The biggest disappointment of my four years at NATO was our failure to build a good working relationship with Russia. I came in with high hopes, believing that I could be part of the reset of relations between Moscow and the West.
While there were many areas where both sides cooperated to our mutual benefit (counterpiracy, Afghanistan, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, etc.), the overall tenor of our association during my tenure went from cautious and skeptical but hopeful to outright icy. Events drove this progression: Libya (Russia hated what NATO did there); Syria (complete disagreement with most of the U.N. member nations); missile defense (no progress was made because the Russians mistakenly believed NATO’s missile-defense system threatened Russia); and the ongoing disagreement about Georgia and the Russian occupation.
The reasons for my hopes and disappointment were more than just strategic. For roughly the first half of my naval career, the Soviet Union was the single dominant threat on the near horizon. Nearly everything the U.S. military did was designed to deter—and failing that, defeat—what was viewed as the mighty Soviet armed forces. I spent many, many hours memorizing the Soviet order of battle, the range of the Soviet Union’s missiles, the speed of its jets, the numbers of its fleet, and so on.
Despite that background, I have long been a huge admirer of Russian culture, particularly the literature. I’ve spent hundreds of hours—many more than with Russian military statistics—with the classics: Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Bulkokov, Solzhenitsyn, Pushkin, and Turgenev; and more recent authors such as Babenko, Aksyonov, Sholokhov, and Shteyngart. Above all, I love the brilliant (and, sadly, unfinished) novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, which captures the indomitable character of Russia in all its unique spirit and bleak humor. There is much to care about, much to admire, and much to be learned from the literature of Russia. Someday, in my new academic incarnation, I will give a lecture about all I have learned from “the Russians.”
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain was shredded and the former Soviet Socialist Republics were no longer a union; there was great cause for optimism in both the West and the East. Perhaps Americans were too optimistic. More than just quickly cashing and spending the peace dividend, we banished to the back of our minds two generations’ worth of ill feelings and distrust. Throughout my tour in Europe, however, those who had lived not only under the shadow of the bear but also under its thick heel were quick to remind me that we should not presume that the woods are now safe. The Poles and the Baltics were particularly skeptical of the Russian bear hug.
Throughout the early days of my time at NATO I was reasonably optimistic about our relations with Russia because I figured that, in the end, they would have nowhere else to go. Suppose you were a Russian strategic planner. You look to the southeast and see China—not a likely partner. Central Asia, to the south, consists largely of Islamic countries with a culture that could not be less like your own. For the past decade the Russians have been trying to cobble together a “NATO lite” with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes such stalwarts as Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—hardly the Warsaw Pact; and frankly, the Warsaw Pact wasn’t that good.
The Russians need to face facts: By midcentury Turkey will surpass Russia in population. Russia’s only realistic option is to try and integrate with Europe. Therefore, logic says the Russians should work toward an accommodation with NATO, stop trying to split apart the United States and Western Europe (which is counterproductive and distorts their relations with Europe), and accept the inevitable. They have a lot of bad choices and one good one—working with the United States and Europe—and yet they show no signs of recognizing the signpost ahead of them.
Naturally, a great deal rests on how Vladimir Putin proceeds. Will he be the grand nationalist everyone expects? Or will he do a “Nixon goes to China” and work against type? Time will tell. I see about an 80 percent chance that he remains a difficult partner and a 20 percent chance that he does something ultimately good for the West (and for Russia).
There is something about the Russian psyche, especially as presented in leaders like Putin, that makes them difficult when things are not going their way. There are countries that can handle the transition from superpower to major power with grace and equanimity. While the sun does set on the British Empire these days, the Brits have managed the transition with poise and style that is noticeably missing among our Russian friends. It is more than just unwillingness to accept that they are not the global agenda setters that they once were; some of the Russian leadership also exhibit a level of near paranoia that makes negotiation with them problematic in the extreme.
To be sure, one of the reasons the Russians occasionally act irrationally is that they hold such a bad hand. Among just a few of the problems they are dealing with are a dwindling population, soaring alcoholism and substance abuse (they lose 30,000 young people a year to drug addiction), the Islamic terrorist threat from the Caucasus, rampant corruption, the exploding Chinese population at their doorstep, a broken governance system, and the headache of having more than 15,000 nuclear weapons to maintain and keep secure. They do not have much going for them economically beyond oil and gas—a “Yarborough,” as they say in bridge: a hand without a single good card.
These problems have created a people deeply resentful of the West, whom they need to survive. At times, they seem not informed by their past but imprisoned by it. But there is no reason for the West to gloat or take any comfort from that. The world needs a stable Russia. It is a nation of extraordinary resilience with an amazing history and a culture with a streak of dark humor that can survive almost anything. Russia’s future lies in the West. We must relegate the Cold War to the dustbin of history and build a true strategic partnership with Russia; the opportunities are many if we do.
I am surprised at how easily Americans now “assume away” Russia in our global calculations (I think the Russians are too). The Russians could still easily destroy the United States, although their own country would be destroyed in the nuclear exchange (unlikely, thankfully); they possess abundant natural resources (although their economy remains a one-trick pony); and they can either help us or hurt us a great deal on the international scene (witness the gridlock in Syria as a result of Russia’s intransigence). If we do not find a way to work with the Russians and develop zones of cooperation, Russia may become a perpetual spoiler.
The High North also comes into the mix when we deal with Russia. We must avoid militarizing the Arctic. We need to ensure that this open space becomes a zone of cooperation, not a zone of confrontation as it was during the Cold War. Cooperation in the Arctic today through such organizations as the Arctic Council can help build trust and focus our efforts in areas of mutual interest to maintain regional security.
The good news is that we have created several zones of cooperation with Russia over the past several years that are bearing reasonably good results. They include:
Counterpiracy operations. Russian ships routinely operate in the same waters as NATO warships. While our mutual efforts are only loosely coordinated, the results are striking: Piracy has declined more than 70 percent between 2010 (the peak) and 2013, and not a single ship has been hijacked since May 2012. The number of ships and mariners held hostage has plummeted. Overall, this is a very effective operation, made more effective by the presence of Russian warships.
Afghanistan. Russia has contributed small arms and ammunition to the Afghan security forces and has sold Mi-17 helicopters and provided maintenance training for the nascent Afghan Air Force. Perhaps most important, the Russians have been helpful with logistics, including allowing a transit arrangement that helps sustain the international support mission for Afghanistan.
Military exchanges and training exercises. These have also been reasonably successful. Russian soldiers, sailors, and airmen have participated in exercises with U.S. and NATO nations. These exchanges—including port calls in Russia by NATO warships—have been well received by both militaries.
The High North/Arctic region. We all agree that this area of the world must remain a zone of cooperation and concur that the Arctic Council—with members from the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Iceland, and several other key nations—is the best forum for discussions.
Counterterrorism and counternarcotics. We have reasonable cooperation and a shared sense of the challenges involved. As the Sochi Olympics approached, we offered assistance and shared information through a variety of channels to prevent a terrorist incident. In the counternarcotics world we work together on the flow of heroin from Afghanistan—a high priority for Russia.
The 2014 Olympics presented an opportunity for better interaction between East and West, and both sides took advantage of it. With the terrorist threat high as a result of radical elements in the nearby Caucasus, the Russians worked closely with Western and U.S. entities on counterterrorist information sharing, electronic surveillance technology, and physical security. No one wants a threat to our athletes, and the need for an “all hands on deck” effort provided useful connections. The confluence of athletes from the U.S./NATO nations and Russia competing together likewise brought together senior statesmen in Sochi—providing openings and opportunities to discuss the tough issues before us. Certainly, that is part of the vision of the games going back to the founders of the Olympic movement, although it is hard to point to any practical progress and easy to find the failures—1936 in Berlin (where Hitler used the games for propaganda), 1972 in Munich (with the deadly terrorist attack), and the 1980 and 1984 boycotts come to mind. On the other hand, there are clearly challenges in the relationship. We have ongoing disagreements over Russian forces stationed in Georgia and missile defense. Russia sees the NATO missile-defense system as posing a threat to its strategic intercontinental ballistic-missile force. We strongly disagree. The system is clearly designed as defense against Iran, Syria, and other ballistic-missile-capable nations that threaten the European continent.
Russia has been extremely critical of NATO’s role in Libya. We maintain that we operated under the U.N. Security Council mandate to establish a no-fly zone, enforce an arms embargo, and protect the people of Libya from attacks. Our efforts in that regard were well within the bounds of the Security Council resolution’s mandate and the norms of international law. Russia sees it differently, and whenever I discuss this with Russian interlocutors we find little room for common view. This tends to create a differing set of views about the dangerous situation in Syria as well.
The Snowden affair threw a bucket of ice water on our relationship with Russia. When Edward Snowden fled China and headed to the transit zone of the Moscow airport, I thought he had made a crucial mistake. I guessed that Russia would at best turn him over to the United States on an internationally recognized warrant, and at worst would expel him quickly, leading to opportunities to apprehend him. I was wrong. It is a reflection of how low our relations have sunk that Russia—a nation that will normally cooperate closely with us on criminal, terrorist, and narcotics matters—not only rejected our warrant but then granted Snowden a year’s political asylum. It harkens back to the days of Philby, Burgess, and Maclean—British spies who sold out their country during the Cold War and escaped to the Soviet Union. I had thought we were well beyond such behavior, but this policy clearly came right from the top: Vladimir Putin himself. There are days when I think John McCain had it exactly right. Days after President George W. Bush famously said he had looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, McCain said, “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters: a K and a G and a B.” Sadly, that is a pretty good summation of the leadership in Moscow today. Until Putin decides to warm up relations, the forecast is for chilly weather.
Life is full of choices—for nations as well as for people. There is a Russian proverb that says, “Every road has two directions.” My hope is that through their mutual choices, NATO and Russia will find a way to travel together on the road ahead. My heart remains with Russia, although my head tells me the relationship ahead will be full of bumps.
By the spring of 2014, events had turned decidedly worse in our relationship with Russia. Putin’s darker angels had indeed won out (my 80 percent chance above), and he had led his nation on what will ultimately be a self-defeating move to invade Crimea. By annexing a large chunk of sovereign territory under the guise of a “referendum” conducted with tens of thousands of Russian troops (I almost wrote Soviet) staring at the voters, he brings back every bitter taste of the Cold War like a bad vodka hangover. I think it is a stretch to compare him to Hitler, but his actions badly rattle the old ghosts in Europe that my friend General G?gor of Poland warned me about years ago.
Sadly, it seems unlikely this will result in anything but roadblocks in issues far more important, frankly, than Ukraine: Syria, Iran, the High North, Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and counternarcotics; cooperation between Russia and the West in those areas is now badly at risk.
Whether Putin stops and consolidates Crimea, with a sympathetic Russian-speaking majority population and its excellent strategic warm-weather port at Sevastopol, remains to be seen. In my view, it would be a significant strategic mistake for him to press on and take more of Ukraine. Without Crimea, the rest of the population is less than 15 percent Russian-speaking, an even harder case to make politically and diplomatically.
The key for the West—really, for the entire globe—is to ensure there is no repetition of the invasion into the rest of Ukraine or (improbably and very dangerously) into a NATO nation. Only 8 of the U.N.’s nearly 200 member nations voted against the resolution condemning Russia’s actions; they included Russia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, Syria, and Belarus—hardly a sterling group of allies. So the good news is that there is near-universal opposition. The bad news is that Putin is not much interested in world opinion, generally speaking—especially now that the Olympics are over. So what should we do?
Politically, lead a global voice of condemnation in the U.N. and other fora. Throw Russia out of the G-8 permanently until the issues are resolved. Implement targeted sanctions and consider broader and stronger ones if further borders are crossed in the same manner. In terms of military support to Ukraine, boots on the ground is not a viable option; but we should share intelligence and information, provide arms and ammunition, conduct training and mentorship, consider mentors in-country, help with cyber protection, and conduct exercises with the Ukrainian armed forces. The NATO command structure should be energized and ready, and the NATO Rapid Deployment Force should be exercised vigorously. NATO should strengthen its resolve, conduct exercises in the member nations near the Russian border, and move additional forces there. The U.S. drawdown in Europe should be paused, and perhaps reversed. And our cyber defenses across the alliance should be strengthened. These actions hopefully will have a deterrent effect on Russian designs. It is highly unlikely that Russia wants seriously to tangle with NATO, which outspends it roughly eight-to-one on military expenditures.
Having said all that, we still need to find a modus vivendi with Russia. It is too big, and too dangerous given its nuclear weapons, to be ignored or isolated. And we would all benefit from cooperation in the areas I mentioned earlier. So we need diplomatic interaction and dialogue and must find a way forward that permits Ukrainians to decide their own future within the remaining borders of their state. The U.S./NATO relationship with Russia must focus pragmatically on what we can do of mutual benefit, continue to condemn the actions in Crimea, bolster NATO resolve and defense, and allow Ukraine free choices on its orientation.
The letters in Putin’s eyes are K . . . G . . . B, as Senator McCain said. I would say Putin is a classic Russian nationalist born a couple of centuries too late. He will be a difficult “partner” indeed.