How NATO should greet Russia’s ‘draft treaty’

On 17 December 2021, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly shared its draft treaty[↗] with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The publication of this draft treaty comes at a time of profound crisis in Eastern Europe. Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders is significant enough for the Kremlin to have now a credible option to intensify major offensive military operations on short notice. Worryingly, an uptick in anti-NATO and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Kremlin circles has accompanied this build-up. Though war scares have been a regular feature of discussions about Ukraine since the 2014-2015 Minsk Accords, this crisis is the most serious for several reasons.

Containing eight articles, the draft treaty provides a formal exposition of the political demands that the Russian leadership has been making for several years. Directed at the United States (US) but to be signed with all of NATO’s membership, the agreement seeks to recalibrate the basic foundations of the European security order. Some of its features offer a workable basis for mitigating tensions if, of course, the Russian side can be trusted to keep its obligations – a big ‘if’ considering Russia’s record of violating the Budapest Memorandum[↗] and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Article 2, for example, calls for hotlines to be organised between the signatories that may be used to diffuse tensions. Article 3 vaguely stipulates that mechanisms be improved for preventing maritime and aerial incidents in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. 

Other aspects of the treaty are, in a word, absurd. Article 4 especially is problematic because it calls for NATO to renounce any deterrence and defence measures[↗] put in place since 27th May 1997, a date chosen because it represents the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Of course, many of those measures have been implemented in light of concerns about Russian aggression following the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its aggressive activities in the Donbas ever since. In the same spirit, Article 7 calls for NATO members to refrain from conducting ‘any military activity’ on Ukrainian, Eastern European, Transcaucasian, and Central Asian territory. On NATO territory, military exercises and other military activities may not occur beyond the brigade level (3,000-5,000 troops). 

Article 5 seeks to rehabilitate the now defunct INF Treaty but its language conveniently ignores that Russian violations led to that arms control treaty’s demise. Article 6 demands that NATO repudiates its Open Door policy so that Ukraine will never become a member. Each of the foregoing articles demand significant concessions from NATO, while the rest of the proposed agreement offers none from the Russian side. 

At least three observations are in order. First, although the draft treaty might only be a piece of ‘discursive statecraft[↗]’ for the Kremlin, designed to negate European members’ agency by reducing them to subjects in a bilateral US-Russia decision, the Kremlin betrays a massive misunderstanding of how NATO works despite all the grievances it airs with respect to the alliance. Being the consensus-based alliance that it is, only one country is needed to object to the treaty to negate its present form. The treaty is thus dead on arrival because too many NATO members’ security interests are negatively impacted by the ideas it contains.

Second, it is difficult not to conclude that the demands contained in the draft treaty also betray Moscow’s imperial ambitions for Eastern Europe. In effect, the Kremlin is demanding a free hand in the region. How making such grandiose demands actually serves Russian foreign policy is unclear. Admittedly, defensive motives, as much as imperial motives, can plausibly explain many of Russian foreign policy actions: Russian leaders may genuinely fear encirclement and so use force in their neighbourhood to assert their red lines, however distastefully they might do so. Yet all credulity must really be strained to offer a charitable explanation for why Russia would call on all countries on its western borders to neuter themselves so effectively. The draft treaty validates those in the Euro-Atlantic community who are hawkish towards Russia, not the doves. 

Third, because the maximal demands articulated in the draft treaty make a terrible first impression, especially in light of the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, negotiation – at least that in the public – becomes harder as a result of the deepened mistrust. To be sure, the demands made do reflect policy objectives that the Kremlin has been articulating for years. In 2009, for example, Dmitri Medvedev, then President of Russia, put forward a ‘European Security Treaty[↗]’ that observers dismissed as a propaganda ploy devoid of any substantive content. Yet the Kremlin’s insistence that the draft treaty is but a draft and that it is only an opening salvo in negotiations ring flat. If Russia truly wishes to engage in diplomacy in good faith, then it would not stake out positions which make it look like an imperial power and elicit flat rejections.

One conclusion, hard as it seems to refute at this stage, is that none of this talk matters. Perhaps Moscow does understand NATO’s internal decision-making enough to know that the draft treaty will be greeted with jeers and condemnation. Perhaps it does really have imperial ambitions, at least with respect to Ukraine, and no longer really cares what other countries think. Perhaps negotiations are not what the Kremlin wants. It is simply looking for a reason – a pretext possibly – to feel sufficiently aggrieved that a new major offensive military operation now feels not only justified, but also necessary.

NATO allies were right to dismiss the draft treaty and to call upon Russia to begin acting in good faith if it is truly serious about forging a new cooperative security relationship. In that spirit, any negotiations would have to take baby steps. Talk of grand bargains will only raise alarm and fuel distrust among NATO members, while unnecessarily driving up the stakes involved for both sides. Some aspects of the draft treaty – as those that relate to mechanisms intended to reduce accidents and to improve transparency and predictability – might make sense if the Kremlin also agrees to step back from Ukraine, but insofar as a major Russian offensive against the country seems imminent NATO should dismiss the insincere and one-sided Russian proposals.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo.

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