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Did this week's US-NATO-Russia meetings push us closer to war?

Washington's insistence on digging in over NATO expansion and pushing sanctions is setting up a major disaster for both sides.

Analysis | Europe

On January 12, 2022 — a date that will live in hypocrisy — NATO member states declared their heroic determination to fight to the last Ukrainian. They did this by in effect rejecting Russia’s conditions for agreement with the alliance, centered on the demand that NATO rule out further expansion to Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics.

The hypocrisy and idiocy — over which historians of the future are likely to shake their heads in bewilderment — lie in the fact that NATO has no real intention of admitting Ukraine, nor of fighting Russia in Ukraine. Both Washington and Brussels have openly ruled this out. Indeed, NATO could not do so even if it wanted to. U.S. forces in Europe are wholly inadequate to the purpose, as are what is left of the British and French armies. 

Despite all the hysterical rhetoric from European politicians and journalists about the Russian threat, no serious attempt has been made or is being made to build up European armed forces; as witness the consistent refusal of most NATO states — even some of those most bitterly hostile to Russia— to raise their military spending to two percent of GDP.

The real deterrent to Russian military action against Ukraine lies in the threat of greatly intensified economic sanctions — a powerful deterrent, but one that the U.S. Senate is now threatening to throw away by imposing these sanctions in advance, when Russia has not yet taken any action.

If President Putin, and Russia itself, were the forces of instinctive, unlimited aggression and ambition that the Western media has conjured up, then the threat of economic sanctions would be ineffective. Fortunately, Putin has always operated as a ruthless but also cautious, cool-headed, and pragmatic statesman. We can still hope that this will continue to be the case.

Room for Compromise? 

But just as NATO has spent the past 20 years assiduously painting itself into a corner with its empty rhetoric about keeping the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine open, so Moscow is now painting itself into a corner with its ostensibly non-negotiable demand that the United States and NATO officially and categorically rule this out.

There is still a chance that U.S. flexibility in two other areas can avert Russian military action. The first is NATO commitment to deploy no new forces in NATO countries close to Russia’s borders, in return for Russian limits on new deployments and the stand-down of the troops now deployed on Ukraine’s borders.

The second is genuine U.S. and Western support for the Minsk II agreement on autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas region within Ukraine, and real pressure on the Ukrainian government to concede this. Donbas autonomy within Ukraine would be a serious barrier both to Ukraine seeking NATO membership, and to the development of a mono-ethnic Ukraine, and would therefore indirectly meet Russia’s key concerns. 

The United States however now needs to move very fast to offer these compromises. If it does not, then a new war looks increasingly possible. This war would be a disaster for all parties concerned: for NATO, whose military impotence would be cruelly emphasised; for Russia, that would suffer severe economic damage and be forced into a position of dependency on China with grave implications for Russia’s future; and above all for the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who would lose their lives. In fact, the only country that would benefit unequivocally from such a war would be China —and I wasn’t aware that U.S. and NATO policies are designed to further the geopolitical aims of Beijing.

A serious debate over NATO’s true function  

As a result of a long series of steps, NATO today has therefore become an organization profoundly damaging to the real interests of the United States and Europe. It does not have to be this way. If it could return to its core function as the ultimate backstop of West and Central European security, it can still play a modestly useful role. To conduct a serious debate on NATO’s role however it is first necessary to examine with clear-eyed and courageous honesty the reasons why its various member states remain so attached to an alliance whose original purpose disappeared with the end of the cold war.

The reasons are clearest in the case of the United States. Militarily, NATO functions as Airstrip One (George Orwell’s name for Britain in 1984), a base for U.S. power projection in Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa. Allied to this is the influence that it gives America over what remains — for the moment —one of the three great economic heartlands of the world. Canada, as inescapably situated in America’s sphere of influence, does what Washington says, with the occasional squeal of impotent resentment.

Among NATO’s European members, motives differ. The NATO secretariat exists to guarantee its own continued existence, by whatever means necessary. Some of the East Europeans suffer from understandable paranoia vis a vis Russia as a result of their past sufferings at the hands of Moscow — though as with our attitude to any victim of crime, we should not confuse sympathy for their past suffering with acceptance of the resulting paranoia as rational. As for Turkey, it is still in NATO partly to stop it becoming even more of an enemy, and partly  because of the procedural difficulty of kicking it out.

Britain supports NATO essentially as part of the alliance with the United States, which allows Britain to posture as a great power on the world stage by riding on America’s shoulders. France does so for much the same reason, with the difference that while Britain’s interests in this are almost wholly to do with national self-image, France needs the U.S. alliance for a very concrete reason: the increasing necessity of U.S. military support to maintain France’s sphere of influence in Francophone Africa and fight Islamist insurgencies there.

As far as the other West European members of NATO are concerned, the essential reason for their adherence to the alliance is fear — fear of Russia —but above all fear of each other and of themselves. Much of this is due to the Second World War and the ease with which a row of countries surrendered to Germany, while in Germany’s own case there is still a degree to which they fear themselves. 

A new and disastrous twist to European fears was given by the shameful European failure in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. This has left the Europeans with a deep sense (openly acknowledged by German officials in private) that they cannot solve even what (in military terms) are small problems on their own continent without the full involvement of the United States, guaranteed by NATO. And finally of course, America’s military presence as part of NATO spares the Europeans the military spending and the painful military reforms that they would need to undertake if they were to take responsibility for their own security.

These motives may be mildly contemptible, but they are at least modest and rational. The problem is that they have been ingested by two other ambitions that are not modest and rational at all. The first is the U.S. desire for universal hegemony, including the right to dictate other countries’ political systems and what influence they will be allowed to possess beyond their own borders.

 The second is the European elites’ belief in the European Union of as a kind of moral superpower, expanding to embrace the whole of Europe (without Russia of course), and setting a liberal internationalist example to the world; but a militarily impotent superpower that relies for security on the United States, via NATO.

These projects have now manifestly failed. The U.S. project for universal global hegemony was shattered by Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and above all the economic rise of China.The European project has been rejected by large numbers of Europeans; and the failure to establish stable liberal democracy in eastern Europe and the Balkans makes it exceptionally unlikely that the EU will seriously plan to extend membership to Ukraine in the foreseeable future.

If we can recognize this failure and return to a more modest view of ourselves and our role in the world, we can also abandon the empty and hypocritical false promise of further NATO expansion and seek a reasonably cooperative relationship with Russia. Or we can go on living in our world of make-believe, though make-believe worlds have a way of being shattered by harsh realities.

(L-R) U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Russia Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov pose for photographers before a meeting on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini (SWITZERLAND - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
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