by Sergei Karaganov
In the last few weeks I have occasionally become engrossed in reading a torrent of articles and speeches marking the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty. Their tonality and content were for the most part predictably positive in the West and mainly negative in Russia.
I was surprised to find out that almost all publications and statements, including those made in Russia, were informationally in tune with NATO’s official mythology, which I must say frankly is a far cry from reality.
I have known the Alliance for more than forty years. I have been studying its history and delving in declassified archives, and I can say that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not so much the most successful military alliance in history, as its adepts claim, as one of the best propaganda operations.
The myth about NATO rests on a postulate that mutual security guarantees, primarily U.S. guarantees to Europeans, have preserved peace in Europe. But there were many other reasons why peace has been preserved, mainly because no one really wanted to attack anyone, fearing, among other things, that a war could escalate into a global nuclear catastrophe.
But there were no firm guarantees. Usually, guarantees are mentioned in reference to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and particularly that part of it which says that an armed attack on one or several member states would be “considered an attack against them all.” However, Article 5 further says―and this is almost never mentioned―that each member state will take individual or collective “action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” In other words, it gave no automatic guarantees. Ambiguity appeared in the Treaty because isolationists in U.S. Congress, led by Senator Robert Taft, strongly objected to any automatic commitments. Thank God, Article 5 has never been put to the test.
Moreover, and I can easily prove this with my analysis of declassified documents, none of the U.S. leaders―American presidents―have ever planned to use nuclear weapons in defense of their allies against a country that was able to retaliate with a nuclear strike on American territory. They considered the Soviet Union capable of delivering several nuclear warheads since 1950-1951. The official doctrines said otherwise. In order to back them up, nuclear weapons were deployed and large military exercises held. Those weapons increased the risk of nuclear war, worried the other side, and provoked countermeasures. And yet, no one intended to use them for the sake of allies. The doctrines were just a bluff.
NATO in general was a success for its participants, but not in terms of defense. After World War II Western countries demilitarized and demobilized almost spontaneously. NATO countries did not have a military organization, that is, staffs or allied armed forces. Nor did the Soviet Union, devastated by the horrible war, have an army that could threaten anyone. Judging from the discussions that surrounded the Alliance in 1947-1950, its main goal was not to deter the Soviet Union, but suppress the leftists who had attained leading positions in several key European countries, primarily Italy and France, after their heroic struggle against the Nazis in contrast to the rightists most of whom had been engaged in mass collaboration with them.
With time, this function―of a new “holy alliance” (the previous one in the 19th century suppressed revolutionary movements in Europe)―moved into the background due to the extermination and expulsion of Greek communists who had fought to defeat the Nazis, secret operations, and, above all, economic assistance to leading West European countries. Yet it remained in a more sophisticated version. Current NATO expansion to the Balkans is not even rationalized by the necessity to defend them from outside threat.
The Korean War of 1950-1953, which really frightened the West’s ruling circles, played a key role in creating NATO’s military organization and allied armed forces. I read many telegrams from elated American generals who believed that resistance to remilitarization would certainly be crushed.
In 1952, the position of NATO Secretary-General was established, and work began to build the Alliance’s military and bureaucratic organization. The list of its founding fathers should be amended to put two more persons at the top, even though they are never mentioned with gratitude: the grandfather of present North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, who decided to attack South Korea in order to unify the country, and Joseph Stalin, who supported him, apparently in a bid to distract the opposing side’s resources in the west. But it was most probably a strategic miscalculation as there was no military threat from the West, which by and large had no armed forces at that time. However, the start of the war prompted their rapid buildup. An arms race began in Europe, giving both sides real reasons for mutual fears.
The organization’s undeniable successes include the prevention of renationalization and remilitarization of politics in Western Europe, which was the main source of military conflicts in the world, including two world wars, over the last several hundred years.
On the positive side was also the influence of more pacifist Europeans, which NATO had to take into account and which weakened the party of hawks in Washington.
The NATO deal was very beneficial for Europeans. In exchange for their loyalty to the senior ally, they got an opportunity to save money by cutting defense spending, thus making a significant contribution to their own well-being. The Americans now seem to be tired of being a donor and they are demanding not only loyalty but also bigger defense budgets.
NATO’s major success was the creation of supranational groups of elite who were financially and ideologically linked to the Alliance and who helped it stay afloat after 1991 when even the formal need for it was gone.
But this is where the good news ends and bad news begins, especially for internationals security.
The NATO military machine was created for confrontation; it could not and did not want to survive without it. It was really touching how the NATO elite were looking for pretexts to keep the alliance running. At first, they came up with the motto “Get out of the area of responsibility or die!”. But the inertia of fixation on countering the threat from the East undermined that search. Despite the obvious military-political need and numerous calls, including those from Russia, for helping defend Europe from the increasingly dangerous South, NATO refused to do so. As a result, Europe was left defenseless and is now trying to do something about it, although it is already strategically late. When NATO did try to go beyond its area of responsibility, it lost politically in Afghanistan. Things were even worse in Libya in 2011. The Alliance committed direct aggression and ruined the country, creating numerous new threats for Europe, and eventually lost politically again.
The Alliance did not officially commit aggression against Iraq because of France’s and Germany’s objections, but almost all of the other member states and some other countries joined the United States. The result is well known: almost a million of casualties, political defeat, and destabilization of the entire region, including the emergence of ISIS (banned in Russia) and several other terrorist groups. The Alliance chose another motto for its salvation: “Enlarge or die.” NATO treacherously expanded despite its promises (now documentarily proved even in the U.S.) given to the Soviet Union. The main result of this move was the emergence, as many Russian and Western officials had warned, of a new system of confrontation and even a threat of real war. Crimea and Donbass have warded off a direct clash which seemed inevitable if the expansion had continued further; at least for now. Ukraine has been turned, quite purposefully (even though many Europeans prefer not to think about that), into political “cannon fodder” of a new confrontation with Russia. NATO has created an “enemy,” without which it apparently cannot exist.
Efforts to inflate the Russian threat look bizarre. When colleagues from Atlantic circles talked about “the Soviet military threat” in the 1970s-1980s, their claims could at least have formal grounds. The Soviet Union’s armed forces were truly colossal, beyond reasonable need, even though it naturally did not intend to, and could not, attack anyone due to internal weakening in the 1980s. When I heard my partners talk at that time, I was always wondering whether they were so mistaken or were simply lying. Later I understood that it was mostly the former. But when they are blowing the Russian threat out of all proportion now―even though Russia’s armed forces are a fraction of those of the Soviet Union and substantially smaller than those of the North Atlantic Alliance and even Europe, with the defense budget making up one-twentieth of NATO’s―there is no doubt that it is the latter.
Conversely, Russia’s armed forces are quite efficient, and I do not think that NATO should expect anything more than a quick defeat in the event of a conflict, if, of course, Russia uses all the necessary means for that. But there are no signs indicating that the Alliance is preparing direct aggression. Russia does have sufficient deterrent forces.
However, in terms of military-strategic stability in Europe, the situation is worse than it was in the last few decades of the Cold War. First of all, NATO has turned from a predominantly defensive alliance into an aggressor. When Russia was weak in 1999, the Alliance committed the political equivalent of gang-rape against the remains of Yugoslavia. This was followed by operations in Iraq and Libya mentioned above. Second, there is absolutely no trust on either side, but especially in Russia, while the Russophobic faction in NATO has increased after the admission of Poland and the Baltic states. Third, the line of direct contact between Russia and NATO has become longer by an order of magnitude from several dozen kilometers of the Soviet-Norwegian border to the present border with the former Soviet Baltic republics and Poland.
The security buffer has been dismantled, and fears have objectively intensified on both sides. The Baltic states particularly have put themselves in a tight spot. Had they remained neutral, they would be feeling much calmer now. As it is, they would come under attack in the first several hours of a crisis. This is the price they will have to pay for hosting weapons and aircraft in direct proximity to Russia’s critical centers.
But “the military threat” was ramped up not only by the Americans, dependent comprador forces in Europe or part of the Soviet bureaucracy connected with the defense and military-industrial complex, but also by nationally-oriented Europeans who did not want to lose a good deal, under which they had to pay almost nothing for their security, while enjoying protection under the American “umbrella.” When it seemed to be losing strength, they provoked its “reinforcement.” For example, despite the widespread opinion, the missile crisis of the 1970s and the deployment of medium-range cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe were initiated by European strategists who feared that the U.S. would leave and its nuclear “umbrella” would slacken. Now, too, “the Russian military threat” in Europe is being magnified by pro-Atlantic Europeans who are afraid of losing the U.S. and the relatively convenient and advantageous system of military-political relations with it.
For justice’ sake, Russians also bear their share of responsibility for the revival of confrontation in Europe because of the desire to please “rich uncles” in the 1990s, lack of intelligence, i. e. stupidity, or simply weakness. We did not insist on the neutralization of unified Germany, and when the expansion started, we pretended to believe in knowingly false promises or cooperated with the Alliance, thus de facto legitimizing its enlargement and facilitating its survival and regeneration.
Could events have gone differently? Probably, if the potential partners had been wise and far-sighted enough and willing to overcome stereotypes, the U.S. had been prepared to share its leadership, and Russia had been ready to defend its interests. Russia’s admission to NATO was possible until 1994-1995, when enlargement started, and Moscow raised the question of membership.
Everybody lost in the long run, the West probably more than others. If it had incorporated Russia as a sovereign and one of the leading members of the community, it would not have lost its military superiority in the world. A substantial part of the Russian elite wanted to be with the West. This loss is the fundamental reason why its 500-year-long economic, political, and cultural dominance has come to an end. As Russia regains strength, it becomes one of the key forces in the non-West. If Russia and NATO had established allied relations, the Alliance would have become an organization of pan-European security and would not have degraded so much as to commit aggressions. Russia would not have let it.
But what is done cannot be undone. How should we build relations with NATO further? They must be based on realism, even though it is going to be hard realism. NATO will not be able to use a threat of aggression in the years to come, given its current state and especially considering the modernization of the Russian armed forces. But an unintended escalation of some clash will be dangerous. There may be attempts by some NATO countries to provoke a deeper crisis in Ukraine or any other country bordering on Russia. The latter threats should be countered by directives, backed up by relevant preparations, signifying that the response would not only be devastating for Ukraine, but also asymmetrical for the crucial interests of those who are nudging or planning to resort to provocations. As long as Kiev is a satellite, others bear responsibility for it.
It is also necessary to insist on a broader military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid undesirable and dangerous incidents. But under no circumstances should Moscow agree to resume the hollow political dialogue within the framework of the Russian-NATO Council. We have seen enough consequences of appeasement and legitimization as it is.
Russia should stop scaring its neighbors with large-scale military maneuvers. They are already well aware of our strength. We should not give any new arguments to the forces that want to milk Europeans for new military expenditures.
For some reason, we do not publicize the fact that even without the U.S. other NATO countries spend much more on their defense than Russia, and if NATO wants to contain Russia, it should logically be cutting its defense spending, not ramping it up.
The main task is to prevent a new structured and hard confrontation in Europe. This can be done also by avoiding new and refraining from resuming old “arms control” talks. Even in the past they often exacerbated confrontation and will certainly make things worse now.
We should also reassess the myths that political democracies are not militant by nature. It is true that it is hard for such regimes to wage big wars. But gripped by crisis, they need external enemies no less (and often even more) than other regimes. The current anti-Russian hysteria and sanctions are caused by 80 percent by internal political or intra-bloc factors. (The struggle with Trump in the U.S., attempts to cover up for the elites’ mistakes and weakness, and the desire to unite against an artificially created “enemy”). If democracies are not contained militarily, they commit aggression under the banner of protecting human rights, ethnic minorities and democracy itself.
Since no agreement is feasible for the time being, we will have to wait and let our neighbors and partners stew in their own juice.
Dialogues should be conducted with groups of elites and the military of key states, naturally without wasting time and energy on Russophobes. Military-political dialogues with the U.S. may become most useful in the future, and even more so trialogues involving China. It is necessary to prepare for them intellectually in order to lead the way rather than drag behind the Americans as we did in the past.
Russia should try to talk with the EU and Europeans about joint efforts to counter cyber threats and challenges from the unstable South, redirecting the EU’s energy in the field of security towards dealing with real and future challenges, not trying to resume confrontation on the old basis.
In some five to eight years new opportunities may arise for cooperation not within the outdated European framework but as part of the efforts to build a greater Eurasian space of development, cooperation, and security.
This article was originally published in Russian, April 21, 2019 in “Rossiyskaya Gazeta”