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Nuclear Talks to Resolve the East-West Standoff?

A defunct missile silo in Ukraine. Image: Andy Shustykevych/Flickr

The Ukrainian crisis has entered its second summer. While the ferocity of the clashes in East Ukraine has eased since the Minsk Agreement in February, deadly fighting continues on a daily basis. In the meantime, the conflict has fallen somewhat off the radar of Western media, while the suffering of the civilian population in eastern Ukraine continues. There are no signs on the horizon of any accommodation between the governments of Ukraine and Russia. Must Europe accept an ongoing, low-intensity military conflict on its fringes as the new normal?

The Western bloc’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent sponsoring of an anti-government insurgency in Donbass has remained remarkably coherent so far. It is also having an effect: as Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s Minister of Finance from 2000 to 2011, remarked last month, “Russia is in the midst of a fully-flegded crisis.”  In part because of the West’s co-ordinated economic pressure the Russian Central Bank expects the country’s GDP to shrink by up to 4% in 2015.   So far this has not prompted a shift in Russian attitudes towards key issues regarding Ukraine. Putin continues to enjoy sky-high domestic approval ratings while the Russian government’s creeping takeover of the media landscape is eliminating political dissent from mainstream outlets. Spinning a tale of aggressive American intervention in Russian affairs, the national media are rallying nationalist sentiments and pushing a narrative of a declining, decadent West, all while successfully maintaining that Russia is not involved in a military conflict with its neighbour Ukraine.

The origins of the East-West stand-off over Ukraine are systemic in nature: neither side is prepared to give any ground. For the West, matters of principle are at stake: the inviolability of Ukraine’s sovereign borders as guaranteed by the Budapest Accords, and the right of nations to choose their alliances freely and without external interference. For the Kremlin, the conflict has become deeply intertwined with wider calculations about regime survival, making unilateral concessions unlikely.

Some 20 years ago, the US and Russia began a process of sustained engagement that culminated in the end of the Cold War. Then, as now, efforts at nuclear arms control could generate the initial diplomatic capital needed for a wider improvement in relations.

What is motivating Russian actions?

There remains in the West a degree of confusion about the reasoning behind Vladimir Putin’s choices in Ukraine. What exactly is Russia hoping to gain from its renewed confrontation with NATO? After the ouster of fellow kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovich, it appears that Putin felt there was more to gain than to lose from annexing Crimea and underwriting an insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s strongman has since put up with the fall-out: as former US Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley put it, his ‘domestic political gain outweighs the international pain.’ Perhaps he was also laying down a marker: further NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders will not be tolerated. But a question remains: why did he elect a policy of confrontation with NATO in the first place? The answer matters a great deal. As former Secretary of State James Baker put it, “If there was a single key to whatever success I’ve enjoyed in diplomacy it has been my ability to crawl into the other guy’s shoes. When you understand your opponent, you have a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion with him or her.”

At the annual Fulbright Lecture in Oxford in June, Jack Matlock articulated the diplomat’s answer to this question of ‘who caused Putin.’ Matlock was himself a key figure in the end of the Cold War: he served as head of the Soviet Affairs desk on the National Security Council in the early 1980s and as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the crucial years from 1987 to 1991.  According to Matlock, the roots of the current crisis lie in the West’s mistaken conclusion in 1991 that ‘we won.’  In reality the end of the Cold War was negotiated through arms control deals, troop reduction agreements, the voluntary and peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, and the mutually agreed reunification of Germany. In the years that followed, however, as the myth of victory took hold, Western leaders repeatedly ignored vital Russian security interests, most importantly by permitting NATO’s eastward expansion. Assurances that such moves were of a defensive nature faded in Russian eyes when NATO conducted a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Inclusive steps by Western powers such as permitting Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation did not outweigh a growing perception of anti-Russian aggression – witness, for example, the depth of the resistance that NATO’s plans for a ballistic missile defense system have prompted in Moscow. For Matlock, the West’s enthusiastic support of colour revolutions and its promises to put Georgia and Ukraine on a path toward NATO membership cemented the view in Russia that its interests were being systematically undermined. The pushback began with the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and dangerously escalated in Ukraine last year.  In other words, for Matlock, ‘we caused Putin.’ The implication is that a correction of Western policies could ameliorate the current state of affairs.

The alternative argument is that Russia’s foreign policy is the end-result of a post-Soviet journey toward autocracy that would clash with the liberal world order sooner or later. The genesis of contemporary Russia is the subject of a number of books and documentaries that examine Putin’s rise. Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin, a History Professor at Princeton University, has reached the following conclusion:

‘The methods Putin used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state. […] Bit by bit, using stealth and dirty tricks, Putin reasserted central control over the levers of power within the country – the TV stations, the gas industry, the oil industry, the regions. It was a cunning feat of state rebuilding.’

More sinister are the implications of an article by Scott Anderson that the commissioning publisher, Condé Nast, refused to distribute for fear of reprisals against its Russian subsidiaries. Anderson investigates the Moscow Apartment Bombings of 1999 that cost hundreds of lives, precipitated the Second Chechnya War and accelerated Putin’s rise to power. He reconstructs a number of fairly clear-cut links between Russia’s domestic secret service – headed by Putin until 1999 – and the likely perpetrators of the bombings. Official complicity in the atrocities is, incredibly, not at all far-fetched.[1] It is also consistent with the more alarming features of contemporary Russia: repression is on the rise and prominent opposition figures are being silenced in disturbing ways.[2] It is immaterial whether the dozen or so murdered Putin critics were killed at the Kremlin’s behest, or by forces eager to ingratiate themselves to the government: either way, the result is that any public figure speaking out against Russia’s leaders incurs a considerable health risk in doing so, a state of affairs that strengthens Putin’s grip over the country.

In this view, the real motivation behind Russia’s increasing assertiveness abroad isn’t opposition to Western hegemony, but to ward off the spectre of a colour revolution at home. NATO’s 1999 campaign against Serbia that provoked such anger in Moscow was aimed at curbing state-sponsored massacres of Kosovars, and ended up bringing democracy to the region. Both Georgia and Ukraine experienced a partial transition to democracy before suffering Russian military incursions. Most interestingly, efforts by Barack Obama to ‘Reset’ American relations with Russia came to an end despite the President’s best efforts after the Kremlin blamed ‘CIA forces’ for the mass-demonstrations that broke out in Moscow following Putin’s re-election in 2011. Arguably, the real turning point in the Kremlin’s thinking was when the potential of a democratic revolution reached Russian borders.

This interpretation of Russia’s actions is worrying. Because if Putin is ultimately motivated not by geopolitical considerations but by internal (or personal) ones, then his optimal strategy is to maintain a frozen, perpetual conflict in Ukraine while periodically destabilising other areas of interest on Russia’s borders. To a determined autocrat, deliberate subversion of democratic alternatives is preferable to the risk involved in permitting a stable, successful liberal democracy to emerge on Russia’s borders: after all, this would constitute the greatest threat to Putin’s rule.

Nuclear opportunities?

Are the current state of relations bound to worsen? The risk of gradual tit-for-tat escalation is real. Russia’s increasing military intrusions into NATO airspace have prompted fears of a challenge to the collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Charter.  These fears begat the Obama Administration’s decision to station heavy weapons in Eastern Europe, which, in turn, sparked further Russian retaliatory moves – and onwards spins the escalatory wheel. Little seems to be in place to prevent this spiral from continuing. As Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s Chief of Staff, observed: ‘there are practically no channels for interaction left.’ In fact, the situation is eerily reminiscent of 1983, when East-West relations were at their lowest ebb since the Cuban Missile Crisis and the spectre of nuclear escalation loomed large.

Then, as now, the nuclear dimension of the conflict is the most troublesome.  Yet it also offers the best bet for constructive engagement between the two sides. With the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference ending in deadlock, there is a risk, as Alexei Arbatov has pointed out, of sleepwalking into a new nuclear age, where nuclear force doctrines are once again elevated in military importance, creating further fear and mistrust among the world’s great powers. In this kind of environment, the only bulwark against nuclear war is mutual deterrence, which currently stands on shaky ground: Strategic Missile Defense remains as thorny an issue today as it was in the 1980s and encourages the development of high-precision long-range conventional missiles, as well as the weaponisation of space. If not curtailed, a renewed era of strategic confrontation in the nuclear domain would strengthen the dangerous dynamic of non-aligned countries pursuing weapons with nuclear capabilities as a security measure.

But the potency of nuclear intensification also represents an opportunity. Precisely because of the cataclysmic potential of nuclear war, the institutional regime regulating the spread of atomic weapons became an engine of co-operation and reassurance among the great powers during the later stages of the Cold War. Today, it remains incumbent upon the US and Russia, who possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, to lead the non-proliferation regime. While important planks of the post-Cold War security system remain in place – such as the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty and the New START treaty of 2011 – the US and Russia would be well-advised to systematically re-engage by kick-starting the nuclear arms reduction talks that have flat-lined since 2011. Doing so could help to re-build the kind of trust that Reagan and Gorbachev once managed to create. A new nuclear arms race would clearly be in neither country’s interests.  Indeed, the saliency of US-Russian nuclear co-operation was demonstrated this week by the conclusion of the nuclear accord on Iran. The success of US-Russian collaboration in this domain was not lost on either of the country’s leaders.

If diplomacy on the nuclear front spills over into wider diplomatic re-engagement, then common ground on controversial issues surrounding Ukraine might be found in the medium-run. Federalist reforms and devolution to strengthen the political rights of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine (in return for guarantees concerning Ukraine’s sovereignty) may assuage the Kremlin’s concerns about anti-Russian rule in Kiev. Opening up a route for Ukraine to join the EU would lack the security implications of NATO membership yet give the country a chance to become a liberalised state that does not threaten Russia. Crimea might then be formally ceded after an internationally observed, free and fair referendum, which would likely produce a pro-Russian outcome.

Painful compromises on both sides will be necessary to defuse the intolerable risks of the status quo.  This is why nuclear arms talks are a good place to start, just as in the 1980s. A failure to repair the broken relationship between Russia and the West will heighten the spectre of escalating nuclear tensions and risk a new age of proliferation in which a fatal error or misjudgement could produce the gravest of consequences. The conflicting parties already understand this in some sense, as the Iranian nuclear talks showed. Amidst the turmoil in Greece, the Middle East and the South China Sea, we would do well not to overlook the fraying of the international nuclear order. Therein, after all, lies the most fundamental and unthinkable of international security risks – as well as the clearest route to rapprochement between Russia and the West.


[1] For instance: “Gennady Seleznyov, the Speaker of the Duma, made a speech on the floor of Parliament on the morning of September 13, 1999. ‘I have just received a report,’ he announced to legislators. ‘An apartment building in the city of Volgodonsk was blown up last night.’ While Seleznyov got the basics right – an apartment building had indeed just been blown up – he had the wrong city; the blast that morning had been at 6/3 Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow. This put the Speaker in an awkward spot when an apartment building in Volgodonsk was blown up three days later.”

[2] Alexander Litvinenko, for example, was a former FSB agent who blew the whistle on the Apartment Bombings and ended up dying a slow, painful radiation-induced death after being poisoned with a kind of Polonium that could only be obtained at a specific former nuclear site in Russia. Putin himself later awarded the man suspected by the British government of murdering Litvinenko a medal of honour.


Benjamin Mueller is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. He is also the International Relations Stonex Scholar at LSE IDEAS.

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