Main Theses from the Roundtable "Riga Dialogue 2018: the New Normal in the Euro-Atlantic Security Order."

“Riga Dialogue 2018: the New Normal in the Euro-Atlantic Security Order,” the fifth edition of the annual roundtable in the Latvian capital, took place on May 23, 2018. Three core sessions drew together experts and policy-makers from 14 countries within the Euro-Atlantic area, with an aim to assess and review trends in Baltic, Black Sea regions, and broader Russia-West relations the political, military, and economic flora. This contribution aims to highlight the main theses promoted during the dialogue, with an aim to reach out to the general public. The contribution is structured to first introduce the reader to the key idea and phrase of the roundtable, followed by sections on political, military and economic arenas.

The ‘New détente

Last years’ Riga Dialogue focused on the ‘new normal’ as a key phrase, to denote the state of Enormous loss of trust between the East and West. This year witnessed the emergence of the ‘new détente’ as the leading nomenclature. Overbearing importance was placed on maintaining stability as a goal, as the largest threat at the moment is uncertainty. The geopolitical principles guiding the ebbs and flows of the past century are being challenged at their core.

Different theories were set forth for the factors for when the systematic schism leading to uncertainty began. Various options were offered for when the first cracks showed up in Western-Russian relations; 10 years ago when NATO communicated that they sought strategic partnerships with Russia and the latter turned their backs, 27 years ago when a new Russian Federation was pulled into a Eurocentric framework, or even so far as the expulsion of Russia from the League of Nations in 1939.

The uncertainty also brought forth a value debate. Perhaps variance in world views underpins the current mistrust. Experts have proposed that the West stands for post-modern values, while Russia stood for traditional values. From another perspective, a stand-off between liberalism and illiberalism was considered. The West considers in win-win solutions, while Russia thinks in a zero-sum format.

Discussions about polarity offered another angle of investigation. Some participants set forth a decline in US power, and a formation of a balance of power on that basis of regions. Others argued an equivalent decline in Russian power. A third opinion concluded that the world is moving toward non-polarism.

No single justification for the current paradigm was identified, and discussion often scurried around the plurality of opinions. Yet, in beginning to understand the extent of differences in the beliefs of the players of Euro-Atlantic security framework, participants echoed the need to slow down, stabilize, and reach out anew. The most fitting phrase for such an endeavour, as the participants themselves found, is a new détente.

Political Aspects of the New Normal: Realities and Opportunities in the Transforming Euro-Atlantic Security Architecture

The political reality this year, can be summarized as a holistic paradigm shift. While relations with Russia continue worsening, relations between Europe and the US are not what they once were. There is a perception that the US is no longer the backbone of Western security, and this has been taken into account in recent developments. Most importantly, Europe has created the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative – an auxiliary structure to NATO, which is still trying to find its identity. Yet, NATO still forms a powerful foundation for Western security, and regardless of political whims among its constituent nations, it is only increasing in strength and resolve. Other elements, like Turkey and China, are becoming larger concerns as their intentions are unclear.

Dialogue between the two sides has been failing since 2014. This has been tangibly evident by the lack of attendance to certain meetings and the documented absence of veracity in statements when dialogue does take place. Concurrently, the issue of Ukraine has reached a standstill, and meidation is failing to enforce any of the agreements. The Baltics are agreed to be a particular point of contention from the Russian perspective. Their strong sentiment in the political arena denoting extreme wariness towards Russia is viewed as an obstacle to closer Western-Russian dialogue. However, the grassroots relations between the Baltics and Russia do not reflect this, as trade between them has grown significantly in the past few years. Experts agree, that there is not much to be done about the stalemate in high politics, however, as that would require denouncing fundamental positions by the Baltics or Russia.

The experts find the primary problem in the current political arena to be the enormous loss of trust between East and West – Russia, in particular. This is compounded by fundamental assumptions of mistrust which have continued swelling in the past several years. An environment of uncertainty has resulted, which promotes international nervousness and reflex-based actions.  At the same time, there is a growing confidence that the future of Russian-Western relationships cannot rest on its historical framework. The question is, thus, how to best reach an understanding of what needs to change.

To both of the aforementioned problems, experts pressed for the importance of small steps. These should be mutually acceptable and structured to decrease the options for interpretability and chance of misunderstandings. Their feasibility should be the primary focus. The OSCE was proposed as a vehicle for such initiatives, as it is considered a neutral organisation by both sides. Within the OSCE, a multi-year agenda should be created, instead of changing the priorities depending on the leadership in office. A first step could be to stop dependencies on ad-hoc processes and move towards structured dialogue.

Confidence building measures must be increased. The end of the Cold War offers many tools to draw from, such as the Stockholm arsenal. Measures should be elaborated with the sole goal of improving the atmosphere and tone between Russia and the West. Experts also highlighted the power of leaders. Putin and Trump could seek out the experiences of Reagan and Gorbachev in the 80’s. Top-down statements to the general populace promoting peace and stability between nations could create a positive-feedback loop with international reverberations.

Military Dimension of the New Normal: Shaping Euro-Atlantic Strategic and Conventional Arms Control

Consensus was reached on the idea that the situation has stabilized in comparison to the past few years. For the West, there is a much more audible movement towards deterrence in NATO, and a confident positioning of troops in the Baltics. This has been compounded by a military embargo in the region. The latter could have provided a possibility for miscalculation, but it has not. Successfully, the forward presence in the Baltics has not been considered a threat by Russia. This is a good sign for future deterrence measures, which will be bolstered further. Experts note, however, that NATO will most likely continue to practice self-restraint and will not be matching military presence in the Baltics.

However, conventional arms control has lost the strategic significance it held from the era of bipolar confrontation. This calls for the reformulation of arms control philosophies on a broader scale, to fit with the more pluralistic international setting.

Confidence building measures and arms control are an utmost priority for security, stability, and military transparency between the East and West. While the instruments are there, their effectiveness is lessened by a considerable lack of political will. Some experts find that Russia may not wish to use these tools with the purpose of increasing unpredictability and opaqueness as a method to threaten and provoke neighbours.

The OSCE is a key institution in the process of confidence building. It is one of the platforms where all the players are in a permanent discussion. It should be escalated in its role as a mediator in discussions on military restraint, confidence building, and broader transparent military structuring. However, a current obstacle in the OSCE is the issue of hybrid warfare and cyber risks, where opaqueness is most salient. In this case, codes of conduct could be formulated by states as a starting step to further discussion.

As for specific arms control measures, the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures is the best tool available and all parties should strive to follow its provisions. In this case, Russia continuously misses the opportunities to express its military exercises in accordance with the rules they have agreed to. It is particularly unsettling, when Russia claims to have fewer exercises than a country like Estonia. Such overwhelming manifestations of disobedience to rules Russia has itself agreed to makes it very difficult to engage in fruitful discussion in the domain of arms control.

While some experts promoted the possibility of altering documents like the Vienna Document, in order to again initiate Eastern and Western dialogue in arms control and military transparency, the vast majority opined that the baseline should be to follow the existing rules. Mutual trust can be measured by adherence to the aforementioned. Concurrently, experts urge to avoid an uncontrolled collapse of international and bilateral agreements – this would be the worst-case scenario. In case of an unstoppable avalanche, parties should immediately resort to amending the documents.

On a more subsidiary level, experts highlight the need for military contacts between NATO, Western national forces, and Russian forces. Cooperation and communication of any sort on the ground-level has been reviewed generally as successful, and such contact should be emphasised. This would further decrease the chance for miscalculation derived from the current military lack of transparency.

Economic Conditions of the New Normal: EU-Russia Economic and Energy Relations

Concerning the interoperability of political and economic strategies, experts found that achieving political goals is more important than economic gains. Experts agree, that no economic miracles can be expected from either Russia or the West during the current sanctions regime, and they are only leading to mutual downturn. Thus, a possible solution would be to implement sanctions with a higher degree of flexibility, to allow for gradual withdrawal if progress is achieved, or more precise implementation in the areas that cause crises in the first place.

The issue of ‘political risk’ in various economies remains an important factor for foreign and domestic investment appetite. However, experts point out that such risks are nothing new, and are now supplemented by the international disputes. The West should bear in mind that Russian economic players also change according to shifting economic atmospheres. The EU could, for example, pay more attention to the readiness of companies like Gazprom to engage in negotiations.

The Road and Belt initiative from China is also becoming a more relevant issue. There is consensus that trade with China is generally beneficial. Increases trade routes are consequently of interest to the Euro-Atlantic order. In Russia, the trade routes could go through highways in Kazakhstan. In Europe, bottlenecks in Poland are an issue – goods from China to Poland travel very quickly, and then slow down immensely. It is a matter of time before the economic consequences of the impede highlight themselves.

Concurrently, experts are unclear as to whether Russia would benefit from a weaker European Union as an economic entity. Some experts put forth, that the only threat to the union is itself. Most Russian policymakers organize themselves with the belief that the European Union will be a long-standing organisation. The on-going competence-shifting in the European Union is viewed as an internal matter, but some experts find that a stronger cooperation with third parties, such as Eurasia, can help stabilize it.

 While the economic dimension of the OSCE has lately been forgotten, it is one of the platforms that could provide space for dialogue between Russia and the West, as the prior considers it a more neutral ground. In particular, the OSCE could offer the groundwork for discussions on energy matters.

Conclusion

Altogether, the discussion highlighted the depth of challenges in front of the Euro-Atlantic Security order. The ‘new détente’ differs from the last not only temporally, but in the fundamental differences that must be overcome by the West and Russia to reach normal relationships. Where the last détente could end in a Western-led framework, it is unlikely that the next one will be as one-sided. Many hard discussions, and perhaps, even inconvenient truths may have to be faced by the current hegemons, as poles of the world shift again.

Published 07 September 2018

Author Ēriks Selga