By Robert Souza
Those with even a passing interest in international relations have myriad topics to discuss at the moment. But there is one growing crisis in particular, formed by a subtle combination of incidents, that could potentially be the largest threat to the world. This is the feud between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia as both sides seemingly attempt to aggrandize their power in world politics.
In graduate school I learned a lot about international relations paradigms. Outside the world of academia, however, these schools of thought are rare to come by. This is unfortunate, because they can be really useful tools when examining different contemporary events. In applying the concept of the security dilemma to the current situation pertaining to NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe, the aim here is to illustrate the analytical value of a specific theoretical framework: realism.
Political realism focuses attention on anarchy (absence of an international government) and invariably places international relations into a realm of power and interests. In an anarchical international system, security is always of foremost concern. This turbulent environment composed of egoistic actors is what gives rise to the security dilemma.
The security dilemma is hugely driven by insecurities between opposing sides. As each side sees its attempts to strengthen itself - diplomatically or militarily - as defensive, the other side interprets these efforts as an existential threat worthy of an immediate response. These actions can often result in an ironic, self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstandings, heightening tensions and provocations that sometimes lead to an unintended war. The current situation regarding NATO and Russia, fueled by a legacy of deep-rooted and mutual mistrust, appears to be a textbook case of the security dilemma.
An appropriate starting point for this analysis is August 2014, when unmarked troops marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. This is when Russian belligerence really became subjected to scrutiny under the international spotlight. Russian president Vladimir Putin vehemently denied that Russian troops had carried out the invasion, but considerable evidence has surfaced that flies in the face of Putin’s words. While Russia’s aggression in Ukraine sparked much controversy, the real issue could actually be taking place in the Baltic states.
The Baltic states – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – are not just former Soviet Republics that border Russia, but, unlike Ukraine, members of NATO as well. Just weeks after these unmarked troops invaded Ukraine, President Obama traveled to Estonia and gave a significant speech in which he committed the United States to a possible war against Russia should Putin continue his foreign policy of incessant aggression in the region.
Obama warned that any foreign aggression against NATO’s Eastern European members, like Estonia, would trigger a collective military response from all NATO members. This might sound a bit extreme, but collective defense is actually a legal obligation enshrined in Article V of the NATO Charter.
NATO was created after WWII as a mutual defense pact to bolster Western Europe and contain the Soviet Union. The Baltic states were not members of this peacetime military alliance, but rather occupied republics under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian aggression was a nothing more than a trivial issue and the newly independent Baltic states would become members of NATO. Understandably, in Russia, this has been perceived as a threat of encroachment and encirclement in its backyard.
Today, with these NATO members sharing a border with Russia, Russian aggression is a major concern for NATO and containment has once again been made paramount. When Obama gave his speech in Estonia, he confirmed that NATO was still committed to enforcing Article V of its founding treaty despite these changes in the international system. After all, failing to do so would basically strip NATO of its legitimacy.
Putin, who would love nothing more than to see NATO dissolve into irrelevance, appears to think that NATO is bluffing. He has been disturbingly willing to gamble with how real these NATO threats are. As a result, we have seen numerous Russian provocations followed by NATO responses.
Tensions have risen to the point where Putin has materialized the largest military presence in the region since the Cold War. Combat jets are constantly flying the skies while submarines and warships are patrolling the waters. The United States has responded by installing heavy military equipment in the Baltics to augment the defenses of their NATO allies. True to the security dilemma concept, Russia opted to counter by fortifying its Western border with more troops, tanks, planes and missile systems.
As we can see, every time one side acts, they inadvertently exacerbate the security dilemma by eliciting an immediate response. With both opposing forces honing the defensive effectiveness on their respective sides of the border, the stakes could not be higher.
Luckily, further escalations seem unlikely as both sides - despite different perceptions regarding the calculus of conflict - believe they can reap the benefits of "frozen" dissension. Still, the stage has been set in such a way that one wrong move on either side could easily spiral things out of control.
When all of these incidents are pieced together, we get an unequivocal indication of a security dilemma between NATO and Russia. Therefore, it is my conclusion that the security dilemma sufficiently explains the current situation in Eastern Europe and should be used to foresee the potential consequences.
The worst-case scenario here between two major nuclear powers would be catastrophic. While a major nuclear war is very unlikely, this security dilemma is inching it toward a realm of remote possibility. The dangers should certainly not be under-appreciated and everyone should be doing all they can to recede such a scenario from the fore. Recognizing the path we are on is an important first step and viewing the situation through a prism of political realism very much illuminates this dangerous path.
Robert Souza is a freelance international relations writer and political analyst at Global Politics. He recently received his Master's degree in international relations from Suffolk University in Boston and holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org