Factcheck: Encirclement of Russia?
Are Russia’s interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria merely a reaction against the expansion of NATO? Facts and arguments concerning a propaganda myth.
Russia was ignored politically by the West and encircled militarily: this claim belongs to the standard repertoire of Russian propaganda. The assertion falls on fertile ground, even in the West, particularly in Germany. It is used to justify the aggressive shift in Russian policy. Whether the issue is the annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in Ukraine or the Russian role in the Syrian war, the pretence that Russia must free itself from NATO’s grip is always maintained. Those making this claim cite as their proof the eastward expansion of the transatlantic alliance, right up to Russia’s borders. By expanding NATO, the argument goes, the West was breaking a promise it (allegedly) made in 1990 that NATO would not expand to the east. Russia’s legitimate security interests were ignored. The Kremlin’s return to the policy of a militarised great-power is thus justified as a reaction to the growing threat allegedly posed by NATO.
Myth 1: Did NATO make such a promise?
The answer is no. It is true that the topic of a possible eastward expansion of NATO came up in the 2+4 talks held between May and September 1990. At the time though, at issue was only the military status of GDR territory. By signing the 2+4 Treaty, the Soviet Union consented to NATO’s expansion into East Germany. The treaty provided for a transitional period for this expansion: German soldiers assigned to NATO command could not be stationed in East German until after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops there. No nuclear weapons were ever to be deployed on former GDR territory. This commitment has never been broken.
Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe did not enter into the discussion back then. If for no other reason, there could be no commitment about a non-expansion of NATO beyond the river Oder because a dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was “beyond our realm of comprehension” in early 1990, as Eduard Shevardnadze, who was then Soviet foreign minister, put it. The Warsaw Pact was not dissolved until a year later – 1 July 1991.
Before the 2+4 Treaty was signed, there was concern on the Western side that the Soviet Union might make its consent to reunification conditional on a neutral status for Germany. Given Germany’s role in European history though, it was crucial to gain the reassurance of having this big European country integrated within a military alliance of the Western democracies. To ensure that Germany would remain in NATO, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and James Baker, the US secretary of state, approached the Russians before the 2+4 negotiations got underway. In January of 1990, without having consulted in detail with the alliance, they mooted the possibility of a special military status for GDR territory. The West could refrain from expanding NATO (Genscher) or NATO’s jurisdiction (Baker). Clearly not well thought out, the ideas were rejected by NATO within a matter of days as non-viable. In late February 1990, US President Bush and Chancellor Kohl agreed on a united stance: NATO membership for all of Germany was not negotiable. The ideas put forth earlier by Genscher and Baker are now sometimes cited as alleged “promises”. Yet at the end of the day the Soviet Union did explicitly agree to NATO’s expansion into GDR territory in an international treaty. Looking back, Genscher referred to what he had said back then as “feeling out” [Abtasten] before the actual start of negotiations.
Myth 2: Was NATO’s eastward expansion in disregard of Russia?
Here again the answer is no. In June of 1990 at a meeting in Moscow, the Warsaw Pact leaders declared that the participating states “will begin to review the character, functions and activities of the Warsaw treaty and will start its transformation into a treaty of sovereign states with equal rights, formed on a democratic basis.” The political message of the meeting was that the Soviet Union would stop using the pact as an instrument for maintaining control over the Eastern Bloc and that each state has the right to determine whether it wants to be part of an alliance. This was the basis for the Charter of Paris, which was adopted in November of 1990 at the CSCE summit– with the Soviet Union’s approval. The charter guarantees all signatory states full sovereignty and the freedom to choose their alliances. Claiming a sphere of influence is incompatible with both the spirit and the letter of this charter.
Even before NATO had agreed on a common expansion policy (i.e. the terms and conditions under which a state could join), a number of Central European states– in particular Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – had expressed the wish to join the alliance and informed the Russian leadership of their desire. In 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, after long, difficult negotiations, gave a green light in Warsaw to Poland’s accession to NATO, earning himself severe criticism from hardliners in the Russian secret service, Russian fascists like Zhirinovsky and Dugin and the Communist Party.
In 1994, the Russian Federation joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” programme. One aim of this programme was to bring Russia closer to the alliance. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Russia was never refused entry into NATO. The Kremlin would have had to subject itself to the terms of a Membership Action Plan, i.e. a reform programme that would have included strengthening democratic control over the armed forces and security services, a prospect the Russian leadership consistently rejected.
The 1999 and 2004 rounds of NATO enlargement were both preceded by consultations with Russia, and confidence-building measures associated with both. This was to ensure that Russia’s security needs would be respected. The transformation of the armed forces of the new member states to meet NATO standards also included the disbanding of reserve units (mobilization force) and a large reduction of total forces. There were no longer any offensive-capable armies on Russia’s Western border, nor any reserve units which could be called up to perform occupation duties. Today, NATO is very far from being in a position to conquer Russia militarily.
NATO’s expansion occurred at the urging of the acceding states. For them, NATO was insurance against the reawakening of Russia’s imperial ambitions. To refuse them admission due to Russia’s concerns would have gone completely counter to the principles of the Charter of Paris on the full and equal sovereignty of all countries, while also creating a dangerous security vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999. Prior to that, the was signed in 1997. In this declaration of intent, a legal instrument under international law, the two sides commit to refrain from the threat or use of force against each other, and to respect the inviolability of borders, sovereignty and peoples’ right of self-determination. NATO pledged that it would refrain from the permanent stationing of additional substantial combat forces in the new member states “in the current and foreseeable security environment”. Russia, for its part, committed to exercise restraint in the deployment of its conventional forces in Europe.
These commitments have been meticulously respected by NATO to date. At its 2014 summit in Wales, NATO remained unswerving in its commitment to the NATO-Russia Founding Act despite the aggression against Ukraine. It has still not stationed any “substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe. “Not substantial” means that those troops that are in place are too weak to carry out offensive missions against Russia. This self-imposed restriction continues to be strictly observed, the deployment of four NATO battalions in the Baltic and Poland (NATO Enhanced Forward Presence) in response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine notwithstanding. Three of these battalions are stationed in the Baltics (one in each country) and one in Poland supplemented by three battalions within the scope of the US operation “Atlantic Resolve” (each with 800‑1000 personnel). Right across the border from the total of 19 NATO battalions in the Baltic (the three international contingents plus the armies of the Baltic states) stand 40 Russian battalions. And another three Russian divisions stand directly behind the Belarus border, with Poland in their line of sight (the Polish army is two divisions strong). Thus, how militarily superior Russia could possibly feel threatened by its neighbours remains a mystery.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia joined NATO in 2004. The Permanent Joint Council (PJC) had already been established as a framework for consultation and cooperation with Russia through the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. In 2002, the PJC was upgraded to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). The NRC was officially established by the Rome Declaration (on “NATO-Russia Relations: a New Quality”), which was signed by the NATO member heads of state and government and President Putin. The declaration was drawn up with a view to Russian security interests in anticipation of the enlargement of NATO in 2004.
For the NRC, Russia established an office for a permanent representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Russia is the only non-NATO state with access to those headquarters. The NRC meets twice each year at the level of foreign and defence ministers and chiefs of staff and takes decisions based on consensus. Military consultations are held monthly. The NRC was suspended in 2014 as a sanction against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. It has been meeting again since 2016.
Myth 3: Does NATO pose a threat to Russia?
Repeating something over again and again does not make it true. Whereas NATO has reduced its military capacities in Europe since 1998, Russia has been upgrading and modernising its armed forces ever since Putin first entered office. Russia routinely carries out large-scale exercises and short-notice operational readiness inspections. The exercises have grown so large that they can now be measured against the magnitudes of those of Soviet times. It has been estimated that Russia carries out exercises three times more often than NATO.
The regular large-scale exercises are particularly striking in this respect. In some cases, they have clearly served to prepare for Russian deployments in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria. Regarding the exercises, Russia systematically circumvents the Vienna Document on confidence-building measures, specifically with respect to notification duties. Adopted in 1990 within the framework of the OSCE and updated several times since then, this document states that the states participating in the OSCE must be invited to observe exercises that involve 13,000 or more troops. Russia regularly fudges the numbers on these drills to keep below this threshold.
In the Zapad 2009 (West 2009) exercise, Russia, together with Belarus, de facto rehearsed an attack on Poland. A simulated nuclear strike on Warsaw formed part of these war games.
Zapad 2013 was also carried out jointly with Belarus. The OSCE was notified that less than 13,000 soldiers would be taking part. In reality, about 70,000 soldiers deployed. Obviously, the intent was to avoid having to invite foreign observers. The Russian side described the drills as training for anti-terror operations. In fact, all branches of the armed services were involved in an area of operations that stretched along the borders of Poland, the Baltic countries and Finland, right up to the Barents Sea. They simulated a large-scale attack on multiple EU, NATO and neutral countries. Troops and capabilities involved in the Zapad 2013 exercise were also deployed in 2014 in connection with the annexation of Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine.
Vostok 2014 (East 2014), an exercise involving 100,000 troops, was said to be the largest exercise since the end of the Soviet Union. It was followed a year later by Tsentr 2015 (Centre 2015), which was preceded by an unannounced combat readiness inspection and involved 95,000 troops. It seemed clear to many observers that one purpose of the exercise was to train capabilities for the operation in Syria.
Around 120,000 troops took part in Kavkaz 2016 (Caucasus 2016), rather than the originally reported 12,500, as Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov later announced. The exercise involved the testing of a new networked command system.
Russia provided false information concerning the scale of the Zapad 2017 exercise too, reporting that it would involve 12,600 troops, again below the threshold over which observers must be invited according to the Vienna Document adopted within the framework of the OSCE. Belarus, which also participated in the exercise, did invite observers in its own name. In reality, around 70,000 troops took part in the drills.
During the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, Russia carried out permanent “exercises” on the border to Eastern Ukraine, the purpose of which was clearly to keep the troops on the Ukrainian border in a state of readiness. These exercises were irreconcilable with the Helsinki Final Act, the Vienna Document and the NATO-Russia Founding Act in many respects: Russia did not invite observers, was clearly not refraining from deploying conventional troops in Europe and broke its pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force against any other OSCE state.
NATO holds no exercises that are comparable in scale or in the strategic focus of possible military operations. There are no indications at all of preparations for an offensive against Russia. Given current troop deployments and the shortage of transport capacities and offensive weapon systems, such an offensive would not even be feasible militarily at this time. Moreover, it would receive absolutely no political backing in the West.
On the contrary, the Russian exercises document another instance of Russian military superiority: in mobilizing forces within the briefest possible time and consolidating them in a single location. NATO has not engaged in troop movements on that scale in deployment or training exercises since the military operation in Kosovo (1999, 60,000 troops). Then as now, support from the USA was necessary to deploy troops on that scale. The bulk of the American troops would first have to be brought over the Atlantic by ship and then transported from the ports of debarkation to the theatre of operations on the eastern flank by rail. NATO has not rehearsed this procedure since 1993, and even during the Cold War doing so required several weeks of preparations. Russia would enjoy complete military superiority over NATO in the first months of a war.
Apart from all that, even a brief glance at the map makes it clear that there can be no question of an encirclement of Russia by NATO. The NATO countries and Russia share only one short land border at the North Cape and in the Baltics. Even if one counts Kaliningrad, the Baltic Sea region and the Black Sea as zones of overlapping security interests, the enormous border regions in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and East Asia remain devoid of any NATO military presence.
The talk about the “West’s broken promises” and the ostensible encirclement of Russia by NATO is nothing but a propaganda myth. The facts are that close security policy consultations aiming at an institutional security partnership were held with Moscow in connection with German reunification and ahead of the two rounds of NATO expansion. The NATO-Russia Founding Act and the NATO-Russia Council are products of these arrangements. The transatlantic alliance is not geared towards an attack on Russia militarily, nor would an offensive of that nature be conceivable politically. Rather, NATO, particularly for its members in Central and Easter Europe, is insurance against the Kremlin’s newly reawakened superpower aspirations.
One could accuse the USA of viewing Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a second-rate power, one not entitled to much in the way of consideration in the geopolitical arena. But to say that the West poses a military threat to Russia is absurd. It was the Russian leadership under Putin that instituted a dramatic course change in domestic and foreign policy: from a policy of developing closer ties with the West to one of confrontation, from recognising the equal sovereignty of all European states to a renewed claim to a Russian sphere of influence. The ruling regime in Moscow has come to see the Euro-Atlantic integration of Russia as a threat. The authoritarian restoration within Russia matches the return to policy of a militarised great power outside of it.
Our thanks to Gustav Gressel (ECFR) for his expert advice.
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