Putin’s demand for security guarantees: Not new and not to be taken literally, but not to be ignored


US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pose for pictures as they attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine at the US permanent Mission, in Geneva, on January 10. "The conversation was difficult, it couldn't have been easy," Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting Sherman during a working dinner in Geneva. (Photo by DENIS BALIBOUSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pose for pictures as they attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine at the US permanent Mission, in Geneva, on January 10. “The conversation was difficult, it couldn’t have been easy,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting Sherman during a working dinner in Geneva. (Photo by DENIS BALIBOUSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia sustains one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals and the most powerful European conventional military force. Yet as Russia amasses military forces in the vicinity of its shared border with Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has demanded long-term, legally binding security guarantees from Washington and NATO, who collectively wield a military force four times that of Russia’s and have the military budget comparable to the entire Russian gross domestic product.

A lot has been written about Russia’s call for security guarantees. They have been described as anything from a basis for a new, just security order in Europe to imperialist blackmail. The polarization is understandable. Moscow has proposed sweeping changes and supported its statement by military deployments and promises of “military-technical reciprocal measures” if its concerns were not addressed.

But a lot of the discussion of the Russian proposals has focused on second guessing their meaning, their timing, or how far Moscow could go in pursuing them. And with very scant evidence to go on, oftentimes the experts have just fallen back on whatever position they previously held. So instead of doing another round of crystal ball gazing to try to divine what the security guarantees really are, it might make more sense to describe what Russian proposals are not, or even what they should not be.

Namely, Moscow’s proposals should not have been a surprise to people who have been following the issue; they should not necessarily be taken literally as described in the two draft agreements Russia has proposed; and they should not become a substitute for strategic arms control discussions.

No new thing under the sun. The remarkable thing about the Russian proposals on the security guarantees—which come in the form of two draft treaties, one with NATO and one with the United States—was that almost nothing in them was new. William Alberque, director of strategy, technology, and arms Control at the IISS research institute, was the first to notice that the draft documents drew heavily from the 2009 Russian proposal of the Agreement on Basic Principles Governing Relations among NATO-Russia Council Member States in Security Sphere. The 2009 draft European Security Treaty was probably also an inspiration.

As to the specific issues, Russia’s demand that NATO guarantee that it would not expand further east toward Russia restates a concern that Moscow has had going as far back as German unification in 1990. Ensuing Georgian and Ukrainian quests for NATO membership—including the 2008 Bucharest Declaration, which said that Ukraine and Georgia would be welcomed into the alliance—only magnified the concern. Russia became vocal in complaining about US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in the early 2010s. And the moratorium on the deployments of intermediate-range nuclear force systems (even though tweaked in the latest documents) has been on the table since 2019. Mention that military exercises near Russia’s borders must not exceed the brigade level were probably a nod to the “substantial combat forces” never specified in NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Even the section in the draft treaties about a rollback of the NATO military infrastructure to 1997 levels had its precedent in the 2016 law suspending Russia’s participation in the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (though the law only referred to the United States and talked about withdrawing to 2000 levels).

The new part of the demand for security guarantees was Russia’s decision to put all its concerns into two documents, asking them to be legally binding, and making sure the demand got the attention of the West in one way or the other. As President Putin said in a 2018 speech announcing a series of weapons systems designed to respond to Western military capabilities that Russia had criticized to no avail: “Nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.”

Seriously but not literally? The point of not taking Russian proposals literally is seemingly at odds with what the officials in Moscow have been saying—that the proposals are not a menu from which one can choose, and that Russia did all the hard work drafting the texts so the West might as well just sign them.

But even if the proposals are not taken literally, they do provide the West with a significant takeaway: Moscow views the current security architecture in Europe as inadequate and the security situation as not sustainable. Again, there are no surprises here, but the proposed security guarantees add urgency to the situation. If the West shares the view that the current state of affairs is unsustainable (and the recurring security crises in this part of the world strongly support the hypothesis), this could be a good starting point for conversation.

As for the documents themselves, they are not infallible; they have internal inconsistencies and can be re-drafted if necessary. But they do describe responses to the specific security dilemmas Moscow finds itself in. Separating underlying concerns from specific responses and hammering out solutions that could work for both sides would be a challenging task for Russian and Western diplomats to take on. But it is definitely worth trying.

In a broader sense, a new trend has emerged in the nuclear sphere and beyond over the last couple of years. More emphasis has been put on why countries do the things they do and what can be done to change their calculus for doing them. From the nuclear weapon states consultations in the P5 format to the whole new intergovernmental process of Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament launched by the Trump administration, threat perceptions and security concerns have reigned supreme.

If you look at the situation from this perspective, Russia was the first of the nuclear weapon states to lay out how it sees its security environment and what can be done to decrease the chances of war that could escalate to the nuclear level. Moscow even found a way to answer the perennial question “what could the non-nuclear weapon states do to contribute” (withdraw military infrastructure from the Russian borders, do not host land-based intermediate-range nuclear systems, etc.).

A lot of people in the West did not like what they saw in Russia’s position, but however wrong or even irrational someone’s concerns might look, it does not make them any less real or consequential if the country in question is ready to act on them. And there is also a flip side. What would addressing those concerns change about Russian behavior? Would an increased sense of security translate to a more peaceful neighborhood? Would the changes be enough to pave the way for nuclear and conventional disarmament? Not at least examining those questions would constitute diplomatic malpractice.

Two is better than one. Finally, there is the strategic arms control angle of the story. In the media note on Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s trip to Europe, the State Department stated that the “Deputy Secretary will lead the U.S. delegation’s participation in an extraordinary session of the U.S.-Russia bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD).” If that is what the US side believed was happening, it is a reason for concern.

Just to recap, the Strategic Stability Dialogue was re-established after the summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden in June. Before it was buried under the avalanche of the latest news and shifting priorities, the format held two in-person meetings and established two working groups for in-depth discussions. The agenda of the dialogue was impressively broad: from missile defense and space security to a successor treaty limiting strategic offensive arms of the two countries.

There is a certain logic to Washington mentally merging the Strategic Stability Dialogue with the discussion of security guarantees Putin has demanded. After all, the issues of the US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and intermediate-range forces do feature in both the strategic stability agenda and in the latest Russian proposals. Moscow even suggested that one of the subgroups of the stability talks could be used for discussing the guarantees. But fully combining the two issues would be wrong.

First, the agendas do not fit nicely, and adding non-enlargement of NATO, deployment of troops in Europe, and restraints on military exercises to the already crowded Strategic Stability Dialogue agenda would overload it. And if Washington believes that it can use this strategy to ignore some parts of Russian proposal and only talk about missiles, it was clearly not paying attention to what Moscow was saying.

Second, both European security and strategic stability are important for Russia and the United States. Both issues will be extremely difficult to deal with. Separating them into two distinct (though connected) dialogues means that slow progress or an outright failure of one would not automatically jeopardize the other. If the dialogue on security guarantees stalls, the importance of the arms control talks would only grow.

So, the parties should call the Geneva meeting what it is—a discussion on security guarantees. And then, finally set the date for the next Strategic Stability Dialogue meeting.

Whatever one thinks about the Russian proposal on security guarantees, it is here to stay. The fact that the West was quick to respond and engaged in a dialogue is encouraging, because too much was at stake to ignore Putin’s proposal. Now comes the hard part—figuring out how Moscow’s request could be reconciled with existing diplomatic formats and the security interests of the other parties involved. As Article 1 of both proposed Russian agreements says, “The Parties shall cooperate on the basis of principles of indivisible, equal and undiminished security.” And that is a tall order.





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