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German chancellor reaffirms Nato’s commitment to defend member states in eastern Europe.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images.
Reuters in Berlin.
Angela Merkel has accused Russia of interfering in the domestic affairs of countries that are seeking closer ties to the European Union.
“Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are three countries in our eastern neighbourhood that have taken sovereign decisions to sign an association agreement with the EU,” Merkel told the German daily Die Welt in an interview. “Russia is creating problems for all three of these countries.”
She pointed to “frozen conflicts” in breakaway regions such as Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Russian interference in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has shown its displeasure with Moldova’s pro-European course – confirmed in an election last week in which a pro-Russia candidate was prevented from participating – by banning imports of Moldovan wines, vegetables and meat.
Last month Vladimir Putin signed a strategic partnership agreement with Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, drawing strong criticism from Nato and the EU.
Merkel also accused Moscow of trying to make countries in the western Balkans economically and politically dependent on Russia in order to gain influence there.
She defended her decision at a Nato summit in 2008 not to put Ukraine and Georgia on track for membership of the military alliance, but reaffirmed Nato’s commitment to defend countries in eastern Europe that are members.
“There is no reason to talk about a war in the Baltics. But regardless, article 5 of the Nato treaty, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance as a whole, stands,” Merkel said.
“Better a banana in the hand than a Russian boot in the neck,” read the billboard. cg-online.
Russia has protested to Montenegro over anti-Russian billboards that popped up this month in the small Adriatic republic bearing the NATO logo and rejecting the “Russian boot.”
The billboards, signed “Montenegrin Patriots,” appear to allude to tensions between an influx of Russian money into the former Yugoslav republic and its hopes of joining the European Union and NATO.
The Montenegrin foreign ministry confirmed it had received a protest note from the Russian Embassy on Nov. 19, shortly after the billboards appeared.
It is not known who commissioned them. The NATO logo originally featured on the posters, but later appeared to have been removed.
Some refer to a number of controversial and stalled Russian investment projects, part of a flow of Russian money, home buyers and tourists after Montenegro voted for independence in 2006.
The small Balkan country of some 680,000 people is now a candidate to join the EU and NATO.
One billboard quotes late Montenegrin-born, Yugoslav writer and politician Milovan Djilas as saying: “Russians have never been friends to the Montenegrins; we’ve always been bargaining chips to them.”
Another alludes to a reported comment last year by Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Cepurin, in which he was quoted as likening Montenegro to a monkey, lining up to join NATO “in the hope of getting a banana.”
“Better a banana in the hand than a Russian boot in the neck,” read the billboard.
Montenegro’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and European Integration said in an email that it had replied to the Russian Embassy saying the messages on the billboards were “absolutely unacceptable” and in no way reflected state policy.
Serbia, which Montenegro split from in 2006, has sought to maintain warmer relations with Russia. Unlike Montenegro, it has refused to join European sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict despite also seeking membership of the EU.
Russian anti-submarine ship Severomorsk.
A fleet of Russian warships entered the English Channel on Friday but a NATO official dismissed a Russian media report that they were there to conduct military exercises.
Russian news agency RIA quoted the Northern Fleet as saying its vessels, led by anti-submarine ship Severomorsk, had passed through the Strait of Dover and were now in international waters in the Seine Bay to wait for a storm to pass.
“While it is anchored the crew are undertaking a series of exercises on how to tackle infiltrating submarine forces and are training on survival techniques in the case of flooding or fire,” RIA quoted the Northern Fleet as saying in a statement.
The Russian Navy could not reached for comment and the Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report.
France’s navy confirmed the location of the ships and said it was not unusual to have Russian warships in the Channel.
“They are not holding exercises. They’re just waiting in a zone where they can be several times a year,” said the French Navy’s information service.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen, NATO’s military spokesman, also said the alliance was aware of the Russian ships’ location.
“Our information indicates that the ships are transiting and have been delayed by weather conditions. They are not exercising in the Channel, as some Russian headlines would have us believe,” he said.
Russia has flexed its military muscle recently, with the NATO military alliance reporting more incursions by Russian fighters and long-range bombers.
The Russian maneuvers followed months of tension over Ukraine, where Moscow has annexed the Crimean peninsula and has supported armed separatists opposed to the Kiev government.
Little Green Men, a nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms that Western military officials gave them after appearance in Crimea. Yevgeny Razumny / Vedomosti.
When Russians crossed the border to fight with rebels in eastern Ukraine earlier this year, Moscow said the soldiers had not been deployed but had gone on their own vacation time.
When Estonia was the victim of a cyber attack in 2007 and blamed Moscow, the Kremlin responded that it could not always control patriotic Russian hackers.
Western strategists who built their defenses to counter a massive invasion, nuclear missiles or terrorism are still trying to work out how to cope with this sort of threat that disrupts and destabilizes from behind a mask of deniability.
After soldiers without insignia took control in Crimea last March, Western military officials developed their own nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms or in plainclothes: Little Green Men.
NATO is considering how to counter such “ambiguous warfare” techniques should President Vladimir Putin try something similar in the Baltic member states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
It has deployed some U.S. and allied tanks and planes there to signal NATO’s commitment to defend all its members with force and is considering bolstering police there, perhaps with officers from Nordic states, to help detect any Russian infiltration.
Effective Russian Strategy
Military experts say Russia’s unconventional strategy on its western flank, especially in non-NATO member Ukraine, is proving remarkably effective, and it has recently been combined with a global show of force on a scale not seen since the Cold War.
Russian warships probed the limits of Australian territorial waters before the G20 summit in Brisbane this month and Moscow said nuclear bomber patrols which have been overflying western Europe would now reach as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
Russia’s underlying point, Western analysts say, is clear: as it reasserts its influence over countries on its borders, it is reminding the West of how cataclysmic the consequences could be if military force were used to stop them.
“Putin is taking the measure of the West’s willingness to keep exerting pressure on Ukraine,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Many officials and experts say privately that both the West and the government in Kiev ultimately will have to accept greater federalism and a Russian influence in eastern Ukraine.
The issue will then be whether Putin interprets it as a sign of weakness and a green light to consider similar tactics against NATO members like the Baltic states.
Evolving Western Strategy
“It’s not quite a new Cold War, but it’s a very different situation to where we were a few years ago,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official and now senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “I don’t think we’ve yet formulated a proper strategy for dealing with that.”
The West’s biggest response to Moscow’s actions has been financial sanctions on Russian firms and individuals and the new, if limited, military deployments in eastern Europe. Further measures are now being discussed in NATO meetings.
U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove makes clear covert infiltration by Russia could draw a military response under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance as a whole.
“If we see these actions taking place in a NATO nation and we are able to attribute them to an aggressor nation, that is Article 5. Now, it is a military response,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt earlier this year.
The emphasis for NATO in Europe, home to more than half the world’s atomic weapons, remains detecting any Russian initiatives early and responding firmly to avert any risk of actual war.
“What you have to remember is that there is simply no option for a conventional war with Russia,” said one former official on condition of anonymity. “It is either unconventional like this or it is likely to become something much worse.”
Medical volunteers unpack individual first aid kits similar to those used by NATO during a ceremony where they were donated by Kiev’s Mayor Vitaly Klitschko in Kiev Oct. 31. Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters
Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, The Moscow Times.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Tuesday voiced what Russia wants from the West over Ukraine: guarantees that the former Soviet republic will not join NATO, an outcome that political analysts agree was already unlikely in the year-long conflict that has already claimed 4,000 lives.
“We would like to hear that NATO will stop drawing closer to Russia’s borders, that NATO will stop its attempts to disrupt the balance of power,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with the BBC. “Unfortunately, we have not heard these assurances, and that forces us to worry, since NATO is gradually moving closer to our borders.”
Putin cited the threat of further NATO expansion as one of the reasons for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, a move that infuriated the international community.
Russia’s distrust of NATO is long-standing. Putin has used many platforms to express his stance on NATO expansion, including the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
“A military bloc showing up at our borders would be regarded as a direct security threat,” Putin told reporters at the time. “Assurances that these moves are not aimed against us will not be accepted. National security is not built on promises.”
Ukraine’s current circumstances seem, at first glance, to already constitute a guarantee that it will not join the alliance. The country does not fulfill the alliance’s political, military and economic membership requirements. The current territorial disputes over Crimea and the Donbass also put it at odds with NATO’s charter.
Ukrainian authorities have not kidded themselves about the prospect of membership, recognizing that the country does not fulfill the organization’s criteria and that the alliance would not be willing to accept Ukraine into its fold.
“Even if we sent a request to join NATO, the bloc itself would not be ready for this,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told Bild, a German daily newspaper, on Monday. “Only when we implement reforms in Ukraine and meet the criteria will we be able to ask the population whether they want to join the alliance.”
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty recognizes an armed attack on a member as an an assault on all of them. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that Russia was orchestrating a military buildup on its border with Ukraine, as well as on Ukrainian territory, after the alliance released satellite images it said showed Russian forces engaging in military operations on Ukrainian territory earlier this year. Had Ukraine been a member of the organization, NATO would have had to go beyond mere statements.
But circumstantial guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO in any foreseeable future are insufficient for Russia, pundits told The Moscow Times.
“Russia feels that it has been lied to by the West in many instances,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think tank. “It doesn’t want this to happen again, especially on a sensitive issue it said it was once cheated on: NATO eastward expansion. I assume Russia would request an official document with binding obligations.”
Peskov could not be reached Wednesday for clarification of the nature of the guarantee Russia had requested.
Russian authorities have claimed it was agreed during German reunification negotiations in 1990 Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. NATO denies that there was any such agreement and released a statement in April saying that “no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.” In the last 15 years, 12 European countries — including the three Baltic former Soviet republics — have joined the alliance.
Russian pundits agreed it was highly unlikely that Russia would obtain a written guarantee from the West that Ukraine would not join the alliance.
“Russia doesn’t trust NATO, and NATO doesn’t trust Russia,” political scientist Vladimir Yevseyev said. “Nobody trusts anyone else right now. This type of guarantee would increase mutual trust and predictability in these tense circumstances. I would view this as a positive development.”
NATO enlargement is only one of the issues Russia has used to justify its stance on Ukraine, and analysts said a Western guarantee on keeping Ukraine out of the alliance would have no effect on other lingering issues.
“A guarantee on Ukraine not joining NATO would not be enough,” Makarkin said. “It will not improve the situation in the country, nor ease tensions. There are a series of other demands Russia has made of the West regarding Ukraine, including the adoption of a special status for the east of the country. These other issues will not change regardless of any official guarantee against Ukraine joining NATO.”