NATO’s Warsaw Summit and Russia: deterrence or provocation?


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit in Warsaw, which took place 8-9 July 2016, focused on the continuing threat to Euro-Atlantic security from Russia, leading to an emphasis on deterrence and a strengthening of the alliance’s defence posture, moving away from its previous posture of reassurance. The summit’s final communiqué was uncompromising in its description of Russia’s ‘aggressive actions’ including the ‘ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea’, ‘the violation of sovereign borders by force’, ‘the deliberate destabilisation of eastern Ukraine’, ‘provocative military activities near NATO’s borders’ and ‘irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric’. The alliance’s response, as outlined in the communiqué, is to augment its deterrence and defence posture, establishing an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This will comprise four battalion-sized battlegroups with forces provided by the framework nations of Canada, Germany, the UK and the US (along with other contributing allies) that can operate in concert with national forces and will be present at all times in the four countries. The alliance also declared its intention of developing a forward presence in the Black Sea region. Details of this plan were sketchy, although the communiqué stressed that, in addition to the Romanian-led initiative to establish a multinational framework brigade, NATO will consider strengthening both its air and maritime presence in the region.

Russia considers these increasing military deployments along its borders as a threat to its national security. Whilst NATO sought to underline that it does not seek confrontation with Russia nor poses a threat to it, this is not the message that has been received in Moscow, which has increased its (already high) level of anti-Western rhetoric. Speaking on the state-owned Rossiya-1 TV channel, Dmitry Kiseylov, the presenter of a weekly news review programme, said that the summit made it clear that Russia was no longer a partner, but a target and that NATO was preparing for war. This tone was echoed across a range of media and official statements. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused NATO of existing in a fantasy world and demonising Russia in order to divert attention away from the alliance’s ‘destructive’ role, while an article in the Kommersant newspaper argued that the guiding principle of the summit was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’

The Russian response to the summit outcomes comes as no surprise: continued opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement has been a long-running theme in Russian rhetoric. The Russian political narrative remains dominated by anti-Western sentiment, as well as talk of ‘competition’ and the need to be ‘competitive’ with the West, which is thought to be encroaching into an area that had previously been Moscow’s exclusive zone of influence. This reflects a strong (and widespread) sense of grievance at perceived Western hostility, inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow. There is anger at what is seen as the West’s rejection of partnership with Russia, as well as its destabilisation of the international system – but little recognition that this is how the West views Russian behaviour over the past few years. Russia’s permanent envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko argued in a recent interview that NATO is seeking to impose new dividing lines on Europe and that Russia is not ‘remotely interested in the confrontational agenda … being offered’. Nevertheless, he warned that Russia will do everything to ensure its defence and that NATO’s eastwards expansion will be counterproductive, as it subjects Russia to ‘risks and threats’.

NATO used the summit communiqué to stress the need for continued dialogue with Russia within the framework of the revived NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which met at ambassadorial level on July 13, days after the summit had concluded. The meeting, which was only the second time the NRC had met since 2014, did little to reduce tensions between the two actors. Speaking afterwards, Grushko described NATO’s decision to deploy an additional four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland as ‘ungrounded, excessive, counter-productive and confrontational’, warning that it would ‘return us to the days of the Cold War’. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that there had not been a meeting of minds, but welcomed the opportunity to ‘clarify our positions to each other’, along with Russian support for a Finnish proposal on air safety measures in the Baltic Sea region.

The lack of genuine, constructive dialogue between the two parties is a serious cause for concern. Both Russia and NATO have positioned each other as adversaries, portraying the other as a significant threat to security and stability, and each believes that it is acting defensively in the face of a growing challenge from the other. Neither wants a war, but, in the current climate of mutual mistrust and continued confrontation, there is a danger that deterrence measures are perceived as an escalation of violence, prompting further counter-measures. In a time of widespread instability, more needs to be done to diffuse existing tensions and stimulate constructive dialogue, rather than the rhetoric of threat: Russia’s cooperation in tackling the menace from IS and international terrorism, as well as stabilising the Middle East and North Africa, is vital.


Image: Russia-NATO permanent mission logo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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