Moscow’s Cold War Nostalgia

By Richard Weitz

Last Friday, the Russian government published the drafts of the proposed treaties they had presented to NATO and the United States two days earlier, via Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, who was visiting Moscow. The following day, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov spoke with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to explain the documents.

In a Friday news conference, Russian Deputy Minister Sergei Ryabkov contended that the West needed to urgently act on the drafts. He insisted that they were an integrated package rather than a list of menu items from which NATO and the United States could cherry pick their preferences.

In content, the documents echo what Putin reportedly told Biden in their late November video call. The exchange yielded less success than the White House hoped in dampening tensions. The texts read as a combination of a list of wishes, grievances, and red lines—extending far beyond the current Ukraine crisis. They aim to give Moscow negotiating leverage now, but can provide a pretext for Russian military aggression later.

For over a decade, Moscow has been pushing for a legally binding European security treaty that would establish equal and indivisible security throughout the continent. In the late 2010s, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a “European Security Treaty,” accompanied by a draft “Agreement on Basic Principles to Govern Relations among NATO and Russia in the Security Sphere.”

As with these earlier texts, the drafts released on Friday call for “indivisible, equal, and undiminished security.” The new documents affirm the peaceful resolution of disputes and the preeminence of the UN Security Council in international security matters. Additional articles oblige the parties not to pursue actions that may infringe other countries’ security or treat other states as adversaries.

As earlier, neither NATO nor the United States will accept these new drafts as now written. Russian diplomats presumably expect rejection or they would not have made their texts public. Doing so can be useful for propaganda purposes, at home and abroad. NATO governments will reject the texts, though perhaps adding a general reaffirmation of their willingness to continue the dialogue with Moscow on European security issues.

The wording on threats in both new draft treaties overly subjective and bound to lead to different interpretations in specific applications. The proposed NATO text reads that the parties shall not participate in or support actions or create situations that threaten other parties’ national security.

The text of the treaty with the United States affirms that the sides will “refrain from deploying their armed forces and weaponry…in regions where their deployment could be perceived by the other Side as a threat to its national security.” It specifically excludes NATO countries placing their own forces and armaments on the territory of any of the new members that joined the alliance after May 27, 1997, the day when the Russia-NATO Founding Act was signed,

These prohibitions could cover any action a party considered objectionable. They are also too subjective. For example, whereas Russian analysts would probably see further NATO expansion as harming Moscow’s interests, NATO representatives would claim that it enhances Russian security by making its neighbors more secure.’

Countries can hardly “not strengthen their security individually, within international organizations, military alliances or coalitions at the expense of the security of other Parties” since that is the purpose of such national defense efforts as well as alliances like NATO. It also goes against the logic of international politics to demand that countries “shall not undertake actions nor participate in or support activities that affect the security of the other Party.” Furthermore, how do you measure “equal security?”

The demand on Washington to “refrain from supporting organizations, groups or individuals calling for an unconstitutional change of power” is also a non-starter given Western concerns regarding how the Russian authorities restrict Western-backed NGOs.

NATO members will also not legally commit to exclude new members. Such a pledge goes against the alliance’s principles. It would be difficult for some member governments to secure domestic parliamentary ratification of any pledge. Even more implausible is the demand that NATO remove all foreign military forces and infrastructure from any countries there were not alliance members in 1997. These countries include Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

The proposed ban on all NATO military activity on the territory of Ukraine and other countries near western Russia reflects Moscow’s pining for its Cold War sphere-of-influence in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. This approach has been evident for a century, seen in Stalin’s approach toward Hitler’s Germany and then Churchill and Roosevelt. Some alliance members would insist on continuing joint training and exercises with former Soviet republics that requested the assistance.

Though NATO has de facto accepted a series of buffer states between Russia and eastern alliance members, formally accepting such a sphere is politically impossible in Western democracies. That said, Moscow has created an artificial crisis since there are no prospects of Ukraine entering NATO anytime soon due to the lack of an alliance consensus on the issue.

The demand to end NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement might be acceptable if paired with negotiations to eliminate Russia’s large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The proposed ban on “flying heavy bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments” in “areas outside national airspace…from where they can attack targets in the territory of the other Party” is one-sided in Russia’s favor. Some Russian strategic bombers can reportedly launch cruise missiles while in Russian air space that can reach targets in North America. Any prohibitions on INF-range missile deployments must deal with Moscow’s record of cheating on the INF Treaty.

U.S. officials have, however, already indicated that some parts of the texts could offer a foundation for negotiations. One might be the proposal that the parties “shall exercise restraint in military planning and conducting exercises to reduce risks of eventual dangerous situations.” The calls for peaceful resolution of disputes, additional military-to-military “hotlines,” and for “reaffirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” might also provide a basis for deeper discussions on crisis management and military doctrines.

NATO lacks the authority to negotiate and ratify a collective treaty; all NATO members would have to ratify any legally binding agreement. Given this challenge, it would make more sense to focus on transparency and confidence-building measures that could enhance crisis stability by decreasing fears of surprise attack.

There may also be opportunities to discuss limits of military deployments and exercises near Russia’s borders if Moscow made reciprocal commitments regarding European states’ frontiers. The NATO-Russia Council, the new Russian-U.S. strategic stability dialogue, and other mechanisms could offer a suitable venue for dialogue.

In any case, we are hardly likely to see an end to Moscow’s policy of manipulating periodic war scares. Russian officials value their utility in decreasing the prospects of Ukraine’s entering NATO, pressing for more concessions from the West, and distracting attention from the Russian troops that are already occupying substantial Ukrainian territory.

Credit Photo: Photo 41588914 / Russian Flag © Lerka555 |