Some attention has been paid to an address to the Russian people on 23 November in which President Medvedev set out Russia’s possible reaction should its concerns about the European Missile Defence system not be accommodated. For once, the Western media reported it reasonably accurately with most news outlets echoing the BBC’s heading: “Medvedev sees arms race if missile shield not agreed”. A conditional statement: if this, then that.
Here is what Medvedev said.
“Our only goal was to preserve the basic principle that Europe does not need new dividing lines, but rather, a common security perimeter with Russia’s equal and legally enshrined participation.” He reiterated Russia’s desire to build a “genuine strategic partnership” with NATO. But, he said: “Rather than showing themselves [NATO members] willing to hear and understand our concerns over the European missile defence system at this stage, they simply repeat that these plans are not directed against Russia and that there is no point for us to be concerned… But our requests that they set this out on paper in the form of clear legal obligations are firmly rejected… but our colleagues should understand that these obligations must have substance and not be just empty words”.
Shortly after, he told the Armed Forces leadership “However, it is not enough to issue oral statements.” And he reiterated the conditionality of Moscow’s responses “If our signal is not heard, then, as I said on November 23, we will deploy other defence means, including the adoption of tough countermeasures and deployment of the main attack force.”
Medvedev’s statement is obviously conditional: if NATO continues to ignore Russia’s concerns, Russia will feel that it must take steps to counter what it perceives as a threat. Russia is not “starting a new arms race”; it is saying that NATO is. Medvedev is saying if you continue to ignore our concerns, then we will have to respond.
But, as Medvedev says, NATO insists that these defence provisions are not aimed at Russia. So why doesn’t he just accept NATO’s word? After all, the stated reason for European missile defence is, and always has been, the need for defence against potential “rogue states” with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. And the fact that no “rogue state” yet has such things does not counter the prudent reality that it is better to have a defence in place than find out too late that you should have had. So, how have we got into the position that Medvedev does not accept NATO’s word of honour?
The answer is very simple: experience has taught Russia that NATO’s word of honour isn’t worth anything: “empty words” indeed. Here are two examples of the evanescent character of NATO’s promises.
Moscow was promised in the Gorbachev years that NATO would not expand. How do I know that the promise was given? After all, nothing was written down. I know this because the US Ambassador of the period has said that the promise was made; I have been personally told by another NATO Ambassador of the period that the promise was made and “After speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia”. And how long did that promise last?
Let us move to a more recent test of NATO’s trustworthiness. A UNSC resolution authorised NATO states and others to create a no-fly zone over Libya for humanitarian reasons: “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory” Within fairly short order this mutated into sustained destruction of Kaddafi’s forces and installations; then weapons were supplied to the rebels (so much for 13. “strict implementation of the arms embargo”) and special forces gave them training and directed the air attacks. In short, NATO aircraft swiftly became the rebels’ air force retaining only the hollowest pretence of the impartiality the Resolution implied. “We came. We saw. He died”. Regardless of whether NATO’s, probably decisive, assistance in overthrowing Kaddafi will be regarded as a Good Thing in the future, providing the rebel forces with an air force, weapons and special forces is very far from the UN Resolution that Moscow thought it was abstaining on. What was NATO’s word of honour worth in this case?
Russia has no reason whatsoever to trust NATO’s mere assertion of intention. Here, from a Russian perception, are more examples of the worthlessness of NATO’s promises. But, really, the two examples of NATO Expansion and Libya, so important and so patent, are more than enough to show that NATO’s solemn declarations – how shall I put it – are subject to re-interpretation. I’m sure that Russians have an equivalent of the saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” NATO has fooled them more than once.
If NATO really means what it says that the European missile defence scheme is not directed at Russia, why can’t it formally say so with a public, binding, signed statement to that effect? As long as it doesn’t, Moscow can be forgiven for thinking that it’s just another in a series of NATO promises that will be casually discarded at some later date.
As George Kennan said, in 1998 of NATO Expansion: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.” Not for the first time, “Mr X” got it right.