Argument

Obama Poked Putin. And Putin Poked Back.

Washington’s decision to beef up NATO in Eastern Europe will compel Moscow to reciprocate with an equally aggressive response.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL,11: (RUSSIA OUT)  Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with German businessmen at the Kremlin April 11, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Putin has received heads of companies from Germany who invested in Russian economy. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL,11: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with German businessmen at the Kremlin April 11, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Putin has received heads of companies from Germany who invested in Russian economy. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

In February, as the Syrian civil war raged on and the Islamic State entrenched itself in Libya, the White House announced plans to quadruple the defense budget’s 2017 allocation for — of all places — Europe, from $789 million to $3.4 billion. On March 30, the U.S. Defense Department fleshed out these plans. They include dispatching troops and materiel, like combat vehicles and heavy weaponry, to Romania, Hungary, and the Baltic states so that a NATO combat brigade will remain at the ready. The troops will be rotated in and out of the region, ostensibly avoiding any violation of the letter (if not the spirit) of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which sought to allay Russian fears stemming from the alliance’s expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries.

This was a delicate time for such an announcement: the 2015 Minsk accord, which could settle the separatist conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region, has turned into a deal that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cannot live up to. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, hit hard by economic sanctions, had been indicating a desire to “reset” its relations with the West (if on its own, more equitable, terms) and had used its intervention in Syria to restore its battered status as a major power on the world stage.

Back in Washington, a senior White House official explained that the defense spending and deployments were not motivated by “something that happened last Tuesday.” They were, instead, part of “a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe,” reflecting a “new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.” It also aligns with the Pentagon’s designation of Russia as the top threat to U.S. security.

In response to the NATO deployments, Russia announced that it would take “all necessary measures to defend [its] security.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg then accused Moscow of brandishing its nuclear arsenal to bully its neighbors and destabilize “the European security order.” Speaking at a recent security conference in Munich, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev followed up by asking NATO to cooperate with Russia, rather than enter a “new Cold War,” adding that nearly “every day they call Russia the main threat for NATO, Europe, the U.S. and other countries. It makes me wonder if we are in 2016 or in 1962.”

This is not an absurd proposition. It’s time to consider adopting a different perspective on the newly perilous situation that Russia and NATO find themselves in.

NATO already has forces positioned in its Baltic member states, and U.S. President Barack Obama has visited the region, reaffirming the alliance’s support. Today, Russian and American nuclear arsenals alike stand on hair-trigger alert — which, given the breakdown in relations between Moscow and Washington, makes for an especially dangerous situation. It’s worth noting that Russia’s military doctrine foresees using nukes if a conventional attack poses a grave threat to its existence. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has, accordingly, set its doomsday clock at three minutes to midnight. Just as it was during the worst days of the Cold War.

The risk of armed conflict between Russia and NATO has not been merely a matter of conjecture: Since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia has repeatedly violated NATO airspace; flown reconnaissance missions over Europe — using aircraft with their transponders turned off, thereby risking midair collisions; buzzed U.S. warships off its Black Sea coast; simulated nuclear strikes on Eastern European targets and even Sweden; and held a large-scale military drill to practice the invasion of Scandinavia, in addition to other huge exercises. This is only a partial list of bellicose operations, apparently conducted with one message in mind for NATO: Russia is back.

But in assessing Russia’s actions, a great deal depends on whether you think the Kremlin and its other post-Euromaidan maneuverings — annexing Crimea and supporting rebels in the Donbass, in particular — and an expensive defense buildup (reduced, of late, for economic reasons) have been proactive or reactive. Former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger has summed up the case for the latter view: “It is not conceivable that Putin spent 60 billion euros on turning a summer resort into a winter Olympic village [for the 2014 games, held in Sochi] in order to start a military crisis the week after a concluding ceremony that depicted Russia as a part of Western civilization.”

The logical conclusion: Putin is reacting, as evinced first by the occupation of Crimea, which began on Feb. 27, 2014, to the fall and departure of his ally, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which occurred five days before the invasion. Even as Putin had hoped for constructive relations with the West, he could not be expected to sit by and watch Ukraine slip out of Russia’s orbit, with the possibility, as he himself stated, that Russia’s strategically vital Black Sea port (which it had leased from Ukraine since 1997) would end up in NATO hands.

Today’s tensions trace back much further than the dispute over the events during Ukraine’s Euromaidan, of course. But the origin of the confrontation lies as much — or more — with the West as it does with Moscow. To Russians, U.S. foreign policy since the 1990s can only appear as a decades-long bid for global hegemony, manifested most clearly in the relentless eastward expansion of NATO. More than 20 years ago, George Kennan, the architect of America’s containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, warned that introducing NATO into onetime Warsaw Pact countries (to say nothing of former Soviet republics like the Baltic states) would provoke “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.”

That view seems to have been vindicated by Putin’s reaction to Kiev’s political pivot to the West, which culminated in the country’s Euromaidan revolution. Ukraine is not joining anytime soon, of course, but NATO has pledged that one day it will be a member. (And the alliance is growing elsewhere in Eastern Europe.)

There is good reason to believe that the Ukrainian crisis can still be resolved, along the lines previously suggested by both Kissinger and fellow former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, by striking a deal with Russia: no NATO membership for Ukraine in return for Russia’s allowing the country to go its own way in other, nonmilitary spheres (which could include EU membership). Such an arrangement would be ratified at a summit between the United States and Russia. A highly visible public ceremony would be necessary to conclude the deal, in order to give both sides a stake in sticking to the terms.

Resolving the Crimean aspect of the conflict will be more difficult. A U.N.-supervised referendum on the peninsula’s status might do the trick, but the territory’s return to Ukraine seems unlikely, given poll results indicating that some 80 percent of Crimeans prefer to remain within Russia. The United States and its allies would have to cede to their wishes — and be prepared to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Moscow nonetheless.

In an ideal world, neither Russia nor any other country would have any influence over what alliances Ukraine joins. But we don’t live in that world. The compromise outlined above would allow us to cooperate more effectively with Moscow to face the serious, persistent, and growing threat from the Syrian civil war and all that goes with it: an upsurge in Islamist terrorism; huge, destabilizing outflows of refugees bound for the United States’ key ally, the European Union; legions of battle-hardened Islamist rebels (including thousands of Europeans) who are returning to Europe and could even, given their passports, find their way to the United States; and the Islamic State itself, which menaces the Middle East, North and West Africa, Afghanistan, and even Indonesia.

As Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Moscow showed, Western and Russian interests converge in ending the Syrian war and stopping the Islamic State. Russia wants to keep the Islamic State militants (which include an ever increasing number, already in the thousands, of its own citizens) from carrying out terrorist acts on its own soil and forestall the further radicalization of its Muslim Caucasus region, where a low-level, partly Islamic State-backed insurgency against Moscow grinds on. Russia’s intervention in Syria, notwithstanding heavy civilian casualties, is succeeding, insofar as it aims to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s government and prevent the Islamic State from taking more terrain. Neither Europe nor Washington wishes to send ground forces into Syria. And no one wants a world war.

So, does now seem like the time for the United States to quadruple defense spending aimed at “containing” Russia, using, no less, funds destined for operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan? The question answers itself.

The Obama administration is setting the stage for endless confrontation, and possibly even war, with Russia, and with no public debate. Presidential candidates from both parties should be asked what their views are on all this and how they plan to handle relations with Russia (aside from refusing to talk to Putin, or even “punching the Russians in the nose,” as Ohio Gov. John Kasich apparently wants to do). The economic sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow have only solidified support for Putin, whose popularity rating remains at more than 80 percent. If it is, in fact, U.S. policy to “break” Russia, it is not working. Yet it is wrecking what little cooperation remains with the country. A new approach to dealing with Moscow is urgently needed. Too much is at stake — for us all.

Photo Credit: Mikhail Svetlov / Contributor

Correction, April 14, 2016: This piece previously suggested that NATO’s presence on Russia’s border has been unprecedented. This is not true, as NATO posted troops in Turkey, on what was then the Soviet border, during the Cold War.

Correction, April 20, 2016: Zbigniew Brzezinski is a former U.S. national security advisor. A previous version of this article mistakenly called him a former secretary of state. 

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