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The Kremlin’s miscalculation

Nov 04,2015 - Last updated at Nov 04,2015

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is one of the great tragedies of our time, not only because of the tremendous human cost, but also because it is utterly pointless.

Indeed, Russia’s leaders fundamentally misjudged the West’s intentions and created an entirely unnecessary confrontation that undermines both sides’ interests.

Russia and the West — with their closely interlinked economies and many overlapping political objectives in Europe and beyond — have much to gain from peaceful cooperation. 

But instead of working with Western powers to enhance shared prosperity, the Kremlin turned on its partners abroad.

The reason was simple: Russia viewed the gradual enlargement of the European Union and NATO — achieved through their “neighbourhood” and “open door” policies, respectively — as carefully orchestrated attempts to encircle and threaten it.

According to Kremlin rhetoric, by welcoming former Soviet countries, the EU and NATO were explicitly attempting to weaken Russia.

This interpretation ultimately drove Russia to respond to Ukraine’s plans to sign an association agreement with the EU by annexing Crimea and attempting to create a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine.

But Russia’s interpretation was patently wrong — and I can say so with full authority.

As prime minister of Denmark, I chaired the 2002 EU summit in Copenhagen, where European leaders agreed on the bloc’s most expansive enlargement ever.

And as secretary general of NATO, I spent five years chairing the NATO-Russia Council to build cooperation with our largest neighbour.

The truth is that the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe sought to join the EU and NATO — and worked hard to gain membership — because they longed for peace, progress and prosperity.

It was those countries’ ambitions, not some vendetta against Russia, that drove EU and NATO enlargement.

Russia should not bemoan its neighbours’ decision to engage with the EU and NATO, which, after all, paved the way for economic progress and security improvements.

The EU and NATO supported the construction of strong democratic institutions based on the rule of law and respect for minorities, the emergence of viable and dynamic economies and the peaceful resolution of border disputes.

A secure and prosperous Central and Eastern Europe benefits everyone — especially Russia.

Today, the EU is Russia’s largest foreign market, with a major share of its exports going to the member states that joined in 2004. And Russia’s border with the EU, far from posing a threat, is the most stable and secure of all its frontiers.

In fact, no NATO ally would attack Russia, as such a move would defy a key tenet of international law: respect for other countries’ sovereignty.

In the case of border disputes, NATO members are committed to finding non-violent solutions.

In short, thanks to the EU and NATO, the stability on its Western borders that Russia has sought for centuries has now been achieved.

Russia should be celebrating — and it should be seizing the opportunity to deepen its ties with the West.

When I became secretary general of NATO in 2009, I identified a strengthened relationship with Russia as a top priority. By the end of the next year, it seemed like we were making major progress towards closer cooperation.

At the third summit of the NATO-Russia Council, Russia’s then-president, Dmitri Medvedev, and his counterparts from the other 28 participating states issued a joint statement in which they pledged to develop a “true strategic partnership”.

But five years later, Russia is far from our strategic partner; it is our strategic problem. In fact, the current Russian military doctrine names NATO as one of the main external threats to Russian security.

It is time to redefine Russia’s relationship with the West.

The first step would be for the EU, the United States and other NATO members to demonstrate clearly that cooperation pays — and that confrontation has costs.

This means continued economic sanctions against Russia, alongside economic aid for Ukraine.

From a security point of view, NATO should enhance its territorial defence, while NATO allies help Ukraine improve its defence capabilities.

The EU and the US must remain firm and united in their policy towards Russia.

This approach offers the best chance of bringing an end to the current confrontation and compelling Russia to engage constructively with the West.

Of course, if cooperation is to work, Russia must earn back the trust that it has broken, demonstrating its commitment to abide by the treaties and international norms of behaviour to which it has agreed.

When it comes to Russia today, appeasement will not lead to peace; on the contrary, a conciliatory approach will only prolong the conflict.

The sooner the West convinces Russia’s leaders that it will not back down the sooner the conflict will be over.

Only then will Russia return to the path of constructive cooperation with the EU, NATO and the US — and a more prosperous future.



The writer, former prime minister of Denmark and secretary general of NATO, is chairman of Rasmussen Global. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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