NATO and the “Russian problem”

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By GILBERTO LOPES*

Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has among its main objectives preventing NATO from establishing itself across its European border.

The “Russian problem” represents an enormous challenge for the European Union, said the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, Josep Borrell. Speaking at the end of the Munich Security Conference, Josep Borrell warned of the danger of a long period of tensions. He feared that Russia would be tempted to increase its “political and military provocations against NATO countries.”

Josep Borrell's formulation puts us before a problem that is not easy to define: the “Russian problem”. There are many attempts to do so, both in the speeches of world leaders, gathered in Munich between February 16th and 18th, and in the analyzes of journalists and experts.

David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, give us some clues in an opinion article about the results of the conference, published on February 18th. In his opinion, nothing that Western leaders do – neither sanctions, nor condemnations, nor military efforts – will alter Putin's intentions to disrupt the current world order. For them, this would be the “Russian problem”.

Vladimir Putin's most decisive step on the international political stage was the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian president has explained his reasons numerous times. He did so in 2007, at the same Munich meeting to which he was not invited this year. He was concerned about NATO's expansion towards its borders.

Undermining trust

“Currently, we are witnessing an uncontrollable abuse of military force in international relations; a state, especially the United States, has crossed its national borders in every possible way. This is extremely dangerous, no one feels safe,” said Vladimir Putin in Munich in 2007.

In addition to the military threat, it was particularly worrying that this was done without respecting the promises made to Russia when the eastern socialist world collapsed, Germany was unified and NATO expanded eastward, approaching the Russian border. A corrosive relationship of distrust in international relations was created, which Vladimir Putin referred to in Munich.

The Maidan rebellion in late 2013 and early 2014, supported by Washington, created the conditions to extend this movement to Ukraine, where special historical, political and cultural relations with Russia posed new challenges. With the accession of the Baltic countries to the organization, the NATO border was already about 600 km from Moscow. Russia managed to prevent a new “Maidan” from installing another Western-aligned government in Minsk, preventing NATO from establishing itself on its entire European border.

With the eventual incorporation of Ukraine into NATO, a new “Iron Curtain” would isolate Russia from Europe, with a border from the Baltic to the Black Sea, interrupted only by Belarus. Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has among its main objectives – as defined by the Russian president – ​​to avoid this situation.

Since the Maidan, tensions between Kiev and the inhabitants of the Ukrainian border territories – the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, and the provinces of Kherson and Zaporozhie – have escalated into increasingly frequent armed clashes. Attempts to resolve the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government through the Minsk I and II Agreements in 2014 and 2015 failed.

Not only did they fail, but years later they gave rise to an unusual revelation on the international political scene. Then French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, theoretical guarantors of the agreement, recognized that these negotiations had no other objective than to give Ukraine time to strengthen its armed forces. “The Minsk agreement was an attempt to buy time for Ukraine,” he said Angela Merkel in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit. Angela Merkel had told Die Zeit that the problem would not be resolved, but that negotiations would give Ukraine “precious time”.

In December 2022, François Hollande was questioned by the newspaper Kyiv Independent It was also believed that the Minsk negotiations were aimed at slowing down “Russian advances” in Ukraine. “Yes,” he said. Angela Merkel was right on this point. The Minsk agreements halted the Russian offensive for a time.

Vladimir Putin, for his part, said he was surprised by the statement Angela Merkel: “It took me completely by surprise. It's disappointing. Honestly, I didn’t expect something like this from the former chancellor,” she said. Added to the distrust created by the failure to fulfill the promise not to bring NATO closer to the Russian border, the recognition that an agreement was not seriously negotiated in Minsk created a rarefied atmosphere – disappointing, in the words of Vladimir Putin –, with no space for new dialogues in this international scene.

From Lisbon to Vladivostok

In 2010, on a visit to Berlin, Vladimir Putin suggested the integration of Europe with Asia, from Lisbon to Vladivostoky, and consulted on the possibility of joining NATO. Why did none of this come true? What were the interests that prevented Europe from transforming into a large political bloc, geographically consolidated, with enormous energy reserves, which could be the result of an agreement with Russia? The Russian problem?

In the answer to this question lies the secret of the current situation in Europe. The fact that it is not simple is demonstrated, for example, by the opinion of Czech writer Monika Zgustova, a frequent contributor to the Madrid daily El País, for whom “political scientists and Kremlinologists interpreted his words as a wish that one day the Russian empire would extend from Vladivostok to Lisbon”.

The temptation to invade Moscow, the dangerous fantasy of dividing Russia into several states, of dismantling the largest country on Earth, of opening a Pandora's box that would have put the world on an unstable and impossible to predict path weighed more heavily.

This integration between Russia and Europe was probably the objective of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (98-2005) when he assumed the presidency of the Board of Shareholders of Nord Stream AG, responsible for the construction and operation of the gas pipelines that would ensure the supply of Russian energy to German industry at competitive prices.

Currently, German leaders – Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the former “pacifist” Annalena Baerbock, responsible for German foreign policy, or the also German Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission – do not even want to be photographed with Gerhard Schröder, whom carefully avoid if you are present at any official event.

The fact that the United States would not allow Nord Stream to operate always seemed self-evident to me. But the consequences of this were also true for Europe, especially for the German economy, which went into recession. It is predicted to have negative growth of 0,5% for the second year in a row. This is the worst scenario in the last 20 years.

Defeat Russia

“The European Union must hand over all its heavy weapons to Kiev. This problem has to be resolved now. We have great experience and understand that Europe does not need these weapons: tanks, infantry vehicles and other weapons, which are useless for the next war. They should donate them all to us, like Denmark did.” “We are ready to destroy the Russian Federation,” said Ukraine's national security adviser Aleksey Danilov.

Destroy the Russian Federation? It is difficult to imagine that Ukraine can do this. At the beginning of the third year of the conflict, the military initiative is in Russian hands. But, as we will see, Ukrainian and Western analysts do not abandon the expectation of a military victory.

For former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, it is incorrect to speak of a “stalemate” in the war. In an article for Foreign Policy, ensures that the means for Ukraine's victory remain firmly in the hands of the West. He cites the situation in the Black Sea, where he claims that Ukrainian forces have been successful in their attacks on the Russian fleet. “If the Ukrainians receive the weapons they need, they have already demonstrated that they know how to use them very well. Therefore, I think we must lift all the restrictions we have imposed on the supply of weapons”, said Anders Rasmussen.

There are two scenarios at play in efforts to defeat Russia. In the military, the proposal to deliver increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine, capable of reaching deep into Russian territory. In the economic sense, multiply the universe of sanctions but, above all, resolve the legal difficulties to hand over around 300 billion dollars of Russian deposits to Ukraine, frozen mainly in Brussels and the United States.

Regarding the first, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that it is about “giving Ukraine more long-range weapons to reach the heart of Russia and thus sow confusion and panic and undermine the confidence of the population”.

Lawrence D. Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College of London, argues in the same sense in an article also published in Foreign Policy of February 23rd. To defeat Russia, Ukraine needs long-range weapons, he said: “Why should the West continue arming Ukraine?”

Lawrence Freedman recognizes that Ukraine faces difficulties on the battlefield. But, in his opinion, none of them overcome the clear danger of a Russian triumph for Europe, which forced it to make its support for Kiev permanent.

Anders Rasmussen asked himself why the West must continue arming Ukraine. His response was because Ukraine was “fighting in our name”. “They are suffering not only to protect their country, but the entire European continent against an aggressive Russia.”

From the American perspective, he added, aid to Ukraine represented only 3% or 4% of its defense budget (which is no small feat, given that the United States' defense budget is larger than that of the next ten countries together). For Anders Rasmussen, with this “small amount of money, the United States achieved a significant degradation of Russian military strength”.

Let's say this is so. But we must still answer why it is so important to “destroy the Russian Federation”…

Vladimir Putin seeks an explanation in the world that emerged after the defeat in the Cold War. It's in his speech on February 24, 2022, in which he explained his reasons for going to war. “We witness a state of euphoria created by a feeling of absolute superiority, a form of modern absolutism. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States and its Western allies tried to give us the final blow, to destroy us completely,” he stated.

Vladimir Putin recalled that, in December 2021, weeks before the attack on Ukraine, they presented a new proposal to the United States and its allies regarding European security and the non-expansion of NATO to the east.

“Any expansion of NATO infrastructure or any deployment on Ukrainian territory is unacceptable for us,” he added, highlighting that, for the United States and its allies, this is an advance in their policy of containing Russia. “For us, it is a matter of life and death, of our future as a nation.”

It seems to me that, in this discussion, due attention is not always given to the fact that the conflict is located on the Russian border. It was not the Russians who advanced to the West or installed their weapons on the western borders. This geographical aspect is an extremely important factor for any consideration of this war.

I also miss another argument: in this case, about Russia's annexation of Crimea. It is the same background as the British claim to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. It is an argument based on the will of its inhabitants, who settled there after a military occupation. There is little (or no) difference with the Crimean case.

Russian expansion

Tucker Carlson, after his interview with Vladimir Putin, made several comments about what was discussed. He said that “only an idiot could believe that Russia is planning its expansion.”

What territory can Russia aspire to? We must ask ourselves what the objective of such an advance on NATO countries would be. What sense would this make for Russia? What would you gain from that?

Vladimir Putin has reiterated that this is not his objective, that he has no interest in conquering Ukraine, nor in attacking Poland or Latvia, which would put him in direct war with NATO countries, including the United States. In other words, a nuclear war. But, in the West, this argument is used to justify to its citizens the demand for new resources to support Ukraine.

Alexander Wardy and Paul McLeary, journalists from Politico, argue that, for the West, there is only one “Plan A” in this war: militarily defeating Russia. In their article, they quote Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba as telling Europeans that when they hear that Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from Avdeevka, they should think that the Russians are now a little closer to their homes. One needs to look at a map to evaluate Kuleba's claim. However, from Putin's point of view, the argument may serve him to explain why they decided to react to NATO's advances towards their borders.

“Plan A”

The idea of ​​“Plan A” is the same as that which the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, defends. “A defeat for Ukraine cannot be an option. We all know very well what the devastating consequences will be for Europe and the values ​​we represent and for the world. This is why it is crucial to act”, says Charles Michel, a conservative Belgian politician like all those who control European institutions.

He was speaking to the correspondent in Brussels of the El País, María Sahuquillo, a newspaper that, like almost all major European media outlets, transformed journalism into a weapon of war. The scenario is seen from only one point of view, which contributes neither to an informed opinion nor to a realistic search for a solution to the “Russian problem”. That’s why they were so angry about Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin, who they called a “traitor.”

There is little reflection, almost no attempt to think about how this crisis arrived, nor whether – perhaps – there are other plans, “B” or “C”, to find a way out. After all, at least in the opinion of Western leaders, the “Russian problem” boils down to “the devastating consequences for Europe and the values ​​it represents and for the world” that Moscow's triumph could threaten. In any case, regarding Russia's control over parts of Ukraine's territory – as Vladimir Putin told Tucker Carlson – there are ways to resolve the issue in a dignified manner. “There are options, if there is a desire.”

The Russian problem

In the end, the “Russian problem” is one that was raised by Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, in a comment to the CNN: “Frankly, this is not the Russia we wanted. We wanted a partner that would be Westernized, that would be European. Today’s Russia does not correspond to the image that the United States wanted to see.”

Victoria Nuland played a key role in the Maidan protests, in the “orange revolution” that brought the Western allies to power in 2014. But it is not idle to look (again) at the warnings of the notable American diplomat George Kennan and his article , published on February 5, 1997, in The New York Times.

George Kennan was referring to the proposal for NATO membership of three countries from the former Soviet bloc – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – which would come to fruition two years later. His article (which we have already cited on other occasions) was entitled “A fatal error”. “Plainly speaking,” said George Kennan in 1997, “NATO expansion may be the biggest U.S. policy mistake of the entire post-Cold War period.” “Such a decision,” he added, “is likely to awaken nationalist, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russia, have an adverse effect on the development of democracy in Russia, re-establish a Cold War atmosphere in East-West relations and “push Russian foreign policy in directions which will definitely not be to our liking.”

None of this can be understood without a slightly broader look at the world situation. Serhii Plokhy, director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, and Mary Elise Sarotte, distinguished professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in an article on Ukraine's place in the post-Cold War landscape (“The shoals of Ukraine”, Foreign Affairs, November 2019), refer to the role of a Russia that, from their point of view, resists recognizing its place after the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

They refer to the disappearance of a great power: “The Soviet Union may have ceased to exist on paper in December 1991, but its influence did not. Empires don't just disappear. They die slowly and disorderly, denying their decay when they can, giving up their domains when they have no alternatives and launching desperate actions whenever they see an opportunity.”

It seems to me a perfect description of the behavior of the United States today, although that is not, of course, the authors' intention.

Andrés Ortega, senior researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano and director of the Observatory of Ideas, published an article in April last year in the “Agenda Pública” of the El País about “Western arrogance and European vassalage”.

It reminds us that, since the middle of the last decade, the Western economy is smaller than that of the rest of the world, that “the world has changed, but the West seems not to be apart”. “Not only does he want to defend his interests, values ​​and way of life, which is normal and legitimate, but he also wants to teach others lessons.”

Considering the interests involved, the resources invested, the participating nations, the conflict in Ukraine can only be seen as a new form of a world war. After the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, it would be the Fourth World War. For those of us who tried to imagine what it would be like, it is now before our eyes. This is the one that could occur, before the last one, the nuclear one. Meanwhile, Germany decides whether to deliver long-range weapons capable of bombing Moscow to Kiev.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). Author, among other books, of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves


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