Russia and NATO: Who is the provocateur?

Following Russia’s recent intervention in Syria tensions between the west and Russia are at an all-time high. Suggestions that Putin wants Russia to become the leading global super-power have littered the western press in recent years. Looking through western eyes NATO has been in place as a deterrent to the anti-democratic dictatorship state of Russia and as a peaceful alliance for each of the countries that make up NATO. Through Russian eyes NATO has been encroaching upon their land for years whilst the de-stabilisation of countries surrounding Russia has become more and more common. Clearly a political war is at place between Russia and the west with the outcome looking more likely to be a warm war as adverse to a cold one.

Considering the fact that we have moved beyond the Cold War era, some could argue strongly that the relationship between Russia and the West improved positively in the early 90s, interactions were more pleasant and more frequent. Russia accepted the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) also, the air of cooperation was clear to observe. There were joint efforts to combat the war on terror – the co-actions in Afghanistan were a testament to this. Yet despite the seemingly rosy relationship there were noticeable disagreements; the war in Kosovo in 1999 for one, also, the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sizeable task of managing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Russia makes every effort to prevent the US from installing its National Missile Defence System in both Central and Eastern Europe; also the most significant issue today is the intervention in Syria.

It appears the US and its allies made a crucial and significant strategic error since the creation of NATO, mainly because they excluded Russia from the post-Cold War order. Eastern Europe and Central European states were considered and welcomed whereas Russia was distanced and handed the ‘outsider’ status. The West by all accounts ignored and underestimated Russia and showed no regard for the fact that Russia was wholly unhappy. History outlines quite clearly the changing attitudes between Russia and the West. Some might suggest that the US acts freely and unrestrained but furthermore, behaves as though Russia was not as relevant. It is this discourse and rhetoric which some might feel hardened Russia and steered Russia towards authoritarianism and in turn saw Russia drift away from democracy. This strengthened the Putin regime in denouncing the West and its policies.

President Putin has repeatedly been criticised of fixing parliamentary votes in his favor
President Putin has repeatedly been criticised of fixing parliamentary votes in his favor

As things stand it is difficult to cultivate the development of this tension-filled relationship. The Baltic States that surround Russia pose strategic problematic implications, especially because Russia wants to increase regional influence and prevent the West from doing so in Central and Eastern Europe. Increasingly, the tension is solidified between Russia and the NATO alliance and to some extent the EU. Although NATO professes intentions on creating stability and re-stabilising security in Eastern European countries, Russia ultimately perceives this move as an attempt by the West to encroach and further expand its influence in a bid to weaken Russia. These strategic movements are perceived to be placing Russian security capabilities weakened and in danger. It is no secret that Ukraine has showed considerable interest in joining NATO.

It is believed that NATO is now faced with a greater challenge of a revived and relatively re-born Russia, strengthened and resilient. Russia remains a regional power and remains a strong opposition to the US. Putin publicly disagrees and criticises American presidents he opposes American foreign policy and endeavours to remind America that there is more than one global superpower. Mainstream media pushes the provocations to the forefront. Putin’s claiming of the Crimean territory in Ukraine revealed that mother Russia remains assertive when her interests are threatened. The issue one has to contend with is whether NATO will allow Russia to increase its scope and sphere of influence.

Although members of NATO are part of an alliance, this does not mean that they see eye to eye on every matter. Eastern Europe prioritises territorial defence whereas the UK and the US have other agendas closer to their national interests. This has proved difficult for NATO; this is particularly evident when Russia annexed Crimea last year. It was difficult for NATO to put out assurances of collective defence, as some of its members were dependent on Russian oil and gas imports. The sanctions against Russia were weak for that reason and also they did not want to be faced with mass migration. However, the US would not be directly affected due to their geographical location. These events exposed flaws in the alliance and clearly divisions in Europe and NATO are welcomed by Russia.

Map indicating the placement of NATO bases and armed forces
Map indicating the placement of NATO bases and armed forces

Due to Putin’s recent actions in Ukraine and Syria, NATO are able to justify their existence and relevance. However, it is worth noting that some critics argue that it is NATO and not Putin who are the provocateurs. NATO has been encroaching closer to Russian territory for years, a map of NATO military bases indicates how Russia is surrounded by NATO air force, naval and army bases. The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria could be  seen as a sign of NATOs attempts to step foot into Russia’s back garden, in a sense this provides justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and his support for a ‘tyrannical regime’ in Syria; Putin does not want the dreaded ‘American democracy’ for his country or allies.Russia 2

NATO remains important and the body tries to maintain and even strengthen relationships among its members. Since Germany joined in the 90s, some structures were set in place to reinforce transparency, the balance of power and security in order to reassure and bring about solidarity and increased cooperation. NATO certainly excelled in its initial mission of ensuring collective security for the West and NATO has been a key influence in securing peace and ensuring stability in EU states. However, many struggle to see whether NATO will continue beyond this century not to mention its objectives are rather vague in the eyes of the global community.

Commentators and critics argue that NATO needs to be more certain and cohesive in their perceived collective threats, there needs to be more structure regarding security concerns. Their vision must be revisited and refined in order to secure a future. It is maintaining a collective agenda that will keep the member states of NATO in unity. Putin’s unrepentant actions and provocations in Ukraine certainly revived the debate about the role of NATO but his support for Assad have since intensified tensions and reinvigorated NATO, particularly the US. Putin’s actions have spurred the Atlantic alliance but also made it difficult for Ukraine to join NATO; he will not allow this partnership to formulate. Russia’s actions are largely opposed by Western states but there are elements of compromise when national interests are at stake. There is still a sense of insecurity where Eastern and Central European countries are concerned.

As to the question of who is the provocateur, well it is hard to answer. NATO military bases surround Russia whilst Russia’s ‘old enemy’ USA are the most war happy imperialist nation on the planet. Russia, on the other hand continuously show their support for nations who are considered un-democratic to put it mildly e.g.Iran and Syria. (Although USA and other NATO states’ cosy relationship with the likes of Saudi Arabia shows their outright hypocrisy on this subject). NATO, pushed by the USA want to ensure that the Russian bear is kept firmly in hibernation – like all global super powers through history, the USA is keen to ensure that it stays at the top of the food chain.

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