U.S.-Russia Relations and the New Euro-Atlantic Security: Time for a Smart Investment

The current Euro-Atlantic security system provides security for the included, but undermines the security of the excluded.

May 23, 2016

By Valeriia Bondareva

The security architecture in Europe as it exists today has been increasingly unable to implement its main mission – to provide peace and security in Europe. The breakout of crises in Georgia and Ukraine has demonstrated that new political and military divides between Russia and the West have emerged in the post-Cold War world. Increased tensions in Russia’s relations with the West over NATO enlargement have not only hindered EU-Russia and U.S-Russia relations, but also negatively affected the security of nations located “in between” Russia and the Transatlantic community.

Yet, instead of addressing the core of the problem – the flaws of the current security system in Europe – the political leadership on both sides has opted for the “old recipe” to protect their respective interests, by calling for more military spending, more weaponry, and more troops on the ground. As each side responds to the other’s military buildup, prospects for a security partnership between Russia and the United States in Europe, and therefore, stability in the region, seem to wane.

Over the past two decades, the expansion of NATO into Central and Eastern Europe has brought stability to its new members, but it has not addressed the security concerns of the excluded. The unilateral enlargement of NATO eliminated the Cold War division between Russia and the West, establishing a new fault line with no regard to Moscow’s security interests. The Russian leadership has increasingly resisted the expansion of Euro-Atlantic authority into its perceived “sphere of influence,” but Western leaders have dismissed the Kremlin’s signals. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly stated that he viewed “the appearance of a powerful military bloc” on Russia’s borders “as a direct threat” to his country’s security, and warned Western leaders against further expansion. Yet, no actions were taken to address the problem. A conflict in Russia’s relations with the West continued to loom and resulted in the 2008 war in Georgia, the 2014 war in Ukraine, and the emergence of new frozen conflicts (Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea) in the post-Soviet space.

The failure to include Russia into a common security system with the West, while also pursuing a policy of expansion, has backfired, and led to diminished security not only for Russia, but also for its neighbors. In an effort to prevent further enlargement of the alliance into its periphery, the Kremlin opted for the most reliable means – the use of force. As Thomas Graham, managing director of Kissinger Associates, explained at a recent discussion, Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine showed that the mantra that “Russia has no veto” over EU or NATO decisions was wrong; Russia does indeed have a veto through the use of force, which it is willing to use to achieve its goals.

Thus, the expansion of the alliance fostered new winners and losers in Europe: while most Central and Eastern European states were free to join both NATO and the EU, nations that happened to fall into “the gray area” between Russia and the West, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, had to make painful choices favoring one partner over the other.

The absence of a common security system in Europe does not allow former Soviet states to fully pursue integration with the EU and NATO without undermining their relations with Moscow. According to Dmitri Trenin, the fundamental problem that “we are facing is that the post-Cold War settlement was flawed because it did not include Russia into a common security system with the West– as it did include Germany, as it did include Japan after the Second World War. That is why NATO in Ukraine [or any other neighboring nation] is important to Putin and to the political and military establishment.”  

New Problems, Old Methods

To address the current security problem in Europe, both parties have employed methods prescribed by the Cold War playbook. In response to Russia’s actions in Europe, the White House placed a $3.4 billion budget request for military spending in Europe in 2017, thus quadrupling the current figure of $789 million. As a senior Pentagon official noted, “it’s a huge sign of commitment to deterring Russia, and to strengthening our alliance.”

Likewise, in 2016, Eastern and Central European states will also increase their defense spending by 19.9% compared to the previous year in light of a changing security landscape in Europe. In September 2015, NATO members set up and activated six multinational command units in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states to forge a common defense architecture and facilitate the announced deployment of the NATO rapid reaction force, which consists of some 40,000 air, naval, and special operations personnel.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the new military build-up in Europe a destabilizing factor aimed to contain Russia. In April 2016, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, stated that Russia would definitely respond to NATO’s military buildup near the Russian borders. The following month the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of three new military divisions to counterbalance NATO’s increased presence in Eastern Europe. 

Furthermore, according to Russian Defense officials, Russia plans to reorganize its military forces and increase their mobility “due to considerable NATO reinforcements.” On April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree creating a new federal executive body, the National Guard, which among other functions will also be charged with assuring territorial defense and the protection of state borders. The ex-head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolay Kovalyov, welcomed such a decision and called it “especially topical amid the continued expansion of the North Atlantic alliance towards our borders.”

The military buildup on both sides has lead to a sharp deterioration of the overall security environment in Eastern Europe. Numerous air and naval encounters with a high probability of direct military confrontation between Russian and NATO forces have been reported over the past two years. Needless to say, such incidents neither promote regional stability, nor resolve the security dilemma in Russia-NATO relations. Policy makers who push for greater military spending and more deployments on both sides fail to acknowledge that by doing so, they are exacerbating the problem instead of solving it. As former U.S. Defense Minister Chuck Hagel recently suggested, unless the Russian leadership and the next U.S. administration find a diplomatic solution, the two countries are likely to be drawn into a new Cold War buildup. However, while the USSR and the United States could afford to pursue an arms race, today such a confrontation would risk putting both the United States and Russia in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis other nations, which are eager to catch up with them and become the new leaders of the world.

The Way Forward: A New Security Framework in Europe

As in real life, the best solution to a conflict of interests is indeed a compromise. To resolve the problem, the United States, the EU, Russia, and other nations whose security is at stake should negotiate and create a new security framework in Europe that will take into account the security interests of each nation. While some might argue that such a step will be a huge concession to Russia, further inaction is even more dangerous, as the only alternative to a diplomatic solution is further confrontation.

As the global leader, the United States should make a smart investment in the security of its allies in Europe. While increased military spending may or may not enhance their security in the short-term, Washington should be interested in ensuring their security in the long-term. And if the current security system no longer performs that function as it should, it is time to take a step back and recognize that. Today, the security challenges in Europe demand new solutions, and we need leaders with enough political will to pursue approaches that will address the problems of the past and advance international peace and security in the long-term.


Valeriia Bondareva 
is a member of the 2015-2016 Rising Experts Program. She received her M.A. at the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. in May 2016, where she studied U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, and holds a B.A. in International Relations and American Studies from Saint Petersburg State University. Valeriia previously participated in the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) and interned at the Russia and Eurasia Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Washington. 


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