Skip to main content
More than five thousand air, sea and ground troops take part in a multinational NATO maritime exercise BALTOPS in the Baltic Sea to demonstrate the resolve of allied and partner forces to defend the Baltic region near Ustka, Poland June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Agencja Gazeta THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. POLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN POLAND. - RTX1GXV7
Order from Chaos

A European security architecture that won’t work

Mike O’Hanlon is a great colleague, and we have collaborated in the past, including on a book on nuclear arms control. However, we do not agree on everything.

Russia’s seizure and illegal annexation of Crimea in early 2014, followed by its support for armed separatism in eastern Ukraine, dealt a crippling blow to the European security order. The Kremlin’s actions shattered the cardinal rule of this order, going back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act: European states should not use force to change borders or acquire territory.

A Bold Idea

Defining a new security order that can restore peace and stability in Eastern Europe poses a big challenge. Mike’s February 27 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal made a bold attempt to answer that challenge.

Mike suggested that NATO forswear further enlargement and proposed establishing a zone of permanently neutral countries, running from the Baltic states to the Black Sea. The zone would include Sweden, Finland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, plus Cyprus, Serbia, and some other Balkan countries. NATO and Moscow would commit to upholding the security of those countries, and Russia would withdraw its forces from states in the region, after which the West would lift its economic sanctions on Russia.

This is an interesting idea, but it would not work.

But Who Would Want to Belong?

First, a number of the listed countries would not agree to be relegated to such a zone of permanent neutrality. The obvious two are Ukraine and Georgia, both of whom have suffered from Russian aggression in the past 10 years. Others would object as well, including Sweden and Finland, which have recently taken a closer look at NATO in light of Russia’s more provocative posture and would not want to see their future security options circumscribed. Even a country such as Armenia, a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, might well object: Russian troops on its territory provide a hedge against Azerbaijan, which is using its energy wealth to strengthen its military capabilities, which Yerevan fears might be used to regain Nagorno-Karabakh.

NATO and Russia would have to consider these views. A “Yalta II,” negotiated over the heads of the Nordic and Eastern European states, would not go far.

Russian Interference Would Continue

Second, were such a neutral zone agreed, NATO would respect it. Would Moscow? The Kremlin has pursued a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, including Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. While Russia might say that it would respect those countries’ neutrality, we could expect a pattern of interference in their domestic and foreign affairs. In 1994, Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence in the Budapest Memorandum, a pledge it blithely ignored in 2014 on the basis that circumstances had changed.

A key challenge of getting back to a more normal relationship between the West and Russia will turn on restoring a European security order that satisfies both sides.

Moscow Would Object to EU Membership

Third, Russia would not accept Mike’s suggestion that Moscow acknowledge the right of countries in the neutral zone to join the European Union (Sweden, Finland, and Cyprus, of course, are already members). The Kremlin has sought to build up the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the European Union. Armenia and Belarus are already members, and Russian commentators talk frequently of a “wider Eurasia.”

Moscow would not welcome the prospect of countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova gravitating towards the European Union. Indeed, Russia’s alarm over Ukraine’s course in 2013 and 2014 was not triggered by a prospect that Kyiv might join NATO (there was no interest then within the alliance in putting Ukraine on a membership track, and Ukraine was not pressing the issue). The triggering concern was Kyiv’s desire to conclude an association agreement with the European Union. The Kremlin recognized that, if Ukraine implemented all the economic and political reforms in the association agreement, it would be forever beyond Moscow’s reach.

A key challenge of getting back to a more normal relationship between the West and Russia will turn on restoring a European security order that satisfies both sides. NATO enlargement into the post-Soviet space is off the table for the foreseeable future. However, trying to create a single zone of neutral states, many of whose members would object to being there and where Russian interference would continue, does not offer the needed answer.

A how-to guide for managing the end of the post-Cold War era. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

Get daily updates from Brookings