Rethink the reset
Arvamus 19 May 2012  EWR
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NATO should not give in to Russian aggression

The Economist, May 19, 2012
FOR 20 years NATO has wooed the Kremlin, with disappointing results. The alliance has repeatedly said it does not regard Russia as a threat and has forsworn putting nuclear weapons (or indeed anything else significant) in member states that were once part of the Soviet empire. Indeed, so keen was NATO not to offend Russia that for the first few years after the newcomers joined in 2004, it made no plans to defend them.

Yet Russia's behaviour to NATO is becoming nastier. The chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov, recently spoke openly about a first strike against future American missile-defence installations in Poland and Romania. Russia has conducted ostentatious military drills on its border with the Baltic states, NATO's most vulnerable members. Vladimir Putin, newly reinstalled in the Kremlin, has gone back to bashing the West. He is shunning NATO's Chicago summit next week (and also the G8's, even though his hosts moved that one from Chicago to make him happier). Residual cold-war thinking is exemplified by Russia's espionage efforts at NATO's Brussels headquarters, where its military observers are rather generously given an office and formal accreditation.

What should be done? Nobody is challenging the status quo publicly. But in private, some see a bargain: America stops standing up to Russia in Europe, in return for Kremlin concessions on issues that America really cares about, such as a new nuclear-weapons deal. That would include America rejigging its missile-defence plans, to leave out any bases in countries that were once part of the Soviet empire.

A softer stance could also include downgrading NATO's planned exercises next year in Europe. Named "Steadfast Jazz", these will be potentially the biggest manoeuvres since the end of the cold war. They are largely a response to troubling Russian exercises in 2009, which simulated the invasion of the Baltic states (followed by a dummy nuclear attack on Warsaw). Some cash-strapped European countries would be happy not to pay for their part in expensive wargames.

Wooing Russia this way would be a mistake. America's missile-defence plans are aimed at Iran, not Russia. But they are also a token of transatlantic seriousness about Europe. Any suggestion of making them a bargaining chip unsettles those in Poland and elsewhere who doubt the durability of America's security relationship with Europe.

Big talker

Russian sabre-rattling is not militarily significant: even with its big increase in defence spending of recent years, and the colossal sums promised for the future, Russia is no military match for a united NATO. But it does signal unpleasant thinking at the top, and a desire to bully. The right response from NATO would be to make Steadfast Jazz as realistic a defensive drill as possible. By demonstrating NATO's resolve, a strong stance would enhance security; just as a weak one would only encourage Russia to pick a bigger stick.

The irony in all this is that Russia should be far more worried about China in the east and Islamists to the south than about NATO. The alliance is beset with problems: inadequate defence spending, finding a respectable exit from Afghanistan, and America's "pivot" to Asia. NATO used to worry about a loss of purpose. Indeed, had Russia not antagonised its former empire in the 1990s, NATO might have shut up shop by now. The way things are going, it is lucky that it did not.

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