Are Russia and NATO inching towards a conflict?

Rajorshi Roy
The Joint Communique issued by the recent NATO summit, held on July 8-9 in Warsaw, appears to have sown the seeds of a renewed confrontation with Russia. It identifies Russia as a key threat to European security, emphasises upon ‘deterrence’ and ‘defence’ through a NATO military build-up along Europe’s eastern arc to counter the Russian threat, and indicates NATO’s intent to strengthen its outreach in the post-Soviet space of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The other vital roadmaps identified by the Joint Communique include Montenegro’s accession as a NATO member, the operationalisation of missile defence systems in Romania and Poland, and the cultivation of a defence partnership with, hitherto neutral, Sweden and Finland.
While these initiatives may reassure Eastern European members about NATO’s commitment to counter the Russian threat, they are also likely to reinforce Russia’s hostile perceptions of this ‘Western’ alliance. It can even be argued that NATO’s blueprint amounts to breaching the Kremlin’s red-lines, which is particularly significant given the adversarial relationship between Russia and the ‘West’ post the 2014 Ukrainian crisis.
Russian and NATO Threat Perceptions
The roots of the ongoing Russia-‘West’ rivalry lies in the inability of the latter to accommodate the former as an equal partner on the global stage. Their historical mutual distrust and fundamental differences over the global strategic balance finally culminated in the Ukrainian standoff. The West’s imposition of economic sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia in the global arena have reinforced Russia’s suspicions about the US-led ‘Western’ strategy to contain it in its own neighbourhood. Against this backdrop, NATO is seen by Russia as a key instrument for pushing this ‘Western’ agenda, which is particularly reflected in the alliance’s expanding footprints eastwards, despite an assurance to the contrary.
Brexit and the Dynamics of European Defence
Against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile Russia-NATO relationship, the dynamics of European defence is likely to change on account of ‘Brexit’. This is because NATO’s and the European Union’s (EU) memberships overlap. Britain has been a pillar of NATO, with its defence spending the highest among the EU countries. It has also strongly supported the sanctions against Russia. The ongoing ‘leave’ turmoil and a possible economic slowdown can distract its attention from NATO and its alliance commitments. The key question is which European power can fill the void, given the emerging tendency everywhere to look inwards. Meanwhile, the number of dissenting voices in Europe over the adoption of a hard-line position towards Russia has increased. These include the German Foreign Minister and the French President who have criticised the rationale for NATO’s ‘sabre-rattling’ and the EU’s economic sanctions. At stake is European solidarity and credibility. Moreover, the EU’s new ‘Foreign and Security Policy’ envisions deeper military cooperation between its members.3 This is seen as an attempt to gain strategic independence from NATO. But will it lead to the revival of the EU-orchestrated Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)? Questions abound since, at present, only a handful of EU members meet NATO’s two per cent of GDP spending on defence threshold. Also, the dynamics of German and French collaboration need to be worked out. Consequently, European defence is likely to be in flux for the foreseeable future even though Russia is perceived as being the biggest threat and challenge to European security.
Implications for India
India is neither a member of NATO nor located in Europe or in Europe’s immediate vicinity and, as such, the Russia-NATO confrontation should not ideally affect it. However, the fact remains that the broad contours of this rivalry involve Moscow’s fundamental differences with the US. Therefore, the pull and pressure of this competition is likely to complicate India’s foreign policy practice. While ties with Russia have been a pillar of the country’s foreign policy, India cannot afford to ignore the ‘West’. The key challenge will be to tactfully build relationships with each side on its own merits. More notably, the Russia-China entente, which is a direct outcome of the Russia-‘West’ rivalry, is likely to have more significant implications for India.

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