With your finger on the trigger



NATO: a decades-long confrontation with Russia?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) must prepare for a decades-long confrontation with Russia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with German broadcaster Welt in February. A statement like this keeps ringing in the mind: a decades-long confrontation with Russia? Is it possible to imagine something like this? Is this what we have to prepare for?

This is what the chief of staff of the German army, General Carsten Breuer, thinks. Like Jens Stoltenberg, he is careful to state that confrontation is not “inevitable”, but believes it is possible within the next five years. And he speculates about the time needed for the German army to adequately prepare for this war.

What war is the general thinking about? Once again, have we learned nothing from the two previous wars his army led the world into? Germany is not a nuclear power. But it is a member of NATO. Does the world have nothing to say about the speculations of Jens Stoltenberg and the German general?

The last “world” war began before the atomic bomb existed. But it ended with the explosion of one, of very modest power compared to current ones. Jens Stoltenberg called for rebuilding NATO members' military reserves and rapidly expanding their industrial base, to increase supplies to Ukraine and replenish its own reserves. To adapt the industry to wartime.

As if NATO member countries were in the economic conditions to carry out such an effort, when farmers protest in the streets, the German economy slows down and the country faces a process of deindustrialization, a consequence, among other things, of the attacks on the Nord Stream and gas pipelines. of the Russian energy supply being cut. The German and Norwegian governments are, of course, not the only ones to align themselves with this perspective.

In December, Martin Herem, head of the Estonian Defense Forces, told a local TV channel that Russia would be ready to attack NATO within a year, after the conflict in Ukraine ends. The military leaders of the other Baltic countries, Finland, Sweden and others venture to make the same predictions, calling for the preparation of war against Russia.

The same idea is suggested by Ed Arnold, researcher at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an English institution dedicated to the study of security and defense issues, for which NATO countries “must be ready for war” against Russia. Ed Arnold recalls that the document on the “Strategic Concept”, adopted by NATO in 2022, considers Russia no longer a partner, but a threat. It seems clear that, in these circumstances, the only sensible thing to do is to take these people's fingers off the trigger and create the conditions so that their dreams do not come true. They would be the ultimate nightmare for humanity.

Vladimir Putin approaches Europe

Not many years ago, the prospect of greater European integration seemed to take off. At the end of November 2010, Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia, visited Germany and announced the agreement with NATO to build an anti-missile shield on European soil. The European Union, after a summit with Russia, welcomed the prospect that the latter would finally join the World Trade Organization (WTO), which happened in August 2012.

But perhaps even more important was Vladimir Putin's proposal, made in statements to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, to integrate an economic community that would extend from Lisbon to Vladivostock. “We support the idea of ​​creating a free trade zone between Russia and the European Union”, replied the then German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Long ago, she added, “Russia went from being an enemy to a partner of Germany and the European Union.”

Putin's warnings

The proposal cannot be adequately evaluated without considering the international scenario that Vladimir Putin, three years earlier, had exposed at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. The same conference will be held again this February, now without Russia's participation.

Vladimir Putin would end his second term as president in 2008. He began his presentation by saying that the conference format allowed him to say what he really thought about international security issues.

Two decades ago, the Cold War ended, with the triumph of the West and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But the unipolar world that emerged at that time was not working. “What is a unipolar world?” asked Putin. “It’s a world where there is a lord, a sovereign,” he replied. “It is a harmful world for everyone, not only unacceptable, but impossible in today’s world.” “It’s something that has nothing in common with democracy.” We need to read these speeches if we want to keep up with current conflicts.

“What is happening in the world is the attempt to introduce these concepts into international affairs,” he said. “They are constantly trying to teach us about democracy. But for some reason, those who teach us don't want to learn.” We are seeing an excessive abuse of military force in international relations, which is pushing the world into the abyss of permanent conflict. “A nation – and of course we are talking mainly about the United States – acts beyond its borders and tries to impose its political, economic, cultural and educational interests on other nations.”

“Nobody feels safe, this is extremely dangerous!”, he warned. “We have reached a decisive moment where we have to think seriously about the architecture of global security.” Already at that time, he referred to NATO's eastward expansion. This expansion has nothing to do with modernizing the alliance, nor with establishing higher security standards in Europe. On the contrary, “it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust”. “We have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion directed?”

And he cited statements by the then Secretary General of NATO, General Manfred Wörner, who, in Brussels, on May 17, 1990, had assured that “the non-location of NATO weapons outside German territory gave the Soviet Union a firm guarantee of security". “Where are these guarantees?” asked Vladimir Putin in Munich.

The following year, in April 2008, at the Bucharest meeting, NATO welcomed the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join the organization. And they reiterated to Russia that its expansion policy (of “open doors”, they said) “far from representing a threat to our relationship, offers opportunities to deepen levels of cooperation and stability”. A statement that, naturally, Moscow did not share.

Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich was extensive, impossible to summarize here. Anyone who wants to know his opinions should consult the text, available in English on the Kremlin website. But his concerns were already clearly expressed, three years before the 2010 visit to Germany and the summit with the European Union (which we have already referred to) and 15 years before the military intervention in Ukraine.

For the conservative sectors (and here I limit myself to referring to two articles published in the Spanish newspaper El País), “Vladimir Putin presented himself with his usual cynicism and direct style”, as Munich correspondent Andrés Ortega published the following day. From his point of view, “it was Putin's direct criticism of the United States that raised spirits in Munich.”

More recently, just two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a writer of Czech origin, Monika Zgustova, also mentioned in El País, to Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich, 15 years earlier, stating that he intended to “recover the territory lost after the end of the Cold War” and sell Europeans a “dream”: “from Vladivostok to Lisbon, Russia should share with Europe something more than security”.

New rules or a game without rules?

In October 2014, Vladimir Putin gave another long speech at Club Valdai, amid the unfolding crisis triggered by the Western-backed Maidan protests in Ukraine, which deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and installed a related regime in Kiev. The protests, which had started in November 2013, ended in February of the following year. On March 18, Vladimir Putin declared Crimea a fundamental part of Russia, following a referendum in which an overwhelming majority in that region voted in favor of the measure. At Club Valdai, Vladimir Putin once again referred to the political situation in the world. The theme of the meeting was: “New rules or a game without rules”.

Victorious in the Cold War, the United States, “instead of establishing a new balance of power, essential to maintaining order and stability, adopted measures that caused a sharp and profound imbalance,” said Vladimir Putin. This period of unipolar domination clearly showed that having a single center of power does not make the global process more manageable. On the contrary, this type of unstable construction has proven incapable of dealing with true threats.” Ukraine, he added, “is an example of this type of conflict, which affects the international balance of power, and I am sure it will not be the last.”

“We told Europe and the United States that measures such as Ukraine's entry into the European Union represented a series of threats to our economy, which was the country's largest trading partner. We insisted that a discussion on these issues was necessary. Nobody wanted to listen to us, nobody wanted to talk to us. We were simply told: it's none of your business. Final point, end of discussion!” Even so, he reiterated that arguments that Russia was trying to create a new kind of empire, to subjugate its neighbors, were unfounded. “I want to emphasize this,” added Vladimir Putin.

Tucker Carlson, the journalist who interviewed him in February in Moscow, reiterated this view. Speaking at the World Government Summit on February 12 in Dubai, he said Vladimir Putin's stance had hardened because "Russia has been despised by the West." The Russian leader proposed to US President Bill Clinton that Russia join NATO and tried to reach an agreement on missiles. “It was the Atlantic Alliance that refused Moscow,” emphasized Tucker Carlson. There is also “no evidence that Vladimir Putin has an interest in expanding his borders,” he said. “Russia is the largest country in the world and does not need natural resources.” “There is nothing in Poland he wants. He will gain nothing by taking Poland except more problems,” Tucker Carlson added.

On the contrary, Vladimir Putin has insisted on his interest in negotiating a way out of the crisis in Ukraine, a proposal rejected by both NATO and Ukraine itself. Military reports from professional sources insist that Russian troop movements in Ukraine are not compatible with the objective of militarily conquering the entire territory of the country. This is, of course, a different vision from those who insist that this is the re-creation of an empire and that a triumph in Ukraine would be just a first step in that direction. In his interview with Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin insisted that NATO states, by talking about a possible nuclear conflict, are “trying to scare their population with an imaginary Russian threat.”

The most fatal mistake

Looking back helps to understand the crisis in Ukraine. It is not the Russian vision that we are discussing, but that of one of the most important diplomats in the United States, George F. Kennan (1904-2005), notable promoter of a policy of containment of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. George F. Kennan, who spent many years as a diplomat in Moscow and was ambassador to Russia for a short period in 1952 under Truman, continued to follow international politics. On February 5, 1997, when NATO was negotiating its expansion with three former Warsaw Pact countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – George F. Kennan published an article in New York Times titled “A Fatal Error”.

“Something extremely important is at stake here,” he said. “And perhaps it is not too late to defend a point of view that – I believe – is not only mine, but is shared by others with broad and, in many cases, more recent experience in Russian affairs. The view, clearly expressed, is that NATO expansion may be the most fatal error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”

“This decision could exacerbate nationalist, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russia”, “it could restore the atmosphere of the Cold War and push Russian foreign policy in a direction that we would not like at all”. This, he added, “is doubly unfortunate considering this measure is completely unnecessary.” Regarding the Russian reaction, George F. Kennan warned that they had no choice but to accept the expansion of NATO, but they would continue to consider it a threat from the West. They could then “look elsewhere for assurances of a safe and hopeful future.”

In April 1951, in the middle of the Cold War, George F. Kennan – one of the architects of the Marshall Plan, with which the United States consolidated its positions in Europe after the Second World War – published another article in Foreign Affairs"America and the Russian Future”. He wrote there that the Baltic countries should never again be forced into any kind of relationship with Russia if they did not want to, but they would be crazy if they rejected any cooperation with a tolerant, non-imperialist Russia interested in leaving behind the unhappy memories of the past and establish relationships based on mutual respect.

Then I would talk about Ukraine. His words are particularly incisive, coming from someone who knows deeply about the idiosyncrasies of these people. Ukraine deserves all respect, for the character of its people, for the possibilities of developing its cultural and linguistic characteristics. But, added George F. Kennan, “Ukraine is economically more a part of Russia than Pennsylvania is of the United States.” As a former satellite of Russia, it must fully regain its independence, “but they will not guarantee a stable and promising future if they make the mistake of acting out of a sense of revenge and hatred for the Russian people, who shared their tragedy.”

“I am stating the facts”

As Tucker Carlson said in Dubai, “I'm not supporting Putin, I'm an American, I'm not going to live in Russia, I don't love Vladimir Putin, I'm stating the facts.” This seems like a sensible attitude. It is different from the attitude of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for whom Vladimir Putin's explanations about the causes of the war are “absurd”; or that of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for whom Vladimir Putin's assessments of the role of NATO and the United States in provoking the conflict are “ridiculous”.

There are much more dangerous ideas in Europe, such as that of Polish general Jaroslaw Kraszewski, for whom the deployment of nuclear weapons in Poland would contribute to the country's security. Retired in 2019, Jaroslaw Kraszewski today sells weapons and ammunition, trains police and military personnel and dreams of guaranteeing Poland's security with North American nuclear weapons.

Reading Kennan (as well as listening to Putin) are indispensable tasks to understand and negotiate an international order suitable for the post-Cold War world, which replaces the one in force when the victors seemed convinced – with shortsightedness – that we had reached the “end of history.”

*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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