History’s ball has been kicked backward by the crisis in Ukraine. Economic sanctions, military deployments and diplomatic isolation — star players in the West’s Cold War policy lineup for containing Russia — are back on the field. The price of admission to this East-West rematch: reduced economic integration and increased defense spending that will drain resources from domestic needs and new security challenges — for all nations.
Is it possible to change the game, kick history’s ball in a different direction — and toward a different goal?
The answer may be no, at least for now. Proponents of suiting up for another round of containment and a new Cold War argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea leave no doubt that his objective is to preserve and restore parts of the Soviet empire to Moscow’s control, including by military force. And if that’s Putin’s game, Washington, NATO and the European Union have no choice but to match up.
That is a contest, however, that remains in no country’s best interest to play — first and foremost, Russia’s. While it may be hard to get inside Putin’s head, it is even harder to imagine how Russia is better off if it is both politically and economically disconnected from both the European Union and the United States over the next decade. And truth be told, there are a long list of Western security objectives ranging from counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation that require cooperation with Moscow.
The alternative game — for Washington and for European capitals, Moscow included — is to work toward “Building Mutual Security” in the Euro-Atlantic region. That is the recommendation made one year ago by four senior and respected statesmen — former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, former UK Defense Secretary Des Browne and former German Deputy Foreign Minister Wolfgang Ischinger — and endorsed by 28 former political leaders, military officers, defense officials and security experts from across the region.
The diagnosis from this group: Stagnant security policies across the Euro-Atlantic region have fueled tensions and mistrusts for over two decades, and in the absence of a new security strategy, there was a risk that security and stability in the region would break down (as it now has in Ukraine). Their policy prescription: Urgently begin a new political and military dialogue mandated by the highest political levels, where security can be discussed comprehensively and practical steps can be taken on a broad range of issues.
A new dialogue mandated by political leaders may not be popular right now with advocates of containment, many of whom will argue that new muscle, not new dialogue, is exclusively what is now required with Moscow — in particular when Putin has isolated himself, and Russia, behind a wall of propaganda. And it is clear that there are those in Russia who have also given up on dialogue with the West, which from their perspective has ignored Russian security interests for years.
But it should be clear to all nations in the Euro-Atlantic region that we are not in this crisis in Ukraine because there has been too much dialogue between leaders and senior officials on core security issues. Rather, we are all paying the price for running Euro-Atlantic security policy on bureaucratic autopilot — unwise in a region that includes six of the world’s 10 largest economies, four of the five declared nuclear-weapon states and more than 90 percent of global nuclear inventories.
How to get started on a new game of Building Mutual Security? Nunn, Ivanov, Browne and Ischinger have advocated the formation of a contact group that would include a core group of nations from the region, perhaps joined by a representative from the European Union, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. If the “smaller” contact group now proposed to deal with the Ukraine crisis ever gets off the ground, it could be a building block for a broader contact group. Of course, if the crisis escalates, or if containment takes a firm hold, contact among nations in Europe will most likely be, for some time, cold indeed.
Steve Andreasen, the director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001, is a consultant to the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Stela Petrova, research fellow for the European Leadership Network from 2011 to 2014, lives in Munich.