Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 1

By Arkady Cherepansky

The funeral of the Cold War,” said NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, echoing language many others have used to describe the Russia-NATO cooperation agreement. High-level politicians have been making such statements in both the East and the West for almost a decade. This time, however, it may be true. A new strategic charter and greatly reduced nuclear arsenals may amount to an historic makeover of the global security system.

After 1991, some Western experts started to question whether the security of countries in Central and Eastern Europe was in fact still an issue. And despite the passionate drive of Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary to become part of the Euro-Atlantic security structure, many of these experts heeded Russia’s vehement opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion, which was due primarily to Russia’s abject fear of invasion from the West. Yet now each of the three is now successfully integrated. Each is a flourishing democracy. Each is a reliable military partner. And each has good bilateral relations with Moscow.

Today, despite similar initial reservations, it is almost certain that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will be invited to join NATO this November. Russia’s new role in a European security framework may have made her concerns moot. If all or some of six other potential invitees–Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia and Albania–join the Baltic states, there will be very few countries in Europe outside NATO defense mechanisms. With varying degrees of urgency, even the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and (with reservations) Armenia and Moldova, are exploring their chances of integrating more fully with the Alliance.

Who, then, is left out of the growing hard core of continental stability?

Ukraine and Belarus. Slavic neighbors, the last remaining “no-man’s land” between Russia and the West, in and through which two major wars in the last century were fought, until recently the core of European Russia. Once again they are in a geopolitical vacuum. But if it is true that NATO is turning into a continent-wide club of democracies, sooner rather than later the expansion process will involve these two, because they are crucial to the stability of Europe.

But Russia’s willingness to at last drop objections to NATO membership for other European countries does not extend to Ukraine and Belarus. Many in Moscow are still convinced that for Russia to make a serious run at reclaiming her status as a superpower she would need the substantial military and industrial complex of Ukraine and the geostrategic advantages of Belarus. Russian policies are, more and more, aimed at reintegrating both into some sort of confederation. Witness the intensified efforts of Russia and Belarus to forge a union state and Moscow’s clumsy meddling in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections.

Those in Russia dreaming of returning to the glory days of the Soviet Union use all the available economic and political tools to carve out a sphere of special influence in what they call the “near abroad.” The weapons of choice here are control over the flow of oil and gas and unwavering support to pro-Russian and anti-Western political movements in the post-Soviet space. Moscow recently intensified its drive to breathe new life into such regional groupings as the Eurasian Economic Community and the Collective Security Treaty. In keeping with its national security doctrine, Russia is pursuing a two-prong strategy: to intensify bilateral contacts with former Soviet republics, and to actively impose its will on emerging regional alliances.

By reaping the imaginary advantages of reintegration, Russia hopes to show to the world that it is still a regional power to be reckoned with. Such a version of the Monroe Doctrine creates a gap in European stability, and, by jeopardizing the prospects of true Ukrainian and Belarusan independence, leaves the finality of the latest European security arrangements open to question.

If Belarus and Ukraine become once again an arena for confrontation between East and West, then the declared end of the Cold War will have been merely a temporary respite. The sign to watch for will be Russia’s resorting to well-worn imperial arguments: her special sensitivities in the “near abroad,” the legitimacy of her claims to having spheres of influence, Slavic kinship, the “historical closeness of the three brotherly nations” and the like.

Indications so far are troubling.

In an obviously carefully premeditated and highly symbolic gesture on the very day of establishing new partnership with NATO, President Vladimir Putin signed papers, transforming the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) into a Collective Security Organization (CSO). Ignored in the West, this action has great significance in Central Europe.

The treaty was conceived by Russia in 1992, as a desperate attempt to prevent even further disintegration of the Soviet empire that had collapsed the year before. It was signed by Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1992, and by Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan in 1993-94.

So obvious and unceremonious was this Russian attempt to pursue her own military-political agenda, however, that Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan never participated in its activities, and abandoned it altogether in 1999. The remaining states, despite by ever diverging security interests, agreed to reorganize the CST into a Russia-led military-political alliance of three “regional groups of forces”–Russia and Belarus in the West, Russia and Armenia in the Caucasus, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia. The CSO confirms this structure and is intended to pour some operational content into what up to now has been an almost purely political vessel.

This attempt to resurrect a shadow of the Warsaw Pact clearly shows that the vision of a united Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals is still premature. Although Vladimir Putin greeted the CSO with cautious remarks, Belarusan strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has never attempted to conceal his anti-Western fervor, described the CSO as a counterweight to NATO which, he said, will finally be forced to take note of the new bloc’s position.

That such a statement comes from a leader with whom Moscow is officially building a “Union State of Russia and Belarus” (the current name of an awkward quasi-confederation, signed into virtual existence in 1996 as a first step in resuscitating the Soviet Union) is reason enough to question Russia’s motives as well.

Being on the fault line that divides European civilization into East and West is nothing new for Ukrainians and Belarusans. Today, however, for the first time, united Europe finds itself in control of the destiny of this crucial part of its landmass. It faces a very real and clear choice: to allow Ukraine and Belarus to slip back into being little more than the obscure “in-between” of Europe, a perennial geopolitical battleground–or to help them emerge as sovereign and democratic entities, capable of finding their own rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Clearly, at this stage in their respective developments, it is impossible for either to be integrated into NATO. But if during its upcoming Prague summit the Alliance at least theoretically opens the door to both countries, the impact would be positive and dramatic.

The possibility of NATO membership will strengthen the hands of those in Ukraine and Belarus now trying to transform their countries into a modern, market-oriented democracies that can meet NATO’s political and military standards and prerequisites. An explicit declaration from NATO to eventually embrace all European democracies (with specific mention of Kyiv and Minsk) may help Russia avoid the tempation of slipping back into the habit of protecting herself from a nonexistent threat by dominating her neighbors.

Arkady Cherepansky is a former senior Belarusan diplomat. He now lives in the United States.