Ukraine would cease to exist as a state.

Putin also said Russia regards NATO's eastward enlargement as a threat. Therefore, if Georgia receives membership, Moscow will "take adequate measures" and recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia to create a buffer between NATO and Russia. Putin has subsequently lifted earlier sanctions on these provinces and has given them consular status -- a formal legal status preparatory to declaring their independence -- and humanitarian assistance, possibly preparatory to incorporating them.

As Russia reinforces its forces in these provinces, its spokesmen charge that Georgia is planning a war and that Russia will use force to defend "its citizens." Thus Moscow's forces recently downed a Georgian drone over Abkhazia. Clearly Moscow is conducting what Tbilisi calls a creeping annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abuse And Intimidation

Putin's outburst and subsequent policies reflect Russia's abiding belief that neither Ukraine, nor Georgia, nor any other post-Soviet state, is truly sovereign. Therefore they are all fit targets for systematic Russian abuse and intimidation that aims to undo the settlement of 1989-91. Moscow's ambassadors and foreign policy professionals routinely offer abundant evidence of Moscow's belief in these states' diminished sovereignty, saying as much in Tallinn, Riga, Kyiv, Baku, Tbilisi, Bishkek, Moldova, Sofia, and Budapest or in interviews in Moscow. Although Moscow regards NATO enlargement as a major threat, Russia's policies starkly reveal why enlargement is necessary for European security.

Moscow still thinks it can or should be able to boss these states around or use them as a Trojan horse to enter Europe and undermine its institutions. Russia's ambassador to the EU, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov, once declared that, "Bulgaria is in a good position to become our special partner, a kind of Trojan horse in the EU." Today, many analysts and diplomats argue that Germany plays such a role in the EU and NATO. Past performance also suggests that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's new government might follow suit. Meanwhile, as one Ukrainian official told me in 2006, Russia is waging a Cold War.

None of it is surprising. Russian spokesmen regularly argue that Russia counts for more than these small states, that its interests trump their interests, and that their sovereignty and independence are shams. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's February 2007 statement that Russia will not permit Georgia to join NATO was an assertion that he does not regard Georgia as a fully independent or sovereign state.

'Some Sort Of Province'

Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow Institute of Political Studies, told a Georgian interviewer in 2006 that "Georgia has not yet earned our respect for its sovereignty because it has proven unable to achieve an agreement with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian ethnic minorities." Similarly, Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said that "Russia wants Georgia to be independent, sovereign, and neutral." Since Georgia's political class unanimously wants entry to NATO and the EU, Kovalenko is demanding that Georgia renounce its independence and democracy and leave itself vulnerable to Russia. Russian diplomats at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in 2005 referred to Georgia as "some sort of province."

With that derogation of former republics' sovereignty goes the formulation and implementation of policies designed to undermine it in fact. Self-determination then becomes a principle to destroy sovereignty. For example, on August 6, 2007, a Russian aircraft dropped a large surface-to-air missile that failed to detonate near an upgraded Georgian radar station at Tsitelubani. A Western assessment of this incident based on international investigations concluded that this incursion into Georgian air space was directed against both Georgia and NATO (to probe NATO's response). The authors noted that this event echoed similar Russian air-space incursions into the Baltic states just before they joined NATO and represented a similar effort to intimidate the target countries.

"While a Russian air attack is no doubt more likely than an assault by land," the assessment concludes, "Georgia must be prepared for more, greater, and different forms of intimidation. These include, but are not limited to, Special Forces actions in the conflict zones, environmental attacks, quest for economic control of strategic assets, or cyber warfare."

Cyprus Solution

Arguably the resemblance between what Estonia and the Baltic states have experienced and this list of potential threats is not accidental. After all, on November 12, 2007, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that at the CIS summit in Minsk in 2006 Putin had threatened to impose a "Cyprus model" on Georgia by recognizing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Lavrov categorically denied this and it is not clear why Saakashvili was silent for a year, a "Cyprus solution" fits the pattern of recent Russian policies.

While Putin's latest moves fell short of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia; they signaled that Moscow has repudiated these territories' status as being under Georgian sovereignty (though that was breached when Moscow gave residents there Russian passports) and does not expect them to return to Georgia.

"This creates a situation where Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s further evolution would rely solely on their ties with Russia, drawing them into the Russian economic and legal space which would make reunification with Georgia an untenable proposition," Russian analyst Vladimir Frolov has said. "Moscow is signaling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that their independence, or incorporation into Russia, is all but inevitable in the future, while today Russia is prepared to treat them like it does Taiwan -- everything but a formal recognition of independence."

Thus Russia says that if Georgia joins NATO, its territories will be truncated, but if it remains "neutral" -- i.e. sacrifices its sovereignty and democracy -- it might regain its provinces. Alternatively, Moscow seeks to provoke Tbilisi into actions that would then furnish a pretext for discrediting it as a potential NATO member. Such neo-imperial policies violate the 1975 Helsinki Treaty, the cornerstone of European security, as well as Russo-Georgian agreements on peacekeeping in those provinces. But they represent long-standing Russian approaches.

In late 2006, Putin offered Ukraine unsolicited security guarantees in return for an agreement to permanently base Russia's Black Sea Fleet on its territory, a superfluous but ominous gesture since Russia had already guaranteed Ukraine's security through the 1992 Tashkent Treaty and the 1994 Tripartite Agreement with Ukraine and the United States to denuclearize Ukraine. Putin's offer also coincided with his typically "dialectical" approach to Ukraine' sovereignty in Crimea.

"Crimea forms part of the Ukrainian side and we cannot interfere in another country's internal affairs," Putin said in the fall of 2006. "At the same time, however, Russia cannot be indifferent to what happens in Ukraine and Crimea."

Uprising In Crimea

Putin thus hinted that Ukrainian resistance to Russian limits on its freedom of action might be met with a Russian backed "Kosovo-like" scenario -- a nationalist uprising in Crimea to which Russia could not remain indifferent. Obviously, Moscow has the political and covert means to create in Crimea the very type of situations against which Putin offered to "protect" Ukraine if the Russian fleet's basing rights are institutionalized. Such means have included inflammatory visits and speeches by Russian Duma deputies to Crimea, challenges to Ukraine's control of Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait, and the fanning of "anti-NATO" -- in fact anti-American -- protests by ethnic-Russian groups in connection with military exercises and artificial Russian-Tatar tensions on the peninsula.

Russia is also augmenting its capabilities for such covert subversion by instituting a substantial program whereby it gives soldiers and officers in the Transdniester "army," which occupies part of Moldova, Russian military-service passports and rotating them through elite Russian officer training courses called Vystrel at the combined-arms training center in Solnechegorsk.

"You do not try to cover up a training program of this size unless you are someday planning on using these people to overthrow or otherwise take control of a sovereign government," an intelligence officer from a post-Soviet country recently told U.S. analyst Reuben Johnson in 2006. "The facility at Solnechegorsk is used by Russia to train numerous non-Russian military personnel openly and legally for peacekeeping and other joint operations. If then, in parallel, you are training officers from these disputed regions -- officers that are pretending to be Russian personnel and carrying bogus paperwork -- then it does not take an enormous leap of faith to assume that Moscow is up to no good on this one."

Campaigning against Ukraine's drive toward NATO, Russia has threatened to target it with missiles, shut down defense-industry cooperation, revised its relationship with Kyiv, instituted economic boycotts, and, of course, taken punitive measures against Ukrainian energy supplies. Similarly, Moscow has launched overflights and bombing raids, instituted repeated energy cutoffs and trade sanctions, given Abkhazia and South Ossetia residents Russian passports, launched blockades against Georgia, deported Georgians from Russia, and dropped bombs on Georgian villages.

No New Russian Empire

Clearly Moscow will intensify the pressure upon these states to provoke them to undertake rash policies, using every instrument at its disposal -- from exploiting their energy dependence to restricting their freedom of action in defense and foreign policies. In 2007-08, Moscow has sought to intimidate the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia to subordinate their foreign policies to Moscow's dictates. Central Asian countries have been pressured to sell their gas to Russia rather than directly to Western markets. Similar tactics have been seen in Eastern Europe as well.

Is not defense against such threats the purpose for which NATO was created? Neither the United States nor Europe can stand aloof and let Moscow restore the Russian empire and again threaten European security. Russian empire and European security are contradictions in terms. If the West wants to integrate a democratic Russia, restore Russia's European vocation, and ensure Russia's real security and stability, it must preclude the restoration of a new Russian empire.

The restoration of autocracy and empire necessarily entails insecurity and instability for great swathes of Europe and Asia. Ultimately, as analysts John Roper and Peter Van Ham have written, "The main reason why the West cannot remain complacent about Russia's actions is the fact that Russia's 'near abroad' is, in many cases, also democratic Europe's near abroad."

Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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