Kremlin demands new NATO-Russia security deal

Moscow sent Washington some sort of ultimatum just before Christmas. It demands that from now on NATO no longer accept new members without Russia’s consent and that the Western alliance not keep any armed forces near its borders. Ukraine and Georgia must not join NATO and cannot act as de facto members by welcoming NATO troops into their territory. Russia also wants all foreign NATO entities to leave the Baltic states and Poland – alliance member states. He further insists that the Americans withdraw their nuclear weapons from Europe.

The Kremlin knows full well that these demands are unrealistic. However, they are intended to give Russia a strong negotiating position and to make its leaders appear powerful, both at home and abroad. The “ultimatum” comes at a time when the United States is very involved with an assertive China, which challenges Taiwan.

The escalation of rivalry

What happened? Rivalry between Russia and the West rekindled a decade ago. Lately, the West has been angered by Russia’s alleged covert attempts to interfere in elections in the United States and Europe and by its poisoned anti-Western propaganda on social media. In turn, the West supports the opposition in Russia; the Kremlin’s fear that Europe and the United States will want to get involved in Russian governance is not unfounded. Mutual mistrust is colossal.

The tricky question is that the Western alliance has no real strategy for dealing with Russia.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region, the West imposed sweeping economic sanctions on the aggressor. They had little effect. Europe – and in particular its largest economy, Germany – is heavily dependent on Russian gas, just as Russia depends on export earnings.

Since Russia will not leave Crimea, the sanctions regime has become permanent. Oddly enough, Berlin insisted on maintaining the sanctions – while agreeing with Moscow on the North Stream gas pipeline designed to bypass Ukraine and the countries of central Europe.

High stakes poker game

On two occasions in 2021, Russia stepped up pressure on NATO by increasing its forces near Ukraine’s borders, including a significant build-up in recent weeks. The West has responded by delivering more weapons to Ukraine, threatening to toughen economic sanctions and putting the North Stream pipeline on ice over an alleged legal problem. However, such measures were unlikely to impress or deter Russia.

And now the threats have provided the Kremlin with the perfect opportunity to respond silently: it has issued an “ultimatum”. Russia wants to force the United States to the negotiating table; it sees the European powers as secondary actors. A high-risk, high-stakes geopolitical poker game is unfolding, but the West will have to face it.

The tricky question is that the Western alliance has no real strategy for dealing with Russia.

Over the past decade, Americans and Europeans have accomplished little in denouncing and obediently responding to the actions of the Kremlin. Lately, Brussels has raised the bar by reacting with belligerent remarks towards Russia and China. But playing the martial card is ludicrous, because the EU lacks adequate defense capabilities.

Both parties now face the same challenge; they must keep the game under control and avoid accidental escalation.

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