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11 July 2016

The Warsaw NATO summit: a view from the Kremlin

What is behind the softening of Russia’s foreign policy rhetoric?

The Kremlin softened its anti-Western rhetoric and made attempts at partial reconciliation with Turkey on the eve of the NATO summit held in Warsaw on July 8-9, and soon after the major NATO military exercise “Anaconda 2016” which was also carried out in Poland. The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council – the second since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 - is already scheduled for July 13.

That being said, no changes in Russian actions in Syria or Ukraine have been observed. Forces stationed in the Western Military District as well as Kaliningrad and Crimea continue to increase in number. Besides, hasty changes in the military command of the Russian Baltic Fleet clearly highlight Moscow’s focus. Hence, the question arises: what is behind the Kremlin rhetoric and were these steps purposely timed to immediately precede the meeting of the leaders of the Alliance? Or was it purely coincidental?

Bear market speculation

Russia’s tactics in its confrontation with the West has a certain essence of good cop/bad cop about it, the roles being assumed alternately by the president and his entourage. Cycles of escalation and rising stakes are followed by cycles of easing off in order to demoralize opponents and make room for a foreign policy maneuver. Only the risk of confrontation remains constant, as confirmed by Russia’s failure to fulfill its obligation under the Minsk Agreements (“Minsk-2”) and its further military mobilization.

It appears that the current softening of the rhetoric is indeed confined to the NATO summit in Warsaw. The previous meeting of the leaders of the Alliance took place in September 2014 in Newport. The cycle of severe escalation in the run-up to the start of the summit (the downed MH17 flight in July and the encirclement of Ilovaisk in August) was followed by Russian concessions and the signing of the Minsk Protocol (“Minsk-1”) on September 5.

The Warsaw summit took place against the backdrop of an altered political landscape: President Barack Obama is set to leave the White House in six months, David Cameron is also serving his last few months in office following his defeat in the Brexit vote. At the same time, the EU is in disarray having been rocked by powerful terrorist attacks and refugee influxes along with Turkey. It is a convenient time for the Kremlin to increase uncertainty through tender words and half-smiles.

To begin with, an improvement in strained relations with Turkey has occurred. Turkey has the second largest and one of the most combat-effective armies of the NATO countries and although Russia is clearly in no hurry to lift all of its sanctions, certain concessions have been made concerning Turkish banks operating in Russia and in relation to the tourist industry. It is also significant that Moscow is striving to take advantage of the cooling of relations between Turkey and the US as well as Europe. This calculation is probably based on the fact that Ankara will focus on the Middle East agenda rather than on the issue of the Eastern flank, having buried the hatchet with Russia and Israel.

Secondly, Russia gives the impression it is prepared for constructive dialogue within the NATO-Russia Council; ready to discuss the issue of disabled transponders on military aircraft flying in airspace over the Baltic Sea and along the European borders. As a result, a relatively insignificant issue is being exploited by Russia in an attempt to take the initiative in shaping the agenda by omitting the more significant issue of dangerous air maneuvers from the discussion. Besides, from a formal point of view, an activated transponder makes it impossible for an aircraft to be downed as an unidentified one. Thus, there remains room for “hooliganism” (let’s refer to it as such) for Russian pilots – no fault found, no concessions made, unpleasant conversations are postponed and diplomatic endeavors prove be in vain.

Thirdly, through its “bear market speculation”, Russia is trying to slow down the rapprochement between Finland and Montenegro with NATO. Clearly, such a rapprochement in no way threatens Russian security. However, it is detrimental to Moscow’s foreign policy since it diminishes its bargaining power on military-and-political issues which is the only area in which Russian diplomacy ups the ante.

Moreover, from the point of view of the internal norms of Putin’s regime, Montenegro’s accession to NATO and Finland’s drift towards the Alliance will cause damage to the middle stratum of the Russian political class, since their ownership of real estate in these countries and their pursuit of business interests will be not so comfortable any longer.

Fourthly, Russia is still trying to shift the focus of NATO leaders towards Syria and again present itself as a player the West will inevitably have to come to terms with and cooperate with (there is no cooperation as such at the moment) while soft-pedaling the problem of Russian aggression against Ukraine. And Putin’s statement that, in the fall, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will arrive at Syria’s shore, is grist for the mill. 

In fact, it is not clear whether the carrier will successfully reach the shore or whether its carrier aviation – fitted primarily for air defense operations – will be used to bomb anyone inland. However, the task here is to once again demonstrate Russia’s determination for the fight against ISIS, to convince the West of the inevitability of cooperation, and that issues related to the way ships of other countries deal with the presence of the Russian aircraft carrier and its escort ships in the Eastern Mediterranean should be resolved in advance. If NATO countries agree to enter such a discussion and reach an agreement with Russia, the Admiral Kuznetsov campaign will no longer be required from a political standpoint.

As a result, the Russian bear market speculation in no way means concessions, let alone changes in Kremlin foreign policy.

The myth and reality of the Suwalki gap

Moscow is really concerned about the fact that Atlantic institutions will step up their roles given the uncertainty over the future of the EU following the Brexit vote. The demonstration of unity within NATO is what’s really destroying all hopes concerning the UK’s possible exit from the European Union, or regarding other contradictions within the EU and the differences in approaches between Europe and America.

The June NATO military “Anaconda 2016” exercise held in Poland as well as the increased presence of troops of the Alliance in the Baltic States have led to serious tension in the Kremlin since they reduce room for maneuver in foreign policy. In particular, they curtail opportunities for exerting military and political pressure and Russia camouflages its discontent through its regular statements on increased NATO military presence at the Russian borders, which poses a threat both to Russia and European stability in general.

There is nothing new here, just as there is nothing new in the fact that Moscow rehearses invasions of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia during some of its military exercises. It achieves the desired position for political bargaining with the West through these words and deeds and the problem here lies in the question of whether this position is correctly defined.

There is a widespread belief that, despite the presence of the Spearhead Force of the Alliance in the Baltic States, Russia is capable of invading these states within three days simply due to its numerical superiority and it is capable of forcing the West to choose between protecting its allies and the need to fight against the nuclear power.

As a rule, the Suwalki gap is of particular concern here. It is part of Poland, a 70 kilometer-stretch of the border with Lithuania, situated between Kaliningrad and Belarus. It is believed that in the case of war, Russia will completely cut off the Baltic States from their NATO allies by closing this gap. However, the purely military-strategic problem of the Suwalki gap diverts attention from the Kremlin’s political motivation.

The Russian authorities are well aware that Russia is capable of invading the Baltic States but it cannot occupy them – Russia will not be able to sustain a fight with NATO for more than a few weeks and will not be able to cope with the inevitable guerrilla warfare. Its purpose is by no means war but rather preservation of power and assets in the hands of the existing political class.

Moscow wants to obtain acceptable living conditions from the West and, ideally, eliminate the North-Atlantic unity which makes it feel so uneasy. Should political and economic survival require that the Kremlin invades the Baltic States (an extreme scenario), one may presume that the Kremlin expects that all 28 NATO member states will neither want to nor be capable of acting as a fully unified force and hence, the Alliance will de facto cease to exist under such circumstances. Russia will swiftly backtrack in the aftermath and then take a seat at the negotiation table before everyone breathes a sigh of relief. NATO, in its present form, will be no more.

A system of large military groups formed by Russia in the Western part of the country sits well with this logic: it instills uncertainty in the West and helps Russia play for time. However, the nervousness which accompanied a large-scale purge of the command of the Baltic Fleet (Kaliningrad) in late June indicates that the Kremlin is not self-confident. This means that it continues to build itself up in a bid to avoid a direct clash with NATO at all costs. And should the Kremlin see that guarantees for the Suwalki gap can be swapped for something more worthwhile and long-term, it will happily do so - the “on” button on the transponders of its aircraft will be pushed. 

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