Hunting around for a handy overview of just what’s been happening at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, depending on who you read you’ll get some wildly different ideas. I’ve been confused for much of the morning. Here’s a brief indication of why:
EU Referendum‘s claim that “NATO has thrown Ukraine and Georgia to the bear. President Bush’s attempts to put them on track to future and very distant membership of NATO has failed” is then contradicted by Radio Free Europe‘s report that “pro-NATO forces in Ukraine and Georgia celebrated the announcement, which offered stronger-than-expected support for their entry bids”
Repeat for pretty much every issue under discussion at the summit (for which, see this very handy round-up).
People always like to look for tangible, obvious outcomes from these things. But this is international diplomacy. Worse than that, it’s strategic military international diplomacy where all but one of the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council are involved (and we know how infrequently that lot manage to get along). Making compromises left, right and centre – leading to a stalemate in which, well, the status quo has largely been maintained – was the only sensible course of action. The thing was always going to end up a waste of time and money.
But the real fun is that despite the fact that NATO is now overseeing operations in Afghanistan (that well-known North Atlantic power) and looking to a more global role, this summit has made one thing increasingly apparent: the Cold War may have ended, but NATO’s principal opponent remains Russia.
Pretty much every compromise on the European front, every bit of backing down, appears to have been done to placate the Kremlin – because the principle areas to which NATO is looking to expand its influence (largely under the prompting of the US) lie in former communist countries, be it Ukraine and Georgia or Croatia and Albania.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, there’s been a growing tension between Russia and the West in recent years – from ex-FSB men assassinated in London to the resumption of patrols by Russian nuclear bombers through the vendetta against the British Council in Moscow. Then there’s the war of words with Belarus, Europe’s oft-forgotten fanatically pro-Moscow wildcard (a country that misses the USSR so much its secret police are still called the KGB and there are constant rumours that it is planning to formally merge with Russia), cyber-warfare against Estonia, and the ongoing standoff over Kosovo’s independence. Even the EU’s (and NATO’s) difficult relationship with Turkey is getting caught up with the Russian situation thanks to the Russo-Turkish partnership in the Bluestream and Nabucco pipelines, both of which are helping to make Europe increasingly reliant on Russian energy supplies.
The relationship with Russia, in other words, increasingly seems to dominate all European diplomacy. Where during the Cold War the presence of the USSR may have ensured that western Europe and the EU was operating under the constant fear of nuclear attack, Moscow’s then lack of engagement in western European affairs allowed everyone to get on much as they pleased. Since the end of the Cold War – and especially since Putin came to power – Moscow’s long-sought-after engagement with the West has if anything caused even more problems.
During the Cold War it was America who stood guard and kept watch, now Europe (both the EU and non-EU countries) has to be constantly on the alert for far more subtle Russian encroachments than columns of Red Army troops or falling H-bombs – encroachments largely economic, and mostly achieved through that strange form of diplomacy at which Putin so excels: smiling with fangs.
With such a large, unpredictable neighbour to the east – especially one with the ability to shut down a sizable chunk of the European economy on a whim (as has already happened to Ukraine) – little wonder there seem to have been few major advances at this latest NATO summit. In fact, I can barely see the point of holding these things until Russian attitudes to the West shift further in the direction of friendly cooperation (no signs of that any time soon) – because Russia’s never going to accept public humiliation, which is how the current regime seems to see any kind of outside involvement in what remains of the bear’s sphere of influence.
So the real points of interest after such standoffs between Russia and the West are never going to be the big issues. We’re not suddenly going to have a Kremlin change of heart on any of the major issues any time soon. And if and when such a change of heart comes, it’s certainly not going to come at one of these big public summits – far too humiliating. Where such shifts in Russian attitudes – either pro-engagement or heading towards hostility – are first going to be seen is in the details. The precise wording, the precise terms of any diplomatic agreement between Russia and the EU, US, NATO or individual European countries – the small print that the journalists rarely have time to scan in their rush to hit deadlines and get an angle that gives the subs a good shot at an interesting headline – that’s where we’ll first spot the changes when they come.
These summits are, in other words, little better than MacGuffins. The real diplomacy is going on off the radar, with lots of little standoffs in places like Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Central Asia.
NATO may well be starting to look globally – but Europe needs to do the same to keep tabs on just what its unpredictable neighbour is up to, because Russia has more ability than any other state to screw Europe over. If Russia’s got its fingers in a lot of pies, we need to be keeping an eye on all of them, and not get distracted by the occasional fuss over the more obvious ones like Ukraine and Georgia (both of which have had high-profile popular pro-democracy uprisings in recent years, which are always of appeal to the press). To do so would be to fall for the oldest trick in the book.