Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 22

By Andrei Piontkovsky

More than a year has passed since the “Framework Act on relations between NATO and Russia” was signed in Paris. The path to this agreement was not an easy one. In the last few years, Russia’s political class has undergone a painful reassessment of its geopolitical frame of reference. Its growing sense of isolation has been greatly intensified by NATO’s expansion to the East. The overemotional reaction of the Russian political class to the prospect of the expansion of NATO and the resounding and unanimous “no” from Moscow can be explained not by the degree of some or other threat to Russia’s security, real or imagined.

NATO’s expansion to the East–or to be more precise the flight of Eastern and Central European countries to the West–has delved deep into our political consciousness. It has reopened a debate within our culture which has never gone away–whether Russia is a part of Europe–and has reminded us that in some respects it is not. Not because somebody is pushing us out of Europe, but because we have not yet resolved this poignant issue for ourselves, due to particular features of our history and geography and our national psyche, and the range of threats to our security, and so on.

The Chaadaevs, Solovyevs and Ilyins of Central Europe never asked themselves whether their states and nations were part of Europe. The answer was self-evident. It is therefore no surprise that these countries are so keen to take advantage of the opportunity which has at last presented itself to them: to affirm their geopolitical choice and become members of Europe’s elite structures–if not the European Community, which is not feasible at the moment, then at least NATO.

We cannot become a part of the Europe to which our neighbors so aspire without changing our own identity and that of Europe itself. For example, we will never become members of NATO, because Article V of this organization will never be applied in potential conflicts along our southern or eastern borders.

Our “differentness” from Europe should not automatically lead to expectations of imminent hostility. On the contrary, it can serve as a premise for useful cultural dialog.

As far as our political thought is concerned, it has been erring for three hundred years within a false dilemma: union with Europe or confrontation with Europe. This complex of attraction and resentment–the archetype of the Russian political consciousness–has again reared its head in dozens of publications of our foreign policy community on the problem of Russia and NATO and Russia and the West.

“We are part of Europe, but we are being pushed out of Europe.” “We would welcome a strategic partnership with the West, but we are being pushed aside.” “Our leap towards peace and freedom was not trusted, our goodwill was seen as weakness.” Such passages, in various samples of cheerless prose, paraphrase the central motif of a classic poem written eighty years ago by Aleksandr Blok:

“Come to us–from battlefield nightmares into our peaceful arms!… If you do not, we have nothing to lose. Our faith, too, can be broken… We shall take to the wilds and the mountains Woods, letting beautiful Europe through, and as we move into the wings we shall turn An Asiatic mug to you.”

There have been many proposals to “turn our Asiatic mug towards Europe” or worse: strategic partnership with China (it would be interesting to know Beijing’s opinion on this), “a return of tactical nuclear weapon to the troops,” and “offering anti-imperialist regimes access to nuclear technologies and their delivery means.”

The entire Russian political class, from the westernizers to the statists, was seized by the “Scythian syndrome.” Both groups looked at the West as Blok did–“both with hatred and with love”–differing perhaps only in the relative proportions of these two emotions. Take, for example, the strange public performance in two acts–one “with hatred” and one “with love”–put on by Andrei Kozyrev in Stockholm in December 1992: was this not a remake of the “Scythians”?

In this emotionally charged atmosphere among the political class, and in the absence of any distinct constructive ideas, the Russian foreign ministry had to solve an extremely important practical task: to ensure Russia’s long-term national interests in one of the key foreign policy areas–relations with the West.

The practitioners had to become conceptualists as well, and take as their starting point the fact that Blok’s Scythians is sublime poetry but bad politics.

“Neither with hatred nor with love” is the formula to which foreign ministry officials adhered in the serious negotiations with NATO which began in December 1996, after several years had been lost to useless rhetoric. It was pointless to put on aggrieved airs and bemoan the “disloyalty” of our former Warsaw Pact allies, or to force the West to deal with the complexes of the enigmatic Russian soul.

We had to talk about more tedious and concrete things, to firmly raise with our negotiating partners issues about our security in terms of the numbers and location of missiles, tanks, airplanes and soldiers, infrastructure and so on.

These issues had to be raised in the professional language of military experts, analyzing the eventual threat to the country’s security not from the perspective of NATO’s current intentions, but from the perspective of potential military capabilities. The West understands this language perfectly well. This was the language it used in challenging the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, insisting on the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Within this frame of reference, when the subject for discussion was not whether Poland or the Czech Republic would become members of NATO, but the security of our western borders and relations with NATO as a whole, Russia’s negotiating position was logical and convincing. It demonstrated the pointlessness of abstract speculation about the possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of the potential new members of the alliance. As a result, the famous “three no’s” formula appeared, of which the third component–“no reason”–is the most significant.

A window of opportunity has opened up for Russia and NATO, giving them the opportunity, over the next four or five years, to provide constructive substance to the structures envisaged by the Paris agreement, so as to avoid a new round in the crisis of their relationship.

Both sides have an objective interest in this, above all because their geopolitical existence in the next century is certainly not limited to contemplation of each other. Not just because of its geography, but also because of its history and culture, Russia is fated to be directly involved with all the main centers of world civilization of the 21st century.

Russia will have to build relations with each of these centers based on its own national interests and, preferably, with minimum strain on its limited resources. We will simply be unable to afford the luxury of declaring any of these centers to be a potential enemy or a favored ally from the outset, nor will we have the right to involve ourselves in any sort of quasi-ideological crusade, be it anti-American or anti-Moslem. Russia is more predisposed towards playing the role of mediator between civilizations in the next century. Herein, perhaps, lies the enigmatic Russian Idea.

“Multipolarity” is one of the favorite phrases in our diplomatic glossary of concepts. Multipolarity is sometimes used here as a euphemism for anti-Americanism, but it seems that the foreign ministry’s understanding of multipolarity is rather richer in content. It sees Russia not as a fortress besieged on all sides by its enemies, but as a player on the world political scene, involved in dialog equally with all its neighbors, many of whom are in complex competition with each other.

However, as regards relations with NATO, the last year has been wasted rather than used. Forgetting about the lessons of the last crisis, Moscow and Brussels are repeating previous mistakes.

In its official statements, Moscow places at the center of its relations with NATO the problem of the Baltic countries’ possible membership in NATO, getting itself into a corner again as it did with the first wave of expansion. The character of relations between Russia and NATO as a whole and the changing nature of the organization: these questions much more important for Russia’s security than whether a particular country is a member of NATO or not, and it is on these that Russia should focus its energy in its dialog with NATO.

At the Vienna talks on the modification of the CFE treaty, the NATO countries are fighting for every superfluous tank and every superfluous gun, failing to understand that with their conventional superiority of 4:1 they can concede more towards Russia’s wishes than even Russia itself is suggesting at the talks. Changing the perception of NATO among the professional analysts of Russia’s General Staff is much more important for the organization than maintaining the mountains of weapons stockpiled for the third world war that never happened.

Let us hope that by the second anniversary of the “Framework Act” both Moscow and Brussels will have more justification for talking about the widening window of opportunities taken.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.