NATO members gathered in Warsaw over the weekend to broadcast their plans to increase the alliance's presence along Europe's eastern flank with Russia. As expected, the 28-member bloc agreed to station four battalions of as many as 1,000 soldiers each (the United States, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom will each lead a battalion) in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on a rotational basis starting in 2017. The rotational deployments by themselves will not fundamentally upset the military balance between NATO and Russia, and they lack the permanency that Poland and the Baltic states were hoping for. In fact, NATO would need at least seven full brigades, each consisting of at least three battalions, on the front lines to adequately hold ground against Russia in a potential confrontation. Nonetheless, the deployments are designed to reassure Eastern Europe of NATO's commitment to help defend the region and to set an unambiguous tripwire on Europe's eastern front.
Russia scoffed at the affair in Warsaw, accusing NATO of creating more instability over an "imaginary" and "nonexistent" threat. With legislative elections approaching in September, the Kremlin wants to avoid looking weak at home as NATO pushes deeper into the former Soviet sphere. Still, Russia can try to make the most of it.
An Excuse for a Russian Buildup
If the Kremlin can paint the United States as the one steering NATO toward a more aggressive posture, it will be able to appeal to more dovish European countries such as France and Italy to temper NATO's ambitions and drown out the Polish and Baltic hawks. At the summit, France was rumored to be a key driver behind the decision to guarantee that operational control of a U.S.-built missile shield in Europe will belong to all NATO members and not just U.S. decision-makers. France also pushed hard to organize a Russia-NATO Council meeting after the summit to defuse tension with Moscow. At the start of the summit in an announcement tinged with Gaullism, French President Francois Hollande said, "NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe's relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat." This is exactly the kind of independent thinking that Russia will need from Europe to deny the United States a united Western front. And in a post-Brexit world, as Euroskeptic movements throughout the Continent find more cause and opportunity to advance a nationalist agenda, it will not be hard to find.
Russia can also use NATO's eastern buildup to justify a military expansion of its own. In anticipation of bulked-up NATO forces in Eastern Europe, Russia has already been restructuring brigades in its Western Military District into division-sized units. Moscow will use NATO's expansion in Europe to argue that Belarus is more vulnerable and, therefore, in need of Russian military reinforcement.
Belarus itself will remain cautious, however, agreeing to further military cooperation in some areas but holding off on bigger concessions such as allowing Russia to establish an air base in Belarusian territory. Though Minsk can leverage the friction between Russia and the West to gain concessions from both sides, it is trying to avoid getting caught in the fray. The United States and Europe have made clear to Minsk that they do not consider Belarus a threat and will continue to hold out concessions in return for the country's political and economic cooperation and commitment to limiting Russian military expansion. So far — and much to Moscow's annoyance — Minsk has obliged in this balancing act as it tries to improve its own economic competitiveness through ties with the West.
Even without Belarus' wholehearted cooperation, Russia will respond to NATO's buildup in kind. Its reaction will go beyond conventional warfare to nuclear weapons: Moscow is highly focused on building up its strategic missile force. Looking to overcome the U.S.-built anti-ballistic missile network in Europe, Russia has already stepped up its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and new deployment tactics.
In turn, U.S. President Barack Obama will try to use the remainder of his presidency to reduce the risk of nuclear arms treaty violations down the road with new proposals to Russia to extend and strengthen their current agreements. Russia, however, will entertain such proposals only if the United States takes clear steps to scale down its ballistic missile defense plans in Europe — a request Washington is unlikely to heed when it is trying to demonstrate its commitment to European allies and the strength of its nuclear umbrella. The United States' recent decision to turn operational control of the missile shield over to NATO will help maintain a dialogue with Russia, but Moscow will demand much more than that gesture.
NATO, meanwhile, is bracing itself for Russia to follow through on threats to place advanced nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad and possibly Crimea. At the same time, arguments for higher military spending will fuel an already fierce debate within the Kremlin on the dangers of exceeding the limits of Russia's defense budget as the country's recession continues and foreign investment remains wanting.
Turning Instability Into Strategy
Even as the military costs to sustaining this prolonged standoff with the West pile up, Russia still has a handful of frozen conflicts in reserve with which to prod its adversaries when necessary. The key to leveraging a frozen conflict is to have small portions ready to thaw at the right time, plus enough influence to freeze the discord once again when concessions are exacted. Russia already has the power to revive frozen conflicts in eastern Ukraine, Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Moldova's Transdniestria. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh thawed following a spring flare-up when Azerbaijan managed to retake a marginal bit of territory, likely with Russia's tacit understanding. Now Russia is working to subdue the fighting on terms that will favor Moscow. Russian officials have been busy shuttling between Yerevan and Baku to advance a proposal for reducing the conflict to a manageable simmer, including terms that would enable Russia to station its own peacekeepers in the disputed territory. By creating a situation wherein Azerbaijan depends on Russia to help it retake territory, Russia would deepen its influence in a key energy corridor while crowding out Turkey and Iran.
Syria, however, remains a work in progress. Russia intends to bring Syria from civil war to frozen war in such a way that makes Washington dependent on Moscow's cooperation and gives Russia long-term leverage in one of the Middle East's major proxy battlegrounds — a strategy made all the better if the Islamic State can be contained in the process. Russia used the first part of the year to demonstrate that it could undermine the United States and its allies in Syria. Heavy Russian military involvement reinforced Iran and the Syrian loyalists' position against the rebels, creating massive instability and subverting the investment that the United States and its Sunni allies had made in a rebel counter to Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government and to the Islamic State.
Russia effectively turned itself into a giant obstacle on the Syrian battlefield, making it nearly impossible for the United States — much less allies such as Turkey — to reinforce its local proxies without risking a direct confrontation with Russia. Moreover, the siege on Aleppo that Russia has enabled could spur larger migrant flows to Turkey and on to Europe, providing fodder to Euroskeptic forces and catalyzing Europe's fragmentation.
Yet Moscow also showed briefly that it could use its influence for good. In the second quarter, Russia restrained its support for the loyalists in the north, coerced the Syrian leadership to negotiate a cease-fire, however temporary, and reapplied its focus to the Islamic State. Having brandished both a stick and a carrot of sorts in Syria, Russia could lure the United States back to the negotiating table. Russian President Vladimir Putin could then sell Obama on a hassle-free plan to fight the Islamic State in Syria as a stepping-stone toward a broader discussion on limiting NATO's military buildup in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, establishing a credible timeline to ease sanctions, and recognizing Russia's terms in frozen conflicts such as those in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.
So far, the Russian plan is meeting with moderate success, and some tentative understandings have manifested. Though the United States is steadily upgrading its military training and assistance to NATO aspirants Ukraine and Georgia, it is hardly rushing to put them on course to NATO membership. The United States and its fellow members in Europe are willing to help buffer Ukraine economically from Russia while refusing to provide lethal aid. And other potential bargains are still in development. Some European countries, and indeed, the United States, have discussed offers to ease sanctions on Russia as long as it upholds its end of the bargain by removing military forces from eastern Ukraine. Since Russia is unlikely to make any significant military concessions in Ukraine (a hot issue for Russian nationalists ahead of the September elections), Syria is the main place to watch this quarter for developments in the U.S.-Russia negotiations.
The United States has played a quiet but critical role in getting Turkey and Russia to reconcile, in large part because of developments in Syria. The United States would rather put off the bigger discussions with Russia and focus on the more immediate issue at hand: the Islamic State. To mitigate the jihadist threat, the White House needs Russia not only to cooperate but also to play nice with other members of the U.S.-led coalition.
A closer friendship with Turkey, of course, is just what Russia needs at the moment. By reconciling with Ankara, Russia now has a better chance of negotiating limits to NATO's plan to beef up its presence in the Black Sea. Romania was primarily responsible for advancing the plan, a response to the buildup of Russia's Black Sea fleet in Crimea. But a stronger NATO presence in the area would require Turkish and Bulgarian participation as well. Bulgaria, which has kept close ties with Moscow and is reluctant to complicate that relationship, has expressed its opposition to NATO's plan; Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov even argued recently that the Black Sea should be demilitarized altogether. Turkey, which technically controls access to the Black Sea according to the Montreux Convention of 1936, will also be less inclined to jump on Romania's proposal for a buildup when its first priority is to maintain a working relationship with Russia to further its goals in Syria. With Turkish and Bulgarian opposition more pronounced, NATO decided in the Warsaw summit to put off discussions on a Black Sea naval buildup until at least October — just one of the many ways Russia's Syrian strategy may be paying off.
Russia will keep Turkey on the hook through its involvement in Syria to ensure that matters such as the Black Sea fleet do not escalate. To demonstrate their renewed economic ties, Moscow will resume trade with and tourism to Turkey and re-engage Ankara on negotiations over natural gas price discounts and the revival of the TurkStream pipeline project. When it comes to Syria, however, Turkey will still need to proceed with caution. Maintaining links to Kurdish militant groups will enable Russia to put more pressure on Ankara if necessary and to use its military presence in Syria to block Turkey's plans to expand into northern Syria.
No Grand Bargain in Sight
Russia has plenty of options to help tip negotiations with the United States in its favor in the months ahead. Washington has finally answered Moscow's call for coordination in Syria with its own proposal. (The details of the plan were apparently leaked by dissenters in the State Department who have been trying to steer U.S. policy toward fighting the al Assad government directly instead of focusing solely on the Islamic State.) As leaked, the U.S. proposal calls for intelligence sharing with Russia on targets and a joint bombing campaign against radical rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. In exchange, Russia will stop its airstrikes against moderate rebel forces backed by the United States.
On paper, the plan sounds logical enough. But in reality, it would be fraught with complications. Jabhat al-Nusra is deeply embedded in the rebel landscape, making it extraordinarily difficult for the United States to geographically isolate the group without alienating its own rebel proxies and their regional sponsors in the process. Moreover, Moscow is not going to agree to the United States dictating whom Russia bombs and where.
The current Russian-backed loyalist siege on Aleppo is a case in point. Jaish al-Fatah, which includes a large Jabhat al-Nusra presence, will be integral to rebel efforts to retake the vital Castello Road and break the siege on Aleppo. Now that the rebels are in danger of being completely encircled in Aleppo, Russia can position itself tactically in the negotiations to draw out concessions from Washington in exchange for easing pressure on the loyalist campaign. Even so, the loyalists and their Iranian backers are likely to press on, regardless of how Russia tries to steer its negotiations with the United States. At the same time, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies will feel compelled to deepen their own involvement in Syria to ensure adequate support to the rebels if they find that they cannot rely on the United States as it deals with Russia. Just as Russia will struggle to control the actions of its allies, so too will the United States.
Despite all of Russia's maneuvering — and its moderate successes to date — there are stark limits on its ability to bend Washington on the more fundamental issues underpinning the U.S.-Russia standoff. Only six months remain in Obama's presidency, and the roots of Russia's contemporary Cold War with the United States will endure far beyond his administration. The United States is in no mood to make any big strategic concessions to Russia at this point. Besides, Moscow cannot be sure that any would stick. Simply put, this is not the time for grand bargains. Instead, it is a time for the United States and Russia to draw their red lines and seek tactical compromises where they can while working to maintain a hidden advantage wherever possible.