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Russia, Nato bellicose despite lull in Eastern European hostilities

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US Air Force General Philip Breedlove and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen attend a Nato defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels on 10 February, 2016 Reuters/Yves Herman

Russia has reacted angrily to Nato plans to move some 4,000 troops to the Eastern part of the European Union. At the same time Russia is boycotting the Nuclear Security Summit which got under way on Thursday in Washington, despite the participation of a number of Central Asian leaders. Analysts say with Russia absent, the US will likely use the opportunity to try and expand its influence with former states of the Soviet Union.


Both the presidents of the former Soviet Union states of Armenia and Azerbaijan traveled to Washington to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.

At the summit, US Secretary of State John Kerry made attempts to get them together and talk about the decades old problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave embedded in Azerbaijani territory where the two countries fought a bloody war between 1988 and 1994. That conflict is still not officially settled.

But to the dismay of Kerry, the Azerbaijani president refused to meet his Armenian counterpart.

"We want to see an ultimate resolution, the frozen conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh that needs to be a negotiated settlement and something that has to be worked on over time," said Kerry in a statement after meeting with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.

But Kerry was met with a diplomatic snub, says Richard Giragossian, the director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. “We think that the conflict must be resolved based on the UN Security Council resolution. We demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from our territory,” was Aliyev’s answer to Kerry.

“A very interesting, perhaps diplomatic mistake in directly criticizing the OSCE Minsk group-mediators. Which is co-chaired by Russia, France and the US,” says Giragossian, referring to the group that was set up to try and solve the Nagorno-Karabach problem.

“What was particularly sensitive about this criticism was the fact that the Minsk-group American co-chair works within the US state department for Secretary Kerry. And Aliyev's reference or demands that the UN Security Council should actually be involved was particularly frustrating for the US State Department,” he says.

At the same time he says the fact that Armenia did come to the Nuclear Security Summit at all is a diplomatic victory for Washington over Russia:

“Armenia is participating in the Nuclear Security Summit despite the Russian boycott.

“Armenia went ahead and didn't follow Russia's move in boycotting. It means that for a change the Armenian leadership is acting independently and as a sovereign nation. And not always following Putin's move in terms of post-Crimea, post-Ukraine aggression, this is a demonstration that Armenia is no longer as subordinate to Russia.”

Earlier in the week, Moscow reacted angrily at Nato plans to put more than 4,000 troops in eastern part of the EU. According to the TASS news agency, Russia’s permanent representative to Nato Aleksandr Grushko said that “we are not passive observers, we consistently take all the military measures we consider necessary in order to counterbalance this reinforced presence that is not justified by anything”.

Observers think the latest escalation of cold-war like rhetoric may be a result of the slow speed inherent to large bureaucratic bodies such as Nato that work with the speed of glaciers: once they are put into motion you can’t stop it anymore.

“We had a very pronounced trend in the increase of Russia's military activities and that trend essentially was interrupted by the intervention in Syria,” says Pavel Baev, a military analyst with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

“We suddenly had reduced Russian activities in that region but what happened before already set the bureaucratic machine in Nato in motion. All sorts of alarm bells were ringing and there were all sorts of war games which were showing that Russia has a position of military dominance, that the three Baltic States are very exposed, and slowly and gradually now the response is coming through. And so the two machines move out of sinc."

At the same time he says Moscow does feel it is being surrounded more and more, and is especially worried about developments in Ukraine, that slipped out of its control.

Last week, the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Committee, of the parliament, even advised to break diplomatic ties with Russia.

This may not happen any time soon, but the analysis suggests that for the time being Russia’s attempts to protect what is left of its Soviet empire and the reactions to that from the West are looking increasingly like a throwback to the days of the Cold War.