By Dmitry Orlov and posted with permission
Just yesterday Russia Foreign Ministry published a couple of documents that people have been struggling to interpret ever since, to little useful effect. I would like to offer my own explanation of what these documents mean, which will probably differ a great deal from most other explanations you are likely to hear. Time will tell how close they are to the truth; for now, I am happy to simply add to the spectrum of ideas that are available to it.
The two documents describe in detail what Washington must do to avoid the consequences of breaking its verbal agreement entered into with Mikhail Gorbachev to not expand NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders—essentially, to freeze NATO forces where they were in 1997, before NATO expanded farther east. The documents also address other aspects of de-escalation, such as removing all US nuclear weapons from foreign territory and confining US forces to waters and airspace from which they cannot threaten the territory of Russia.
One line of explanation, most recently expressed in Washington and elsewhere, is that these documents are a negotiating gambit (not an ultimatum), to be discussed privately (to avoid complete loss of face by the US) and in consultation with NATO members and partners, plus, maybe, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, Amnesty International and Greenpeace (to avoid making their combined irrelevance apparent to all). I agree that there is little to be gained from public discussions; after all, Moscow has already achieved the required bombshell effect through the public release of these documents and in forcing Washington to acknowledge their receipt and to consent to “negotiations”.
I disagree that there is anything to be negotiated: these documents are not intended to be used as a starting point for negotiations; they are an invitation for Washington to acknowledge and remedy its transgressions. Washington broke the deal it made with Moscow not to expand east. It could do so because in the years following the breakup of the USSR Moscow was too weak to resist and run by people who thought it possible for Russia to integrate into the West, perhaps even to join NATO. But that era has ended some time ago and the collective West now has to put its collective toes back behind the red line—whether voluntarily or not—and that is the only thing yet to be determined. That is the only choice to be made: stand down voluntarily and make amends or refuse and be punished.
I also disagree that this choice—between making amends and accepting punishment—has anything to do with the EU, or NATO, or various “members” or “partners”. Moscow has no relationship with NATO, seeing it as a mere piece of paper that grants Washington rather questionable legal authority to deploy its military forces in countries around the world. Moscow has some vestigial diplomatic representation with the EU, but doesn’t see it as important and concentrates on bilateral relations with EU members. As for its Eastern European neighbors, the Ukraine is, viewed from Moscow, a US colony and thus entirely a US concern, Poland can go and partition itself again (or not), and, as far as those tiny yet politically annoying statelets of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, so sorry, but the Russian army is equipped with binoculars, not microscopes.
The choice, really, is between facing an increasing risk of a nuclear exchange between two nuclear superpowers—one that is rapidly fading in strength and one that is growing stronger all the time—and reducing that risk as much as possible. Only the two nuclear superpowers need to come to an understanding; everyone else can simply do as they say so that nobody gets hurt. In the case of the Europeans, they should be quite interested in doing so (if they still know what’s good for them) because NATO’s eastward expansion has left them with huge nuclear target signs painted all over them which they would do well to try to remove. Not only that, but NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders has increased the risk of a nuclear confrontation breaking out accidentally: all those nuclear-armed bombers, ships and submarines could make a wrong turn somewhere and then—kaboom!—no more Europe.
You might think that those bombers and ships and submarines must loiter around Russia’s borders in order to “contain” Russia, but this is false. Russia does an acceptably good job of containing itself, and the little territorial disputes that are likely to crop up here and there periodically are certainly not going to be solved by increasing the risk of nuclear war. The Russian Federation has land borders with over a dozen countries, most of which have Russian citizens living on both sides of them, and that makes land disputes inevitable, but none of them will ever be worth blowing up the planet over.
You might think that NATO forces need to show activity and act dangerous in order to justify their existence and their ridiculously bloated defense budgets. Also, if they didn’t get a chance to be threatening toward Russia, they might become despondent and just sit around drinking, doing drugs and having gay sex, and that would be bad for morale. (But then what’s wrong with a little gay sex between consenting off-duty gender-ambiguous servicepersons?) I’d think that these are all rather minor, if not trifling, concerns, considering that what’s on the other side of the scale is the risk of a planetary conflagration.
You might also think that Washington’s eastward expansion is not a crime because, you see, Gorbachev failed to get its promise not to expand east committed to in writing. Well, let me offer you a tiny insight into the inner workings of Russian civilization. If you enter into a verbal agreement with the Russians, break it, and then taunt them by saying “But you didn’t get it in writing!” you have just made the problem much worse for yourself. We all make mistakes and must sometimes break our promises, in which the proper course of action is to be contrite, apologize sincerely and offer to make amends. If, instead, you claim that the promise is null and void because a certain piece of paper cannot be located, then you have compounded your dishonorable conduct with willful disregard and have singled yourself out for exemplary punishment. This punishment may be slow to arrive, taking decades, perhaps even centuries, but you can be sure that you will be punished eventually.
Once upon a time Moscow was weak and Washington strong, but now the balance has shifted in Moscow’s favor and the time for Washington’s punishment has finally come. The only remaining question is, What form will this punishment take? The one proposed by Moscow is in the form of submission to public humiliation: Washington signs the security guarantees drafted in Moscow, drags itself back to its kennel and lies quietly like a good doggo licking its balls to console itself. And that’s the more pleasant alternative, a win-win sort of thing, offered in good faith.
The less pleasant alternative would be, I can’t help but imagine, much less pleasant, very confusing and quite dangerous. Think about Poseidons—undetectable nuclear-powered torpedos—endlessly cruising in thousands of feet of water off the continental shelf along the US coasts, ready to wash them off with entirely accidental and perfectly deniable tsunamis, their sporadic pings causing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to soil their diapers every time. Think about NATO planes, ships and submarines quietly going missing for no adequately explored reason, their crews later turning up on some faraway beach very drunk and wearing Speedos in the colors of the Russian flag. Think of hypersonic something-or-others periodically doing zigzags in low Earth orbit over the US mainland, causing every cable TV channel to broadcast Russia Today and causing CNN’s talking heads to explode in impotent fury.
I would think that, in their own enlightened best interest, right-thinking Americans, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, would want to clamor for their elected representatives to quit making any more trouble and to just sign the damned security guarantees! But that’s just my own, private opinion.