Defusing future crises in the shared neighbourhood: Can a clash between the West and Russia be prevented?

Thomas Frear

By Thomas Frear

Research Fellow

Ian Kearns

By Ian Kearns

Co-Founder, Board Member and former Director

Monday 27 March 2017

Over the last two years relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to their worst state since the Cold War. Allegations of Russian cyber interference in the recent US election cycle in order to help get Donald Trump elected are just the latest indication of how bad things are. It is no exaggeration to say relations are already in a state of profound crisis and notwithstanding uncertainties about how President Trump will approach the entire relationship with President Putin, it is entirely possible that the crisis will soon get worse.

This report asks how the two sides can best prevent that from happening while still defending their interests. It asks what a more effective approach to crisis avoidance and management might look like, especially as this relates to events in the shared neighbourhood in Eastern Europe. By ‘shared neighbourhood’, we understand - in line with the predominant EU typology - six post-Soviet countries situated between the enlarged EU and NATO, and Russia: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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The report examines credible political scenarios including a Belarusian succession crisis forcing action by the EU and Russia; a renewed conflict in Georgia caused by the frequent intrusions from South Ossetia; and an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine drawing outside actors such as the US, NATO and the EU.

The authors make the case that leaders need to be aware of how to best to manage these flashpoints before they escalate. The report puts forward recommendations of how to avoid and handle these crises in the future.

These include:

  • Avoiding crises through clarity over core interests: the West needs to be clear on  what it considers its core interests in the shared neighbourhood, such as what would, and what would not, be defended by military force but would nonetheless trigger non-military sanctions and other forms of counter-action. 

  • An unambiguous and well communicated commitment to deterrence as a means of crisis avoidance: this means going beyond the NATO measures currently implemented to deter large scale conventional and nuclear attacks. Being clear, for example, that should little green men or ‘insurgents’ appear to destabilise one of the Baltic States, NATO’s working assumption right from the start would be that the Russian leadership is responsible and would therefore be held accountable. 

  • Engaging in high-level political dialogue: dialogue should not be dismissed as a return to ‘business as usual’ or as a reward for Russian actions, but treated as the crucial part of confrontation management. Summits should provide leaders with as clear as possible an understanding of how the other side perceives its core interests and not designed as an attempt to overcome deep-rooted differences or carve out spheres of influence.

  • Exercising military and diplomatic restraint: both sides must exercise diplomatic restraint, impose restraint on their associates and proxies, and extend this to the military activity of regional actors. This is because localised actions by relatively minor actors in the shared neighbourhood will almost certainly be attributed to Moscow or Washington, Brussels, or other western capitals and potentially provoke an escalation. 

The report also calls for making use of existing dialogue mechanisms and for adopting new diplomatic initiatives as stabilising the current situation requires some diplomatic flexibility and innovation. These include: 

  • Creating an ad-hoc Military Crisis Management Group by broadening the NATO-Russia Council agenda: this will consist of military officials from NATO countries and Russia.

  • The broader use of OSCE mechanisms: going beyond the Vienna Document, such as the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre, and Forum for Security Cooperation. 

  • Proactive use of the contact group approach on flash-point issues (for example the Normandy process on Ukraine): The contact group format has proven to be a more effective model than conventional the OSCE, NATO-Russia Council of the UNSC conflict management mechanisms which can be restricted by consensus decision making and veto.

  • EU-Russia crisis management mechanism: The EU has evolved significantly from a technocratic to a political actor in the region. The lack of EU-Russia crisis management consultations on security issues leaves a dangerous vacuum. Setting up an EU-Russia crisis management mechanism is essential.
 

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The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN's aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe's capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

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