To understand Russia’s foreign policy today, its relations with Turkey and the West, one needs to look at the past.
Today, we have vast nuclear arsenals and the number of countries with nuclear capabilities has increased around the world. Current threats are being addressed with temporary solutions. Iran officials have already said they intend to resume their nuclear programme after the 15-year deal they struck with the US and other countries expires. In an even more alarming prospect, the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe due to a local conflict is now on the table. Who could have imagined this scenario five years ago?
Decades have passed since the Cold War. There’s a new generation of politicians, officials, and military personnel. Those in power today do not know what it means to count warheads everyday and go to sleep with the thought that tomorrow may never come. They didn’t live through a state of permanent fright, dreading the end of the world. They did not experience dealing with a crisis that pushes the world to the brink of a global war. They came to power during a time when relations between Russia and the West are relaxed. They take this situation for granted and focus on each other’s faults instead. When tensions rose a few years ago, it was easy for them to talk about the use of nuclear weapons and not think of the consequences of such actions.
Of course, the world faces serious problems today: terror group Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant), the war in Syria and Iraq, the migrant crisis, slow growth. But these are issues civilised nations are capable of solving one way or another.
The system of controlling nuclear weapons is falling apart. This system was an integral part of nuclear war prevention. It was built over the course of the previous half century by the tireless work of government leaders, diplomats, soldiers, scientists and public figures. Now, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark 1987 agreement between the US and the former Soviet Union to eliminating certain missiles, is threatened.
There’s the possibility that the successor of US President Barack Obama will declare that the treaty was breached by Russia, and withdraw from it. Then everything will crumble. Treaty after treaty will fall, carrying the risk of new nuclear powers emerging in the near future. Instead of the current nine, we will face dozens. This means that terrorists will inevitably access these weapons. The likelihood of the disintegration of nuclear arms control, and the rate at which it happens, depends on who will be in power in the US by the end of the year, and what decisions will be taken by the Kremlin.
From partners to rivals
During his first two terms, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country is a European nation, characterised by European values and standards. Those statements have faded today.
US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is quick to point fingers at Russia. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, appears to be on the fence about the Kremlin. Clinton is in the middle of a heated campaign in which politicians compete in “patriotism.” Russia is as an adversary of the US and Nato, so her words are understandable in this context.
The current state of relations was triggered by Moscow between 2011 and 2012. The Kremlin decided not to put up with the model of cooperation at that time. Russia believed its position in the world was not acknowledged and its relations with the West had not been established on an equal footing.
For a while, the West didn’t want to believe that it was necessary to consider Russia an enemy. Not because of any great love for Russia. It was because life was too good after the Cold War and relations with Russia had been acceptable for the West. The US considered itself the world’s only superpower. The European Union was achieving the kind of prosperity and security the likes of which the continent hadn’t seen for more than 1,000 years.
This era of wellbeing lasted only a quarter of a century. It was enough to miss drastic changes in Russia’s rhetoric. In the midst of this contentment, it was easy to overlook Russia’s change of policy in 2012, when the country started to focus on Eurasia. In 2014, Russia embarked on a power struggle with the West over Ukraine.
This is bad news for dealing with threats such as terrorism, which need the combined effort of the civilised world. Russia and the West aren’t able to come together to address this threat because their judgement is obstructed by fear and distrust due to the deceptions of the past.
It’s hard to believe today but Russia had supported Nato in battling extremist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan despite its irritation over the alliance’s involvement in Yugoslavia in the ‘90s. At the time, the Kremlin believed that helping the US in the fight against Al Qaida was of greater importance.
Today, Putin apparently has different priorities and opponents. He no longer talks about Russia being “European”, and his views are backed by political analysts, deputies and television journalists in Russia. At the same time, the worldview of the West also changed but it’s not so quick to label yesterday’s friends as enemies, or vice versa.
The Turkish trap
With this background, we can better understand Turkey’s warming relations with Russia. Turkey is not the West. It’s not a member of the EU and will never become a part of it. The way things are going, Ankara will move further and further away from the bloc, and then from Nato, an alliance that it’s currently a member of. The rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown signs that such an outcome is likely. It would not be the first time a country would leave Nato. France briefly withdrew from the alliance in 1966 because it didn’t like American hegemony and the new world order. Ankara may follow a similar path and demand US troop withdrawal from Turkish territory.
Such a turn of events would probably be favoured by the Kremlin. But here’s the trap: A tactical victory can turn into a strategic loss for Russia. The West would manage the Black Sea region and the Middle East by consolidating allies such as Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine. Even without joining Nato, these nations could formalise bilateral military relations with the US and allow large military bases on their territory, much like Japan and South Korea.
Playing on fears and nerves
Moreover, Erdogan is not a very predictable politician and his current mood is not a sturdy foundation for long-term relations with Russia. The interests of Turkey conflict with those of the Kremlin on a variety of issues: the Middle East, the Caucasus, Ukraine, and central Asia. In the long run, these differences outweigh the momentary relief that the deterioration of relations between Turkey and Nato brings. Another important point to consider is that Turkey is gradually moving toward Islamism. Is that the greater threat to Russia than Nato?
Accusations are routinely traded between Russia and the US about violations in airspace and water. For now, this is just a mutual show of force. The US doesn’t do it to frighten Russia but to calm down their Nato allies, who ask for aid against the Russian “military threat”. The US needs to respond so that their leading role in Nato and their promises of security are taken seriously. In Moscow, of course, we aren’t going to allow such moves to be made at our expense. So, Russia responds the only way it can, and the vicious circle continues.
Our offensive operations are seen as a legitimate means of defence against the threat of war. The threat is not very clear so maybe our counter-measures are excessive. Perhaps the fears of the West are unreasonable. But they didn’t come out of nowhere. For instance, the alliance fears Russia’s ambition to mobilise pontoon bridge brigades, which is a qualifying criterion of a highly offensive military strategy, particularly in Europe where waterways are abundant.
When it comes down to it, neither side is preparing an attack. But the difference in the perception of the current situation breeds mutual distrust. If this is followed by the buildup of tension and military advancement, it could result in armed conflict.Have the US and Russia begun a new arms race? During the Cold War, the US initiated the race. They advanced, and the former Soviet Union had to catch up. In the ‘90s, the arms race was over. Russia and the US simultaneously reduced their nuclear arsenals. The period of tension was followed by an era of modernisation. Each nation embarked on research and innovation, minus the competition.
But since 2008, Russia began to allocate substantial funding to military upgrades and training. The country had considerable revenue due to high oil prices and wanted to quickly improve its nuclear forces. But the US does not want to embark on another arms race with Russia. It believes economic sanctions against the country will force the Kremlin to change its foreign policy. So far, this move has been unsuccessful.
Russia must rationally evaluate which parts of planned military advancements are required for safety and defence, and which are for the sake of prestige, for the benefit of military manufacturers, and the like. Russia must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Its national tradition appears to be to step on the same rake over and over again. As noted by Grigory Yavlinsky, a Russian economist and politician, this repetition stems from the fact that some get to step on the rake. Others feel its jab in their face.
— Worldcrunch 2016, in partnership with Kommersant/ New York Times News Service
Aleksei Arbatov is the author of a number of books and numerous articles and papers on issues of global security, strategic stability, disarmament and Russian military reform.