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Russia and NATO: A Paradoxical Crisis

Ivan Timofeev

Future historians analyzing the collapse of our relations after the Ukrainian revolution will certainly find it paradoxical. This is one of those rare and unpredictable cases where a crisis occurred under conditions that were entirely conducive to constructive dialogue and cooperation. Usually, such crises are preceded by the mutual buildup of military capabilities and fierce rivalry. This time, nothing of the kind happened. Of course, there were problems in relations. But no one could have predicted that they would grow to such dimensions within so short a period. The Euro-Atlantic security system was plunged into a real disaster – sudden, brief and all-embracing.

After the Cold War, Russia and NATO largely demilitarized and significantly curtailed their military capacity. The likelihood of a military conflict in Europe was reduced to a minimum. Moscow was aggrieved by NATO enlargement, but its formal expansion was accompanied by reductions in the military capacity of member states. The new members’ material and financial contributions were symbolic, most of them becoming consumers, not suppliers, of security. Several years before the Ukrainian crisis, the trend towards reducing military capacity only grew stronger. With the Afghan campaign winding down, the allies were consistently cutting their defense spending. The United States also curtailed its military presence in Europe. Russia was engaged in military reforms that were badly needed after 15 years of decline in its armed forces. But the reforms were aimed largely at optimizing the army and adapting it to deal with local crises. No open confrontation with NATO was even contemplated.

The collapse of the conventional arms control regime was a bad sign for security in Europe. Many also criticized the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act as outmoded and out of tune with the new realities. But in fact both Russia and NATO conformed to the adjusted CFE Treaty ceilings. Their military activities could hardly be called excessive. 


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