NATO and Russia: The Many Unknowns

Map of Eurasia and the Middle East
Map of Eurasia and the Middle East

Officially the Warsaw NATO summit will be about the deployment of military forces, missiles and arms projects. But in fact hovering above all will be one question: How to deal with the Russian military powerhouse that resurfaced in the East. More than two years after the political and military escalation in Ukraine, opinions on how to proceed with Russia are drifting apart. While host country Poland urges greater NATO presence and a tougher line towards Moscow, others are willing to pave the way for a détente and an easing of sanctions.

In particular Poland and the Baltic states are still trying to come to terms with the results of a poll taken last year by the Washington based Pew Research Center. In that survey a majority of respondents in France, Germany and Italy stated that they do not feel required to help in case of a Russian attack on a Nato member - although this obligation is laid down in article five of the NATO Treaty. The poll was nourishing the fear that solidarity among NATO members is rather weak - to say the least.

The proper way to handle Moscow depends on the answer to the seemingly eternal question: What does Russia want? How do Russians see themselves?

In the mid 90ies when Russia painfully suffered from post-communist depression, then-President Boris Yeltsin resorted to an unusual measure. He initiated a promotional contest asking the question "кто мы", "Who are we?" The right answer was supposed to provide an open contest among Russian citizens. They were asked to come up with nothing less than a "new national idea". An idea that could inject new confidence in the shattered psyche of people in the former Soviet Union. The pro-government newspaper "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" made the venture known nationwide. A jury was appointed to read and judge the submissions. And the winner would be awarded a prize of ten million rubles, then roughly 15,000 Dollars.

The somewhat awkward initiative rose from the great disorientation of the time. Russia no longer knew its place in the world: Was it in Europe? In Asia? Was Russia a superpower in name only? Although still equipped with nuclear capabilities but apart from that conventionally militarily and economically a regional power at best? And what kind of nation was this new Russia? A multiethnic conglomerate painstakingly trying to rein in the manifold centrifugal forces? That broken Russia did not seem to be anymore the pays exceptionnel that the Soviet Union always considered itself.

That was 20 years ago. Today the situation has not much changed. Russia still cannot decide where to go, what political or economic system it belongs to, what society it wants to be - and what values it considers worthwhile. The main difference though is: In search of its identity the Moscow of our days looks much less inwards. It rather tries to define itself by being confrontational with the outer world. That it is what makes Russia so unpredictable - and qualifies for many as a real threat.

This, of course, was not the plan 25 years ago when Boris Yeltsin saved Glasnost and Perestroika by thwarting the coup d'etat of former communists Gennady Yanayev and Vladimir Kryuchkov. Then the signs pointed to reform. Moscow's erstwhile satellites had already begun to profoundly restructure. Poland had started a shock therapy in 1990, Hungary initiated gradual reform steps and former Czechoslovakia organized the so-called voucher privatization, where every citizen was supposed to receive a share of the large state combines. Now, after the demise of the last Soviet romantics, Russia was next in line to kick off a huge modernization program.

However, there was no big reform. Already under Mikhail Gorbachev an ambitious 500-day program by Grigory Yavlinsky was shot down by state apparatchiks. The same happened to the liberalization efforts of Yeltsin's Premier Yegor Gaidar. And exactly the year when Boris Yeltsin wanted to save the Russian soul by means of a quiz game he had just had gambled away the last vestiges of credibility. In order to get re-elected 1996 he recruited the help of the oligarchs. Orchestrating a huge PR campaign they managed to keep him in power. After that, of course, there was payback time. And Yeltsin, at heavily discounted rates, handed over to the oligarchs what was left in the state treasure chest: the rights for exploiting gas, oil, raw materials. That was the final nail in the coffin of reforms. And it holds true today.

Since then Russia is a country in many areas still unreformed, it follows a peculiar version of state capitalism and it turns a blind eye to hugely kleptocratic behavior. It has established a system that is mainly kept alive by selling energy on the world market. In the beginning, President Vladimir Putin wanted to change this. But his reform zeal has long faded. The many years when oil and gas prices were high and state coffers filled with petrodollars passed by unused. Although not a supporter of a planned economy, Putin spared the effort of a fundamental transformation. Why? Because reforms usually turn out to be: Exhausting. Painful. Often tough. Reforms are unpopular and disliked. Reforms can fail. And failed reforms can damage a president.

Instead, Putin used the time to consolidate his power. Politically, by gathering loyal paladins around him and creating the so-called "power-vertical" - a structure that works strictly top-down and is executed with an iron fist. Economically, by reinforcing the old narrative that it was the willful bad advice of Western experts that ruined Russia - and that the mess could only be cleaned up by increasing the involvement of government in the economy. Security-wise Putin finally invested billions of dollars in the modernization of the dilapidated former Soviet military machine.

Today, Russia again has a powerful army. It operates state of the art weapon systems, can conduct an aggressive cyber war and is a nuclear-armed power that meets the US at eyelevel. While missing out on economic success at least on the military field Russia was able to reclaim superpower status. This way Putin followed a pattern quite familiar from Soviet times. Not once again a US president should mock Russia as a "regional power" - as Barack Obama had done in 2014.

However, bolstering the military apparatus the way Russia does is not a concept of the 21st century - it is actually a blueprint quite dated to say the least. Moscow still thinks of the world in the categories of territories, in square miles, in the ability to successfully drive a wedge into alliances, breaking apart ententes. The Russia of today thinks in terms of power and submission. While the part of Europe that is organized in the EU resolves longstanding historical territorial conflicts in a Union without borders and relies on the persuasiveness of "soft power", while the EU is placing faith in the charisma of social ideas and the attractiveness of economic power, Moscow is displaying the illegal annexation of Crimea as a trophy in their showcase.

Only when putting oneself in the shoes of those ruling from the Kremlin one may understand why Russia acts the way it did and does: In Georgia 2008, in Crimea and Ukraine since 2014. Why else in the 21st century a country would risk so much to get so little - in the case of the Crimea a ridiculously midsize-level impoverished peninsula. For that Russia sacrificed human lives, world reputation, commerce, investments, tourism, political and economic relations of all sorts. Why else would a government streamline or silence the media, arrest critics and bend the law? All that makes sense only if you still believe in the concepts of the 20th century.

On that backdrop is it really that surprising that some Eastern European countries are fearing for their safety? Is it really such a shocker that in advance of the Nato Warsaw Summit Eastern Europeans were wishing to have large maneuvers at their Eastern frontiers?

Finally, what became of Boris Yeltsin's ideas contest 20 years ago? It was won by a history professor from the northwestern city of Vologda. Gury Sudakov had submitted a longer essay and summed it up in a simple formula: "Russia for me - and I for Russia". Putin also would have liked this line.