2013-05-26 By Richard Weitz
I had the opportunity to attend an International Conference on “Military and Political Aspects of European Security,” hosted in a major Moscow hotel by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), on May 23.
The MOD convened a similar conference last year in Moscow, though that meeting focused exclusively on the missile defense issue.
This year’s session discussed BMD issues, but also common and divergent threat perceptions, existing and possibly new arms control mechanisms, and how to harmonize Europe’s key regional security institutions.
The Russian military organized the conference to raise attention to what they saw as either neglected European security issues or issues where the Russian point of view was not widely known or understood. The event occurs at a time when, at least in the United States, the Middle East and East Asia are grabbing most of the headlines while Europe is considered to be a relatively stable security backwater where the U.S. military presence can be reduced.
Yet, the Russian organizers worry that Europe’s fractured security structure could result in yet another unanticipated major war as occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s and the Caucasus in 2008.
In addition to acknowledging progress in some areas and highlighting unresolved problems in others, the conference organizers aimed to generate ideas and proposals for mutually acceptable solutions that respected the key theme of the Russian organizers: the need for indivisible and equal security in Europe rather than what they correctly consider Europe’s existing NATO-dominated security system in which Russia’s input is not accorded equal weight on many issues.
According to the Russian government, some NATO governments were reluctant to attend the conference, partly due to a desire to continue the practice of limiting the NATO-Russian discourse to mostly closed sessions. Hosting the event ensured that the Russian government was able to relate its perspective to a large foreign audience, while the organizers were fair in allowing alternative perspectives in the panel discussions.
In the end, most Western countries sent at least one senior defense official to the event, as did Russia’s Central Asian and Caucasus allies.
The more than two hundred attendees also included representatives of the major regional security institutions such as NATO and the EU. The Russian government also eventually paid the costs of perhaps most of the analysts from academia and non-governmental organizations like myself who attended. Some Moscow-based defense attachés from various non-Western countries (e.g., South Korea) also participated, while plenty of local media representatives were present.
The Russian heavy hitters who spoke at the conference included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Head of the President’s Office, Sergei Ivanov; the Secretary General of the Collective Security Organization, Nikolai Bordyuzi; and Army General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and a First Deputy Minister of Defence. Influential Russian defense experts also participated in each of the five panel discussions.
The most prominent non-Russians included about a dozen foreign defense ministers, including Safar Abiyev from Azerbaijan, Seyran Ohanian from Armenia, Yuri Zhadobin from Belarus, Panos Panayotopulosom from Greece , Fotis Fotiu from Cyprus, Vitaly Marinuta from Moldova, Aleksander Vucic from Serbia, and Jean-Yves Le Drianom from France. Some NATO countries send their deputy or other senior defense officials. Rose Gottemoeller, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the Department of State, was the senior U.S. official present.
Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov, formerly of the Russian Foreign Ministry and a leading Russian security expert, was the de facto master of ceremonies. In his closing news conference, Antonov acknowledged that Russia-NATO cooperation had improved from its Georgia War nadir of 2008.
Antonov listed several benign factors that should allow for even greater improvements:
- The lack of fundamental ideological differences between Russia and West, and
- Their mutual economic interests, and the growing academic, business, and cultural exchanges between east and west.
Antonov and other Russians also noted that effective arms control instruments such as the Vienna Document 2011 and the Open Skies Treaty continue to function, that Moscow plays a leading role in supporting NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan, and that Russia engages in significant defense cooperation with several NATO countries on a bilateral basis.
Nonetheless, Antonov saw sharp Russia-NATO differences in approaches toward Europe’s optimal security architecture.
He also lamented the lack of confidence and trust between the two sides. Russia also wanted to see more transparency and predictability in NATO’s policies regarding missile defense, cooperation with the CSTO, and other issues. Above all, Antonov complained about the failure of the existing European security structure to respect the principle of the indivisibility of European security, which he argued weakened Europe’s collective capacity to address twenty-first century challenges.
At the same conference, General Gerasimov cited the Russia-NATO Council as one of several possible mechanisms European countries could use to address common security threats that exist or may arise in the Euro-Atlantic region.
But Gerasimov saw continuing differences regarding NATO enlargement and missile defense as impeding much progress toward what he described as a vision of a positive “security equation” in Europe.
Gerasimov said that Russia was still not confident that NATO’s missile defense system would not degrade Russia’s security, while Antonov claimed that even the cancellation of the fourth phase of the U.S. Phased Adaptive Approach toward European Missile Defense had not resolved Moscow’s BMD worries.
In fact, he and other Russians cited the constant changes in the U.S. BMD program as a reason why Russia demanded more predictability, transparency, and constraints on NATO’s missile defense policies.
The conference had five panels of speakers, who covered security threats to the Euro-Atlantic Region, arms control challenges and opportunities, NATO-Russia relations, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and what to do with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On May 24, I and many other conference participants visited the Taman Guards Motorized Rifle Division in the Alabino region outside Moscow.
I will describe the key points raised in these panels and on the base visit in several later pieces, as well as what I learned in my side meetings with Russian security experts before and after the event.