EU-Russia relations and NATO’s influence. Interview with Professor Oleg Ivanov

The Russian Federation and the European Union are two principal actors in the international arena. The Ukrainian Crisis has deteriorated the relations between Moscow and Brussels, and nowadays Russia and the Eu are more enemies than friends and oriented to the confrontation than cooperation. Collaboration between Russia and Eu is necessary if the two sides would like to overcome the socio-economic problems which have been affecting the two parties in the last years: economic crisis after the oil price crash in 2014, the terrorist threat by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the immigration phenomenon.

Analysing Russia-Eu relations without taking into account the role of NATO is a mistake because the Atlantic Alliance plays a strategic role in Europe and supports Brussels against Moscow through its communication strategies and military bases.

ASRIE Association met Professor Oleg Ivanov*, Vice-Rector of Research at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry and expert in NATO, Russian-NATO relations and European security issues, to discuss the development of the Russia-NATO confrontation in the field of security and understand the future of European-Russian relations.

Professor Oleg Petrovic Ivanov, Vice-Rector at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

What is the situation of the NATO-Russia relations and in which fields they have the most significant confrontation? Is it possible to affirm that “we are living the era of the ‘New Cold War’” as many journalists and analysts have pointed out?

I do not think that the current situation between Russia and NATO can be described as “New Cold War”. There are some differences to indicate to that. First, the NATO strategy towards Russia is a two track one based on deterrence Russia and the dialogue at the same time. During the classical Cold war there was deterrence but no dialogue. Second, Cold War had a global character unlike today confrontation between Russia and NATO. Third, there is no rivalry of two opposing social and economic systems as it was decades ago. Russia does not expand its values and does not teach the West what values Western nations should stick to and cherish. Finally, despite severe confrontation in relations there is no such a big danger of a military conflict compared to the time of the Cold war.

The worst thing in Russian-NATO relations is the NATO decision to cancel all military and civilian cooperation with Russia and turn to the deterrence. It led to the closure of joint work in such vital areas which go beyond bilateral relations as fighting terrorism, cooperation in Afghanistan and non-proliferation of WMD. On the whole, the turn towards deterrence of Russia breaks trust between the two sides and undermines the spirit of possible cooperation. “

The Ukrainian Crisis has significantly changed the relations between Russia and the European Union. What was the NATO and United States contribute onto this transformation?

“The majority of NATO member-states are also the EU members. Obviously, the decisions made in one part of Brussels will affect the other one. What is more the US plays a crucial role in NATO decision-making and is supported by its close allies like the Baltic states and Poland.

In 2014 before the coup in Kiev the EU or NATO leaders could have warned the opposition leaders in Ukraine that they would not support any illegal action of the opposition and must have asked it to refrain from using force against President Yanukovich in order to avoid the destabilization of the country. Unfortunately, it did not happen. If the EU was just looking passively at what was going on in Kiev the US officials interfered into Ukrainian domestic process. This fact was revealed in the recorded phone conversation between the US Ambassador Pyatt to Ukraine and the US Under Secretary of State Nuland where they discussed who should occupy what position in the Ukrainian government. According to the geopolitical theory in time of crisis the connection between the center (capital) and the periphery (provinces) weakens and tends to break up. This is what happened in Ukraine when Donbas region broke away from Ukraine. This scenario could have been prevented if Western leaders did not take the side of the opposition in Ukraine.”

According to George Friedman, former CIA Intelligence analyst, founder of Stratfor and now director of Geopolitical Futures, one of the biggest problems of the Russian Federation is its indefensibility along the Western and Southern borders. Therefore, to overcome this issue, Russia needs to create a buffer zone which could separate the “heart” of the country from the external threats. In the past, the Baltics states, the Caucasian republics, and the Central Asian countries represented this buffer zone, anarea where NATO in the last two decades has perpetrated its strategy of expansion. Does this feeling of fear of an external aggression exist in Russia or it is a Kremlin’s propaganda machination to justify the Russian foreign policy?

“I tend to believe that it would not be appropriate to speak about buffer zones. One can hardly find this kind of Russian official assessment. Moreover, all Baltic states are in NATO now, among the Caucasian republic only Georgia claimed of its desire to join NATO. It is so small that it can hardly be regarded as a buffer zone. Meanwhile, for the Central Asian states NATO membership is not on the agenda at all.

NATO in itself is not an existential threat to Russia. According to the Russian national security strategy the build-up of NATO’s powerful potential and giving it global functions being realized in the violation of the norms of international law, stepping up of the alliance’s military activity, its further expansion and moving its military infrastructure closer to the Russian borders creates the threat to national security. It has nothing to do with fear but with the rational assessment of the changing political and military environment in Europe. The plane F-16 flying from the Polish air force base Lask will reach Kaliningrad in 12 minutes and it will take less than 1 hour to reach Moscow. On top of that keeping in mind the fact of increasing NATO military activity along Russian borders there is a misgiving of a possible accidental military clash or a miscalculation. We remember when the Russian military plane was shot down by a Turkish plane. Luckily, it did not bring about unpredictable consequences. There is an urgent necessity to take risk-reduction measures by Russia and NATO especially in such areas as the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.”

Recently Russian and Belarus organised joint strategic military exercise of the armed forces called “Zapad 2017” which, according to the media and European reports, involved around 10-17 thousand people. Western analysts described this military exercise as the Russian attempt to move armed forces and soldiers near the borders of the Baltic statesto threat NATO’s interests. What was the real purpose of Zapad 2017 and why has this military exercise attracted the attention of media and Western observers?

“The Western media claimed that judging the size and objectives of the military exercises Zapad-2017 it had been a preparation to invade and occupy the Baltic countries and Poland. This kind of claims have nothing to do with the reality. First, the scenario of the exercise had a defensive character. Second, the 12.700 troops, around 680 military hardware and about 70 planes took part in the exercise. Any reasonable military expert will confirm that it is not enough to conduct an offensive against NATO. In case of any military clash the Article V of NATO Charter will be invoked immediately and Russia will face all NATO military potential. The military balance of Russia and NATO is much in favour of NATO. In particular, NATO has 3.48 million of active troops, 9460 main battle tanks, 3891 combat capable aircraft while Russia has 771.000 active troops, 2600 main battle tanks and 1201 combat capable aircraft. It is obvious that for Russia possible losses will outweigh benefits in a military conflict. The battalions of NATO countries on the territory of the Baltic states play the role of “trip wire”. What is more in case of military action nobody can guarantee that the sides will not use tactical nuclear weapon. In this case, the whole scenario will have a sinister character. The old Cold War rule, “shoot first and die second” is still valid.”

The purpose of the military exercise is to enhance cohesion, to beef up military skills and to bolster operational compatibility of the Russian and Belarus military for defence rather than to attack NATO. It is against military art and science to attack anybody without necessary supremacy and Russian leaders are clever enough to understand that. The attention of Western mass media and observers can be explained by the necessity to justify the need to increase NATO military spending to 2% of GDP by 2024. The scale of Zapad exercise was blown up in the Western mass media for this purpose.

Russia and NATO active troops (Source: The Military Balance)

Western analysts describe the Ukrainian Crisis and the Georgian-Russian war the consequence of the Russian aggressive foreign policy and the Russian strategy to continue its influence on the former Soviet space.If in the case of Georgia after the conflict Abkhazia and South Ossetia could establish their autonomous republics, in Ukraine there is an open conflict which is affecting the security of the European Union and the Russian Federation and the international relations between these two parties. How could this conflict be resolved or managed? How much does the NATO support to Georgia and Ukraine matter?

“It is the easiest way to put all blame on Russia as a big country that allegedly bullies small ones. However, one should look at the facts. For example, according to the report of the Swiss diplomat Tagliavini the Georgian government of Saakashvili “fired the first shot” on the evening of August 7, 2008 when Georgian forces attacked the town of Tskhinvali. The first victims were Russian peacekeepers and South Ossetia’s civilians there.

As for Ukrainian case first of all, I should say that there is no fast resolution of the conflict. The basic principle should be to avoid further damage and to ensure security on the frontline in Donbas. So far there is no another recipe but to fulfil the Minsk agreement. The situation is in impasse because such provision of the agreement like changes in the Ukrainian constitution and giving a special status to Donbass should be done by the Ukrainian authorities but at present President Poroshenko is incapable of doing that even if he wants for fear of being toppled by the nationalist forces. President Putin came up with an interesting proposal to deploy the UN peacekeepers along the frontline between the Donbas republics and the part of the country controlled by the Ukrainian government. At the same time it would be advisable for the Ukrainian government to open up a dialogue with the breakaway Donbas republics to narrow the gap in their positions. Otherwise, the frozen conflict may last for a long time like Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus.

It is a dangerous desire of both Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO in order to resolve their conflicts. This incautious plan is aimed at pulling NATO into clash with Russia. Of course, the support of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine matters. It would be premature to speak about these countries entering the alliance soon. NATO’s goal is to strengthen military power and political regimes in both countries so that NATO could have a leverage to influence their domestic and foreign policy. Meanwhile these two states could be tied to NATO for possible future joining the alliance and will stick to NATO agenda. On the other hand, one should not expect NATO to clash with Russia because of Georgia and Ukraine. This game is not worth the candle.   “

Terrorism is an international threat which has been affecting Europe and Russia. In which way both parties could overcome this problem and decrease the phenomenon of the foreign fighters? Does it exist a margin of cooperation between NATO and Russia in the field of security?

“Indeed, terrorism is a most dangerous threat our civilization faces today. In order to deal with it the world community should unite its efforts. Both Russia and NATO had achieved a certain success in combating terrorism before 2014. In 2004 Russia-NATO Council started realization of the plan to combat terrorism. The sides exchanged information and held consultations. Russia and NATO were involved in the technical project Standex aimed at producing the equipment to detect explosives in transport. The result of the test in Paris metro in 2013 was assessed as promising. Unfortunately, all this cooperation was seized by NATO after Ukrainian crisis started. Neither Russia nor NATO benefited from this decision.

What should be done to improve this situation? First, Russia and NATO must agree that cooperation in fighting terrorism is a vital area and it should not be a hostage of political decisions which have nothing to do with combating terrorism. Second, NATO is still aimed at traditional threats like Russia and is not ready to deal with new challenges. Only 5-10% of its activity focuses on them. Third, modernized the EU Frontex could establish contact with Russian counterpart in such areas as search and rescue operations and field awareness to exchange information in the southern flank of Europe. There is an urgent need to resume cooperation in such fields like fighting terrorism, non-proliferation of WMD and cyber threats. If we do not start to work together this inaction will only play into the hands of terrorists facilitating their criminal activity. “


* Oleg Petrovic Ivanov. Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, Vice-Rector at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. His area of expertise is foreign and defense policy of the United States, NATO-Russia relations, European security and the theory of international relations.