European Security at Lowest Ebb: Time to Reverse Trend

European Security at Lowest Ebb: Time to Reverse Trend

On October 6, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Talking about the common enemy of «terrorism and the Islamic State» in Syria, Bettel stressed that the actions against extremism should be done in close consultation and through a close collaboration between all stakeholders. «There is a common enemy in terrorism and Islamic state. We need to find common ways to fight them», he said.

Luxemburg is holding the current presidency of the European Union. In this capacity it has an important role to play. The very fact of holding a dialogue is the right in the right direction. The relationship between Russia and the EU is at the lowest ebb. True, the Islamic State (IS) is a common enemy, but there is a plethora of issues to divide the sides.

The deterioration of Russia-West relations began long before Ukraine with NATO and EU expansion perceived by Russia as a threat to its interests. The EU’s European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership gave rise to Moscow’s concern. The European security institutes, including the OSCE and Russia-NATO Council among others, failed to live up to expectations.

The regime in the Euro-Atlantic space has become less transparent and less predictable, than in the twentieth century. Europe faces a gradual erosion of the security instruments inherited from the Cold War and the international community’s inability to build a new system. There is a serious problem related to different understanding on the «rules of the road», given the competing interpretations of international law and agreed norms, and the nature of security and sovereignty as related to the Euro-Atlantic area.

The West lacks interest in earlier Russian proposals to modernize institutions such as the OSCE, or even create new mechanisms such as the European Security Treaty. In November 2009 Russia proposed a new European Security Treaty (EST) to recast Europe’s security architecture. It proposed respect for members’ territorial integrity, conflict prevention, and the inadmissibility of the use and threat of force. The initiative was largely ignored by the West.

In March Moscow announced its withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty stating that the agreement had become pointless from political and practical points of view, especially in view of NATO build-up near the Russian borders, including the deployment of American armor units the Baltics and East Europe. The move is perceived in Russia as a provocation on the part of the U.S. The deployment of US hardware cannot be regarded as anything but a violation of at least the spirit of the agreement, if not its letter. The Baltic States, which joined NATO in 2004, were not covered either by the initial agreement, signed in 1990 or the updated version, written in 1999, but it was assumed that the agreement would eventually apply to them.

When Russia ratified the adapted CFE Treaty, the agreement’s weapons limit for NATO was three times that established for the Russian army. However, NATO required the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria as a condition for the ratification.

NATO delayed the ratification process. Although Russia had withdrawn almost all its troops, there remained some insignificant contingents and objects. The alliance sought to pursue its line. This policy implemented by NATO actually finished off conventional arms control in Europe.

World politics in the twenty-first century do not boil down to institutions. With the wisdom of sanctions, strengthening NATO renaissance questioned, a tight network of international regimes around specific issues avoiding linkages between issues would be a wise thing to do. After all, the US and Russia hold a dialogue on Syria to keep away the threat of incidents. It serves the purpose. The regimes could include joint measures against terrorism, prevention of nuclear and missile proliferation, cybersecurity, managing migration, the future of energy and the environmental situation in Eurasia, countering drug trafficking and transnational crime - the list can go on. 

A breakthrough in one area can help succeed in others. To some extent it means a change of approach for European security, away from cooperative efforts and toward managing differences. The parties can retain some cooperative efforts on global security issues where the interests are sufficiently aligned to make progress achievable cooperation in the midst of the current tensions. The Middle East is a good example but more could be done. The Russia-NATO Council could be convened to discuss the joint operations in Syria and Iraq leaving the dividing issues aside.

Russia and the West can make no progress without a dialogue. Talking to each other is essential for addressing the hot issues. The absence of an official dialogue between Russia and the United States, Russia and NATO is a major obstacle in the way to improve the security situation in Europe.

In 2016 Germany is going to take over the Chairmanship in the OSCE. It’s a rare occasion when the organization is headed by a European and world heavyweight. 40 years have passed since the OSCE (then the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) was founded as a result of the Helsinki Act. Frustration and discontent are widely spread as the organization has failed to live up to expectations. The Berlin summit in 2016 is a chance to introduce important changes to address the European security agenda and review obsolete approaches. This is the right time to come up with new initiatives to address the burning problems of mutual concern.

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A failure to address burning security problems is a «negative-sum game» with all the sides ending up as losers. Crises in the relations may might break out from time to time. It does not mean that the cooperation in all areas should be thrown back to square one.