With eye on Brexit, NATO tackles Russia

In all these past six years and nine months since October 9, 2009 when President Barack Obama heard he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have had a more embarrassing moment than on Tuesday when he took the phone call from the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin (L) and Barack Obama

Vladimir Putin (L) and Barack Obama

President Vladimir Putin was calling him, and as it turned out, the Russian leader wanted to discuss the issues of peace-making in regional conflicts affecting three former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine) – and the tortuous path leading to peace in Syria.

Putin was following up on his message of felicitation to Obama on the occasion of the July 4 Independence Day festivities in America where he had poignantly recalled,

  • The history of Russian-American relations shows that when we act as equal partners and respect each other’s lawful interests, we are able to successfully resolve the most complex international issues for the benefit of both countries’ peoples and all of humanity.

Indeed, he was gently making the point that the “post-Soviet space” too can actually be the theater of Russian-American cooperation – a strange proposition at a time when the strident rhetoric in the West is that the Russian army is preparing to march into the Baltic States.

The respective readouts of Tuesday’s phone conversation by the Kremlin and the White House make a telling story. Moscow emphasizes the Russian-American convergence as the guardians of peace, while Washington accentuates the differences, while both agree that efforts must continue to secure peace.

Putin’s phone call put Obama in a fix just as he was preparing to leave for Warsaw for the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from July 8-9.

This was not the moment when Obama can afford to be seen discussing with Putin the nitty-gritty of peace-making – when the NATO has been flashing its swords on Russia’s borders.

The alliance’s summit in Warsaw is focused on “defence and deterrence” with Russia in the cross hairs and Putin’s phone call makes a mockery of months of sustained campaign to somehow get the NATO member countries to fasten on to Russia as the “enemy.”

Why did Putin embarrass Obama? The short answer is, Moscow understands that the two-day summit meeting due to begin in Warsaw on Friday has become a pantomime.

The summit’s hidden plot – the control over European security – is surging. There was some inevitability about it. The US bankrolls three-quarters of the NATO budget – Britain accounts for another 20% – but the Europeans are increasingly seeking conciliation with Russia.

The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently articulated the European sentiment against the NATO’s in-your-face confrontation with Russia:

  • What we should not do is inflame the situation further through sabre-rattling and war mongering …. Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken… We are well-advised to not to create pretexts to renew an old confrontation … (It would be) fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence.

Indeed, the US cannot be oblivious of the ground realities, either:

  • NATO’s perception of being “outnumbered, outranged and outgunned” on its eastern flank does not necessarily mean that Russia is about to overturn the post-Cold War European security order;
  • In terms of conventional Prompt Global Strikes capabilities, nuclear weapons, missile defenses or even cyber weapons, the military balance decisively favors NATO;
  • All evidence shows that Moscow takes the NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee very seriously, and Russia accepts that the Baltic states are members of the western alliance;
  • Russia grapples very many internal challenges – ranging from a weak economy that lies between that of Italy and Spain to an abysmal paucity in the power of innovation and modernization or the capacity to compete successfully in the global markets – and a political order with glaring deficiencies, which would remain its preoccupation for a conceivable future; and,
  • The aggressive Russian foreign policy with a cultivated look of being “unpredictable”, in reality is lacking in “soft power” and has been outmaneuvered on several fronts within Eurasia itself and is more an expression of weakness than strength.

Why then such a barrage of propaganda throughout Europe – much of it orchestrated from the US – of Russia being a revisionist, neo-imperialist, expansionist power? The US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter even made a preposterous claim that Russia tops the list of threats America faces in today’s world.

At its very core, the problem is about the US’ control over European security. When the US bankrolls the NATO’s budget, it is illogical to expect Washington to surrender its domination of the alliance.

On the other hand, the specter that haunts the American politicians, diplomats and generals – and, importantly, the defense contractors – is that the Europeans are increasingly seeking conciliation with Russia in their mutual interests.

Of course, it needed Herculean efforts on the part of the Obama administration to keep in place the European Union sanctions against Russia, and all signs are that the continuance of the sanctions beyond February next year may become untenable.

Equally, there is resentment building up in the European mind that Washington uses NATO to intensify the military pressure on Russia, which in turn vitiates the atmosphere for the ties between Russia and Europe.

How can this contradiction be resolved? The solution lies in the Europeans having their own security system to meet their security needs, which is run and funded by them.

But then, a genuinely European security system would deprive the US of the crucial underpinning that the western alliance system historically provided for the effective pursuit of America’s global strategies.

Enter Brexit. The heart of the matter is that the European Union stands at the core of the European project and NATO provided the security framework upon which the EU was built, which made them complementary and mutually-reinforcing enterprises so far.

But Brexit now puts the entire European project in doubt. Brexit may or may not turn out to be a mere distraction, but it will take years before we know that for certain.

In the meanwhile, the huge uncertainty that has descended over Europe will make the continent more inward-looking, which in turn will debilitate the NATO and disorient its raison d’etre.

Both Washington and Moscow sense that the ground beneath the feet of the NATO is shifting dramatically and European security will never be quite the same again.

Paradoxically, the Warsaw summit, which had been planned through months of hard work aimed at erecting a “trip-wire” fence along Russia’s western borders, is instead turning out to be an event to reaffirm the European project as well.

It was announced in Brussels on Tuesday that a meeting of the moribund NATO-Russia Council will be held on July 13. The NATO statement said,

  • The NATO-Russia Council has an important role to play as a forum for dialogue and information exchange, to reduce tensions and to increase predictability. Our practical cooperation with Russia remains suspended, but we are keeping channels for political dialogue open.

By the evening on Tuesday, Putin was already on the line to the White House, seeking out Obama. Putin’s sense of elation is understandable – and Obama’s discomfiture, too.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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