The Central and East European Coalition (CEEC; www.ceecoalition.us) hosted a timely and substantive event on Wednesday, April 19, to discuss the topic “NATO Stance on Russia: Vision or Reaction?” The keynote speaker was Dr. Michael Carpenter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, who gave the Pentagon’s view of recent events and U.S. actions in response. He was followed by a panel of three additional distinguished experts: Ambassador Kurt Volker, former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO; Lithuanian Deputy Chief of Mission Mindaugas Zickus; and Damian Murphy, Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC). Welcoming remarks by Estonian American National Council President Marju Rink-Abel and moderation and closing by Mamuka Tsereteli of the Georgian Association in the U.S.A. rounded out the event.
A major theme of the discussion characterized Russia’s increasing aggression since 2008 not as just regional conflict but as a fundamental assault on the post-World War II international order. The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign justifies its aggression by claiming that NATO has broken its promises to not pursue enlargement and is in the process of aggressively encircling Russia. This therefore poses a serious threat that Russia is justified in defending in the interest of its citizens. Claiming increased repression of those citizens is also part of the misinformation campaign. In reality, no commitments were ever made by NATO on enlargement or deploying forces to new members’ territory. The nations that have joined NATO have done so voluntarily, according to their security interests and the NATO accession process. Given that “[for Putin], it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes,”1 the panelists agreed that the West needs to push back in the face of Russia’s disregard of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The seriousness with which the U.S. is responding to Russia’s actions is demonstrated by a four-fold increase over last year in President Obama’s request for 2017 European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) funding. This annual request that started with the 2015 budget has received broad and deep bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and is expected to pass again this year. ERI funding aims to ensure effective deterrence and defense of all allies. It was noted more than once that the initiative’s emphasis is shifting from reassurance to deterrence. The request includes funds to reconfigure NATO’s institutions to meet current threats, increase investments in infrastructure to support rapid reinforcement in response to threats from the east, and bolster the resilience of non-NATO partners. Details of the request are available at this White House link. Discussions at the NATO Warsaw Summit in July will include “NATO-izing” ERI, presumably to encourage other allies to develop parallel budget requests.
Leading up to the Warsaw summit, Congress will be engaged in debates on the composition of forces and equipment that will be funded by ERI. Hearings will be scheduled to scrutinize the final details of the package and to amend the NATO treaty to allow for the accession of Montenegro. CEEC members will no doubt be paying attention and participating in any open sessions that are announced.
The U.S. is also looking at other ways to help our partners as Russia makes efforts to influence European policy and politics. Hearings with allied officials and visits to Europe by congress members and staffers keep the dialog on issues and priorities open. ERI is the biggest piece of legislation on this year’s docket and our European partners have conveyed a clear sense of urgency for its passage. The SFRC is also digging into options for countering Russian propaganda through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets here and in Europe. Protecting human rights through implementation of the Magnitsky Act, supporting the adoption of a global version of the act, and other anti-corruption efforts are another central focus of the committee. Please see the Magnitsky Act Wikipedia page for more information.
Some areas were mentioned where more could be done. There was a recommendation for NATO to engage as an alliance in ongoing wars – specifically in Ukraine, Georgia, Libya and Syria – under the hypothesis that failure to engage weakens the effectiveness of the alliance’s deterrence efforts. There was disagreement on whether NATO needs to publish Russia’s specific violations. Because there is no consensus on this matter, some feel that it is important to maintain unity in the alliance rather than reopen the issue. However, not doing so may lead to a perception of NATO as passive and reactive, and call into question its commitment to Article 5. The point was also made that the U.S. is learning some steep lessons on electronic warfare (EW). Russia has been developing world-class technology that poses a challenge to our counter-EW capability. Through the wars in Ukraine and Syria, we are gaining a better understanding of Russian EW tactics to disrupt our battlefield communications, which will help us improve our capabilities for the future.
The speakers agreed that NATO’s goal remains to cooperate peacefully with Russia; a return to the terms of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 would be welcome. It is Russia’s actions that have nullified those terms, at least for the time being, and NATO’s response has been defensive and proportionate. The sanctions imposed by member nations are having the desired effect and are strengthened by trans-Atlantic solidarity. Loss of solidarity would undermine their effectiveness and is a concern when the EU reviews its continued support in June, even as the U.S. is looking for ways to increase the sanctions from our side. The audience was also reminded that Russia has never shown an interest in cooperating with NATO and that we shouldn’t be too optimistic.
Several of the speakers commended the CEEC for its work to push through legislation supporting Ukraine last year. Similar efforts on ERI would help keep members of Congress focused on the issue during this election year with many competing interests. Continued CEEC activism is important in calling attention to a number of issues discussed in CEEC’s policy paper, found on the CEEC website www.ceecoalition.us.
The forum was held in a stately paneled room in the Dirksen Senate office building and attended by over 100 friends of the central and east European region, including three ambassadors and representatives from the Department of State, 12 embassies and five Congressional offices. Estonian Public Broadcasting and other media outlets were on hand to cover the event.
In the end, the answer to the forum’s theme probably had elements of both vision and reaction. It is clear that we’re at this low point in U.S.-Russian relations directly because of Russia’s aggressive behavior. NATO has been forced to react appropriately to deter further escalation. The alliance may have a vision to get to peaceful cooperation, or at least the transparency and predictability necessary to preserve a stable international order, but that vision requires all parties to share compatible goals – a climate that does not seem to be on the horizon at the moment. The CEEC looks forward to hosting future events to explore the alliance’s progress and inspire further support from our partners and constituents.
1 This comment from President Putin’s January interview published in BILD was referenced. Quote here taken from http://www.businessinsider.com/vladimir-putin-interview-bild-obama-russia-us-2016-1.