Interview series Future of NATO

O’Hanlon: “The goal is to normalize relations with Russia”

O’Hanlon: “The goal is to normalize relations with Russia” Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, hosted by Atlantik-Brücke. Photo: Atlantik-Brücke

Interview: David Deißner

Part IX of our series: Michael O’Hanlon demands that NATO’s eastward expansion must come to an end. The Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “Beyond NATO” suggests an alternative security architecture in Europe. In conversation with Atlantik-Brücke he insists that neutral countries should have every option to join any other organization.

O’Hanlon’s main assumptions at a glance:

1. NATO’s eastward expansion has gone far enough
2. Negotiations of Western nations with potentially neutral countries in eastern Europe would reduce the risk of war with Russia
3. Russia would have to withdraw its troops from countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova
4. The neutral countries could join the European Union in the future
5. They would have complete sovereignty and self-determination

Dr. O’Hanlon, in your book “Beyond NATO” you outline the hypothesis that the end of NATO’s eastward expansion and the implementation of a “zone of neutral nations” would reduce tensions with Russia. Do you see any signs in the actual political landscape for this approach to be seriously considered?

I am not going to be so audacious as to say that this strategy is being followed now. But it has a chance. Let me add two points. First, I am not the original proponent of this kind of thinking. This architecture is mine. But the basic notion that we have to think differently about the East than we would think about other parts of Europe has a number of other adherents. Henry Kissinger is one, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski another, perhaps even chancellor Merkel. We know that going back to the 2008 NATO summit, president Bush and secretary Condoleezza Rice wanted to expand NATO and give both the Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans to join within a short time. Many Europeans held them back. We already saw foreshadowing of this thinking with European reluctance to go that far.

What is your second point?

I would not propose this architecture simply as a gift to Russia or as a unilateral concession on our part not to expand NATO further. Because for one thing we would be leaving Ukraine and Georgia in the lurch, since we did promise them eventual membership. Secondly, if we conceded this Eastern area as a non NATO zone without making any other efforts to define a new architecture this could almost seem like Jalta II where we are giving Russia its own sphere of influence suggesting, that it should have domineering powers over other countries. I don’t want to propose that.

If we conceded this Eastern area as a non NATO zone without making any other efforts to define a new architecture this could almost seem like Jalta II where we are giving Russia its own sphere of influence suggesting, that it should have domineering powers over other countries.Michael O’Hanlon

What is at the core of your proposed new security architecture?

The concept combines neutrality with an insistence that these countries have every option to join any other organization that might be open to them. Obviously they are not yet candidates for EU membership. If the European Union ever wanted to include Ukraine and Georgia, Russia would have to say: ‘That is okay.’ Russia also needs to solve Donbass, South Ossetia, and Abchasia, in other words the territorial disputes with Ukraine and Georgia. All these things need to be wrapped together. Or you can’t call it an architecture. If we agree on all of this, here is the additional sweetener for Russia: EU sanctions can be lifted as well, because the idea is that we will actually have created a new path forward. The goal is to normalize the relations with Russia.

In order to call it a strategy something has to happen in return, correct?

Exactly right. It has to be seen as an agreement that requires Moscow to do some things, too. That is fair and even favorable to the neutral countries themselves. I will acknowledge that most of the emails that I have received from the neutral countries since I have published this work have not been that favorable. They see this as an abandonment. I try to argue that this is not an abandonment. Because in fact right now they are being promised something that they will probably never get. I don’t see any realistic movement towards NATO membership for Ukraine, Georgia or other former Soviet republics. We have left them out on a limb, exposed and with no protection. My plan is better for those neutral countries. But it will only be better for them if every other prerogative of normal sovereignty is protected.

I don’t see any realistic movement towards NATO membership for Ukraine, Georgia or other former Soviet republics. We have left them out on a limb, exposed and with no protection.Michael O’Hanlon

You believe that NATO’s expansion has gone far enough. Do you thereby call into question that several countries in eastern Europe have decided independently and in a self-determined way to join NATO after the end of the cold war?

This is a very difficult and delicate question. I admit I walk a very fine line. I do not believe the West can go into a negotiation for a new security architecture without any kind of apology to Moscow. I do not try to relitigate previous rounds of NATO expansion except to try to understand how Putin and Russia have gotten to where they are mentally and strategically.

NATO expansion was offered to independent countries that had often been under the Soviet yoke for a long time. Countries that the West helped consolidate their democracies, for example with civilian control of the military, and stability of borders. That was good. That all expanded the zone of peace in Europe and helped a number of these countries make remarkable progress. If you compare Poland to Ukraine today for example, they started out in the post cold war era more or less identical in size, population and GDP. Today, Poland despite its recent problems with governance is three times as wealthy as Ukraine.

Also, NATO worked very hard to reach out to Russia throughout this period creating the NATO-Russia Council and the partnership for peace. Moreover, NATO promised not to station major combat forces east of where they had been located previously. We generally kept to that promise. Now we are slightly modifying that approach but Russia gave us no choice because of the threat they have been posing to the East.

What does your analysis mean for potential future NATO member states?

People sometimes quote the Helsinki final act of 1975 which says that any state should be able to join any organization it wishes. They will say: ‘Doesn’t that mean that Moldova should be able to join NATO if it wants?’ I have three replies to that. First, the 1975 Helsinki final act was a long time ago. It did not really envision the cold war ending with one of the alliances resolving and the other going strong and expanding.

Second, the 1949 Washington Treaty that created NATO explicitly said in Article 10 that membership could be offered to other countries provided that it was seen to be in the interest of the security and strategic stability of the existing members and of Europe in general. It was not an open-ended blank check that anybody who wants in can be immediately assumed to be eligible.

My third argument is a little bit more crass. This almost sounds like Donald Trump. From our perspective one could ask: ‘Why are you assuming that I want to send my daughters to fight and die in the defense of your country?’ If I were an American diplomat I would not say that. But frankly, it reminds people of the stakes. NATO is a mutual defense organization in which the member states are sworn to each other’s protection. The United States has always taken that very seriously. We are the country that would probably bear the largest burden in terms of deployable combat forces apart from any country that has been attacked. We are entitled to ask: ‘Would it be good for us?’

Your core concept centres around a security architecture of permanent neutrality. In the best case, it would include from north to south Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Serbia. Are these states willing to stay neutral forever?

First of all, we can’t prevent them nor should we try to prevent them from joining other security organizations or creating new ones. If the Caucasus countries wanted to create a Caucasus security organization that would help them feel like they were part of a common body, prepare for peace keeping missions overseas, handle counter-terrorism locally through coordination, and resolve their own territorial disputes, that might be good. I do not try to rule that out. But NATO should not offer membership to these countries.

If the Caucasus countries wanted to create a Caucasus security organization that would help them feel like they were part of a common body, prepare for peace keeping missions overseas, handle counter-terrorism locally through coordination, and resolve their own territorial disputes, that might be good.Michael O’Hanlon

How could the neutral countries be integrated into the EU security architecture?

If these countries do join the EU there needs to be some care about the mutual defense provisions of the European Union Treaty which sound almost like the Article 5 provisions of the NATO Treaty. Maybe, those EU security provisions need to be either deleted or clarified for a new member. This would not mean that the entire EU would deploy forces as an entity to the defense of Moldova for example. Because that would violate the spirit of what I am proposing. The main idea is that NATO countries are no longer going to extend their Article 5 protections further east.

It would take huge diplomatic efforts to establish such a neutral zone in eastern Europe. You suggest the following steps: first, setting a new framework within NATO. Second, deliberation with the potentially neutral countries and, third, formal negotiations with Russia. How big is the risk that the Kremlin would perceive this kind of procedure as Western dominance once again?

Since we have the honor of sitting at Atlantik-Brücke’s office right next to the chancellor’s apartment: If someone like her with a greater diplomatic skill and experience than myself liked the main idea, but wanted to pursue it in a somewhat different way, I would be okay with that. I am not insisting that the exact sequence of what I am proposing is imperative. But the NATO members are sworn to each other’s defense. We have agreed that in security terms there is no daylight between us. Therefore, it makes sense to begin any discussion about NATO’s future within the alliance.

Then you have the question: Do we go over the heads of the neutral countries and talk to Moscow or do we involve these countries first? I am not in favor of NATO membership for Ukraine. Period. However, I am sensitive to the fact that Ukrainians are a proud and sovereign people. They deserve protection and safety. They gave up nuclear weapons after the cold war as we asked them to do. We had a promise that we would watch over their security. Arguably, we have failed in that. Rather than just go over Ukraine’s head and start talking to Vladimir Putin about how to divide up the world which is how this would be portrayed if we didn’t allow the neutral states to discuss this with us first, we have to go to them. This cannot be seen as Jalta II. It does not mean we have to keep Putin in the dark. I will send him a copy of my book, and maybe Donald Trump and chancellor Merkel could inscribe it and say: ‘Vladimir, we are trying to do something like this. We look forward to your reactions once we are a little more organized internally.’

It does not mean we have to keep Putin in the dark. I will send him a copy of my book, and maybe Donald Trump and chancellor Merkel could inscribe it and say: ‘Vladimir, we are trying to do something like this. We look forward to your reactions once we are a little more organized internally.’Michael O’Hanlon

You argue that it is required that Russia commits to help uphold the security of especially Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. This means, Russia would have to withdraw its troops. For years now there is no indication at all that Russia would agree to such a step. How realistic is this option?

Let me start with the hardest problem: Crimea. Russia will not give Crimea back. And we should not make the entire idea for a new security architecture contingent on Russia giving Crimea back. The way I would finesse that is that we should tell Russia we are not going to recognize the annexation of Crimea but otherwise put the issue aside.

Secondly, in regard to Moldova and the Transnistria region I don’t have a strong view on that question. The Moldovans there may welcome or be willing to tolerate the presence of Russian troops. This issue should be solved through a legitimate mutual agreement between Moldova and Russia that is ratified by the Moldovan parliament.

What does your assessment for eastern Ukraine and Georgia look like?

I know for a fact that Ukraine and Georgia don’t accept Russian troops. Russia is going to have to withdraw its troops. Maybe there could be international peacekeepers or a creation of a temporary buffer zone. We need to establish a credible monitoring body like the OSCE which is already in the Ukraine. Then at some point, maybe give a six month grace period, Russia will have had the opportunity to make enough adjustments to its presence in eastern Ukraine that the OSCE can certify that there is no longer a Russian military presence.

Certainly, in northern Georgia you could argue that there is a Russian speaking population so that autonomy in some kind of concept could be explored. We know that the Minsk II process for Ukraine would envision political autonomy for eastern Ukraine. There are ways for Russia to get an agreement where it can say that it is partially protecting the Russian speakers in those two countries. What is hardest to describe is the resolution of the territorial problems with eastern Ukraine and northern Georgia. Those would take some negotiation. However, we already know the geographic contours of the disputed areas and we know the kinds of autonomy that could realistically be provided.

What role will NATO be playing in transatlantic security policy in ten years‘ time?

NATO is a fantastic organization. I want NATO to stay strong and the European Reassurance Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve to continue. We need to clarify to Vladimir Putin that the alliance is fully committed to all 29 member states and that there are no degrees of seriousness, no different categories of which member is truly worthy of Article 5 protection. Everybody is! Any other position would be an invitation to Russian mischief, even more than we are seeing already. I very much want NATO to continue as an Article 5 based, territorial and mutual defense organization for Europe and North America. It has accomplished that goal remarkably. That is by far and away its most important purpose. Even though I am a supporter of the mission in Afghanistan, NATO’s ability to do something like that is far less important than NATO’s ability to vouch for the security of its member states.

We need to clarify to Vladimir Putin that the alliance is fully committed to all 29 member states and that there are no degrees of seriousness, no different categories of which member is truly worthy of Article 5 protection. Everybody is!Michael O’Hanlon

Let me also add that I admire the European Union. Right now, the deterrence of Russia that we are accomplishing by making sure the Russians don’t come even further into Ukraine for example is largely because of EU sanctions and their ability to deprive Russia of the richest market on earth. This economic power is just as influential in shaping Vladimir Putin’s decision making as anything we are doing within the alliance. Hence, NATO needs to stay closely coupled with the EU. We need the EU to be strong to complement NATO and work together to create this overall western foreign policy of military and economic deterrence which is keeping Putin from doing any more damage than he has already done.

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