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Right approach to Russia

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
July 9, 2016

What NATO decided at its Warsaw summit is not a Cold War but clever realpolitik. Lines have been drawn, and that could be bad news for Georgia and Ukraine, writes Bernd Riegert.

Image: DW/B. Riegert

If NATO is rattling its saber then it's doing it very softly. In military terms, the four battalions it has agreed to station at its eastern border are not really a threat to Russia's much stronger forces. Moscow is unlikely to be impressed by this increase in NATO's capabilities.

Nor is that something anyone in NATO had expected. It was much more a matter of demonstrating unity - and about showing the Baltic states, which were once occupied by the Soviet Union, and the former countries of the Soviet-forged Warsaw Pact that NATO understands their concerns.

No one at NATO seriously believes that Russia intends to attack current NATO countries or to launch hybrid attacks against them as it did with its "little green men" in Ukraine. NATO's reading of Russian President Vladimir Putin is that he's after something else. He wants to secure Russian influence in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

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DW's Bernd Riegert

Goals and boundaries

And he has done that. Belarus is an ally. The other states are involved in conflicts that Russia played a critical part in fueling. None of these countries can become a member of NATO with these "frozen conflicts." Their territory is staked off for years, if not decades.

This is also how Putin's recent visit to Finland should be understood. Moscow made it clear to the Finns, who have had an on-again, off-again pursuit of closer ties with NATO, that Finland has a very, very long, and potentially vulnerable, border with Russia.

NATO, in turn, has made it clear to Russia with the summit in Warsaw that Moscow can go no further. This was also the message from western NATO countries that are not directly threatened. Putin has so far failed to split the Western military alliance.

The missile defense system in Poland that has already been partly put into operation is not itself a saber that could ever be rattled. It is technically incapable of stopping Russian ICBMs. It is aimed, at best, against the threat from Iran. And the leadership in Moscow knows this, of course, even if it repeatedly claims the opposite.

Nothing blocking dialogue

With this now resolved, nothing is really standing in the way of a new dialogue between NATO and Russia. The NATO-Russia Council is to be revived. Putin spoke over the phone with presidents Obama and Hollande and Chancellor Merkel. High-level dialogue has taken place. And it must, as the NATO countries and Russia have common political interests: the war in Syria, defense against Islamic terrorism, developments in Afghanistan and Iran - not to mention their shared economic interests.

NATO's Warsaw summit has set the tone for mutual interactions that are firmly grounded in realpolitik. But there are losers from NATO's dual strategy of gentle saber rattling and dialogue: Ukraine and Georgia. They have to get used to the fact that Russia will long remain a thorn in their side and that there is nothing NATO can - or wants - to do about it.

The right response

Putin is to be fenced in where he is now. But the return of Crimea - or a retreat from Abkhazia or Transnistria - remains an illusion. This has, incidentally, precious little to do with the Cold War. At that time, two hostile ideological blocs stood facing each other armed to the teeth with hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Central Europe.

Today, the number of conventional forces is rather small. Democracies are facing a Putin regime that does not follow any ideology but is often erratic and less predictable than the Soviet leadership in its pursuit of power and wealth. The response that NATO has given the cold power tactician in the Kremlin is the right one.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union