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EU-NATO Relations: Quo Vadis?

The political crisis unravelling in Ukraine earlier this year has brought to the fore the precarious nature of the “European security architecture” in the post-Cold War period.


Many would agree that the current crisis in Ukraine is an angry reaction on Moscow’s part to maintain its influence in what is known as the post-Soviet space.


While Moscow has in the past grudgingly tolerated US-Western expansion through successive rounds of NATO and EU enlargement in 1999 and again in 2004, it stopped playing ball when it came to Ukraine or Georgia previously. Indeed, Russia’s decision to go to war in Georgia in 2008 was largely driven by the perceived threat of US-NATO expansionism.


It is the same strategic plot in Ukraine. When pro-Russian Yanukovych came into power in 2010, he abandoned Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and the country’s strained relations with Moscow were quickly improved. Then, in November last year, Moscow intervened at the eleventh hour to stop Ukraine drifting off from Russian sphere of influence when it seemed that Kiev would sign an association agreement with the EU.


For his part, Putin offered Ukraine a “better deal” which Yanukovych accepted. That decision led to spectacular anti-government and pro-EU protests in the Ukrainian capital and President Yanukovych was toppled; unfortunately, this was followed by unrest in the country’s east and the breaking up of its Crimean region to join Russia.


This is all very relevant for EU-NATO relations not least because dealing with the crisis in Ukraine and with Putin’s Russia remains emblematic for the divergent perspectives within the two organisations.


Some countries, most notably Germany, France Italy and Spain, are reluctant to take a tougher stance on Russia and fear further alienating Moscow.


The new member states on the other hand (Poland and the Baltic republics in particular), given their Soviet past, are more wary of Russia which they see as a direct threat to their security interests. They are now driving NATO policy in Europe together with the US.


Such a rift within the EU and between Brussels and Washington however, carries the potential to be seized by vested interests who wish to see a new Cold War only to reassert the strategic/military relevance of NATO in Europe as the latter prepares to exit Afghanistan. This also explains why NATO has been much more outspoken against Putin than EU has.


A new quest for NATO in Europe, riding on the fear of “Russian imperialism” is a zero-sum game: it would undermine efforts to strengthen the transatlantic cooperation not least by thwarting the EU’s efforts in assuming more responsibility in security and defence matters that Americans are long keen to see. A “beefed-up” NATO presence in Europe would also mean that the continent will enter into a downward spiral of “brinkmanship” that will hurt Europeans the most.


Political leaders in Europe should be able to keep cool heads against hawkish rhetoric. To defuse the current tension but also to contain its potential spill-over onto other regions, the EU should also flex its diplomatic muscle and begin working on a deal with Moscow that would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity.


A few good steps in that direction would be to unequivocally emphasise the principle of positive neutrality for Ukraine (possible membership of the EU but not NATO) and support Ukrainian efforts to devolve more powers into its regions that would also reassure its anxious Russian minority. Russia, for its part, should avoid using military force in Ukraine while dialogue ensues.


A robust and cohesive diplomatic initiative from Brussels (backed up by Berlin, Paris and not least, Britain) would also contribute to a strong and principled European foreign policy and defuse national egotism. The crisis in Ukraine in this sense, is a litmus test for EU’s credibility as a global actor.


On the other side of the Atlantic, the US administration would equally need to realise that its wider strategic interests (on Iran, Syria, N. Korea but also China) are best served through cooperation with Russia and not confrontation. This inevitably involves eschewing any major NATO military build-up on Russia’s doorstep.


In the longer term, the US would also need to stir clear of any other adventures that would antagonize an already insecure Russia. Recent American involvement in Cyprus is a case in point. Cyprus’ hasty plans to apply for the Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP) announced earlier in January, coincides with recent US intervention in advancing the stalled peace talks amidst promising gas explorations off the coast of Cyprus.


It is well-known that Cyprus is a constant headache for diplomats in blocking EU’s cooperation with NATO and a solution to the “Cyprus Problem” would lift an important political obstacle to deepening transatlantic relations. But PfP is no prerequisite for “peace”; in fact, militarizing an island in a turbulent region with a conflict-ridden past to “promote peace” is utterly nonsensical. It is also set to upset Russia which has historically close relations with the island.


Future events in Ukraine are set to have significant bearings on the EU-Russia-NATO relations and several developments will require close attention. It will important to see to what extent the hawkish rhetoric will set the agenda for NATO involvement in Europe. Additionally, it will be interesting to see how certain European capitals (Berlin and Paris, in particular) will respond. The EU might have a role to play in Ukraine but NATO involvement is set to complicate matters. It would also be relevant to understand Washington’s wider geostrategic plans and developments in the Eastern Mediterranean will provide additional insights.


What is certain is that if and when the dust settles in Ukraine, an honest discussion would need to take place so that the strategic interests of the EU and NATO can be defined and reconciled. Without it, dissension risks turning the transatlantic alliance into a bifurcated alliance. Dialogue would also offer a silver lining for expanding EU-NATO relations whilst ensuring that a closer “strategic partnership”, for everyone’s sake, does not cause an all-out “East versus West” confrontation.


Mustafa Cirakli is a doctoral researcher at Lancaster University and an affiliate member of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence. 

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