Published in Nacional number 746, 2010-03-02

Autor: Janusz Bugajski

Secretary Clinton defends NATO from Russia

The main concern of several West European actors is to maintain cordial relations with Moscow even while the Kremlin threatens its immediate neighbors. The Obama team will be caught in the middle of such persistent disputes and will have many opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of its leadership

Janusz BugajskiJanusz BugajskiU.S. Secretary of State's Hilary Clinton's major address on NATO on 24th February in Washington has resurrected an intense debate on the future of the Alliance and specifically its relations with Russia. Almost half of Clinton speech was devoted to Russia and her tone was sharper and more poignant than the often repeated feel-good assertions about "reset buttons."

According to the U.S. Secretary, Washington wants to engage with Moscow, but will not sacrifice certain core interests and values. She named at least three basic principles in her remarks: respect for human rights, the sovereign choice of all states to join NATO, and the importance of the Alliance as a security provider. All three questions are poorly received in Moscow.

In Clinton's words, the U.S. will not cease to raise the issue of human rights inside the Russian Federation, a topic that was placed on the back burner when Obama declared in the early days of his presidency that Washington will not preach about democracy to other countries. The administration has recently come under intense lobbying from U.S. human rights organizations over its neglect of human rights violations in Russia and other autocratic states and Clinton used the occasion to reiterate a core American value in formulating foreign policy.

Secretary Clinton also underscored that NATO's doors remain open to aspirants and that "no other country should have a veto on a sovereign country making decisions about what organizations it wishes to join." The statement was intended both for Russian ears, to indicate that Washington was not weakening its stance on enlargement, and for the ears of new NATO members who are concerned that reset buttons with Russia spells the end of NATO's growth.

Clinton added that one of the main tasks of the U.S. administration will be to convince Russia that NATO enlargement is no threat to Moscow. In saying this she revealed persistent American naivety about Kremlin motives. Objectively, no Russian official views NATO as a military threat to Russia or to its territories. Subjectively however, if NATO remains strong, the Alliance is a major threat to Moscow's attempts to regain a stranglehold over Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Once a country joins NATO it becomes less vulnerable to Kremlin pressures and forges closer political and security links with the U.S.

The third theme in Clinton's delivery was probably the most significant, in that she explicitly rejected Russia's proposal for a new European security treaty and a novel security organization to restrict or replace NATO. In fact, she stated bluntly that there is no need for new security treaties or multi-national structures: "We believe that common goals are best pursued in the context of existing institutions, such as the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council, rather than by negotiating new treaties, as Russia has suggested."

In terms of cooperation, Clinton continues to press Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to finalize details on a new START treaty to cut the number of strategic nuclear weapons, which Moscow has tried to link with U.S. plans for a new missile defense (MD) system in Europe. The MD structure planned by President Obama is designed to counter short and medium range Iranian missiles. Although Moscow claims that the future missile shield presents a threat to Russia, in reality it may counter a potential threat by Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons against its neighbors. Clinton welcomed Russia cooperation in the MD system but without providing specifics. Similarly to the conflict under the Bush administration, the Obama missile shield is likely to become a major source of dispute between Washington and Moscow and will be a test of Kremlin willingness to cooperate with the West.

Moscow remains suspicious about Washington's new anti-missile plans, claiming that its offensive nuclear weapons could be threatened by the reconfigured scheme. Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, asserted there were no guarantees that the sea-based anti-missile system would not be located in Arctic waters, the North Sea, or the Baltic Sea. This would allegedly indicate that the trajectories of Russian ballistic missiles could be tracked.

The revised U.S. plans envisage the deployment of SM-3 interceptor missiles on the sea-based Aegis medium-range system by 2011. Moreover, Washington has initiated talks with several Central European capitals about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 by 2015 and has even raised the prospect of positioning early warning radars in other countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. This could precipitate even more intensive confrontations with Moscow.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claims that U.S. plans for the renovated MD system were holding up the START agreement. Moscow sought a clause in the renewed START treaty that would limit the development of any new U.S. defense shield, claiming that it would upset the nuclear balance. In reality, Putin's statements are part of a negotiating ploy to put pressure on Washington to make further concessions by only deploying a small scale MD system and excluding Central Europe from the network.

Despite or maybe because of Moscow's bellicose reaction, the Polish and Romanian governments have already agreed to allow U.S. missile interceptors on their territories, thus precipitated harsh criticisms from Moscow. Other countries including Bulgaria also expressed an interest in hosting the U.S. facilities to the apparent "bewilderment" of Russian officials.

Hillary ClintonHillary ClintonThe Kremlin has been further outraged by calls from the Polish and Swedish Foreign Ministers for the U.S. and Russia to withdraw their arsenal of short-range or tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from Europe. 200 out of 500 US active warheads are stored in Western Europe, whereas the vast majority of Russia's 2,000 warheads are located in the western part of the country adjacent to Central Europe. Russia's tactical nuclear stockpile is seen as a direct threat to the security of Poland and the Baltic states. The Obama administration has stated its intention to place TNW on the agenda of a subsequent round of arms control talks after the conclusion and ratification of the START treaty.

Negotiations are likely to be tough as Moscow's military doctrine considers TNW as usable offensive weapons to be employed in conventional wars. This is probably the main reason the Kremlin opposes any U.S. missile defense system in CEE and views MD as potentially neutralizing its threat capabilities. During major military exercises in the summer and fall of 2009, Russia's air force launched simulated nuclear strikes against Poland in a purely conventional exercise on a first-strike basis, clearly aiming to intimidate Warsaw and its Baltic neighbors.

In her Washington appearance, Secretary Clinton affirmed that Russia and NATO should collaborate more closely to combat transnational threats such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, piracy, and cyber security. However, she also stated U.S. intentions "to press Russia to live up to its commitments on Georgia and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states." Such statements will obviously be attacked in Moscow.

Clinton's comments on Russia come in the midst of efforts to forge a new NATO Strategic Concept, in time for the planned NATO summit in the fall. The wording of the Concept will not only become a source of dispute with Russia but it could also create frictions within the Alliance.

Several states bordering Russia believe that NATO needs to be more explicit about potential challenges emanating from Russian soil, whether military threats, manipulation of ethnic and territorial disputes, or Moscow's meddling in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus which could ignite cross-border conflicts. They are urging the Alliance to issue a binding declaration on the inviolability of borders in Europe and oblige itself to react when violations occur. The Central Europeans also seek greater clarity on article five security guarantees and its incorporation in NATO's new Strategic Concept, in addition to detailed defense planning for the protection of new members.

For instance, Poland's Defense Minister Bogdan Klich recently asserted that collective defense should remain NATO's core function even while it develops expeditionary capabilities and conducts operations outside Europe. He stressed that the NATO Response Force (NRF) launched in 2002 must become a credible instrument for "strengthening member states should they be threatened with invasion." Moreover, NATO needs to develop operational plans to reinforce allies in the event of Article Five threats and to focus on the "equal distribution" of NATO installations among all allies.

However, any explicit wording about threats from the East or efforts to counter them will be strongly resisted by Berlin, Paris, and Rome. The main concern of several West European actors is to maintain cordial relations with Moscow even while the Kremlin threatens its immediate neighbors. The Obama team will be caught in the middle of such persistent disputes and will have many opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of its leadership.

Janusz Bugajski holds the Lavrentiadis Chair in South East European Studies at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studie

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