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The European security architecture two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall: can Russia be integrated?

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the need for a sincere and critical effort to review the European security architecture is increasingly recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Europe’s existing order was constructed in the 1990s, after the reunification of Germany, the retreat of Soviet forces, and the end of the Soviet Union. Several important decisions were made at the time. While the Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact, WTO) disappeared, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continued to prosper and soon began to respond to requests for membership, including from former WTO states. Simultaneously, efforts were made to develop meaningful and cooperative relationships between the European Union and Russia and between NATO and Russia.

However, over the last two decades, the premises on which this security architecture was built have largely vanished, and the roles and relative importance of the security institutions in Europe have undergone significant changes. NATO has taken on multiple functions; the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) does not play the central role originally envisaged for it; and the EU has developed its own security and defence dimension. Both the EU and NATO have enlarged, today encompassing significant parts of Central and South Eastern Europe, and these enlargement processes continue to change the European landscape quite fundamentally.

At the same time, the balance carefully struck in 1997 between the enlargement of NATO and the development of an institutionalized NATO–Russia relationship became dangerously lopsided a few years later. NATO enlargement continued—and the early membership of Ukraine and Georgia was advocated by some—while the relationship with Russia was allowed to drift and stagnate. The conventional arms control regime was also pushed onto the back burner of transatlantic and European security policy. Russia began to protest more and more vigorously that it would not accept marginalization. It increasingly perceived itself as Europe’s odd man out. In 2007 President Vladimir Putin made this point in no uncertain terms at the Munich Security Conference. Lack of mutual trust, growing suspicions and a deep sense of frustration became more and more evident.

The Georgian conflict of 2008 provided a concrete demonstration of deficiencies, and even of systemic failure. Consultations in the framework of the NATO–Russia Council were suspended just when they were of the utmost importance. Even before that conflict broke out, however, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had launched his own 2008 initiative calling for a restructuring of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, including proposals for a European security treaty.

A new window of opportunity appears to be open today. Already, in April 2009, Medvedev and US President Barrack Obama committed themselves to the vision of a nuclear-free world and the bilateral ‘reset button’ was pushed. By the end of 2009, Russia and the United States expect to conclude a replacement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and both appear determined to launch follow-on negotiations on deeper cuts in strategic nuclear warheads, beginning in 2010. At the same time, the Obama Administration has scrapped its predecessor’s plan to deploy missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has tabled a new plan that would offer more equal protection of NATO countries and, hopefully, provoke fewer concerns in Russia. As I put it in my Chairman’s Statement at the Munich Security Conference in February 2009, ‘spring is in the air’.

If a new European security architecture is to meet the expectations of all participating states more fully, what should its elements be?

First, it is obvious that any evolution in Europe’s security architecture needs to recognize the roles of the EU, NATO and other institutions as they have developed. At the same time, NATO leaders should understand that NATO and NATO enlargement alone cannot provide the answers. NATO will have to be an essential element of any future architecture—but not the only one.

The role of the OSCE could perhaps be strengthened by a return to its roots: could OSCE summits, for example, provide the overarching political roof that some find to be missing in the current structure?

Another idea might be formal or informal agreements between Russia and NATO members, or between Russia and the EU, guaranteeing, for example, the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The current review of NATO strategy being undertaken by a high-level panel led by Madeleine Albright might include, as a confidence-building measure, substantive discussions with Russia and other interested—or concerned—non-NATO governments. Transparency and openness will help to avoid new misconceptions or suspicions.

The right of every European state to apply for membership in any institution, and to participate freely in any organization, must also be clearly reaffirmed.

Finally, why should anyone be afraid of a comprehensive review of the system of security in and around Europe? I am firmly convinced that any proposal that suggests certain states being given a right of veto over the security relationships of other states would be voted down by the same overwhelming majority as any attempt to weaken the effectiveness of NATO decision making or of NATO’s collective defence guarantee.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell and Europe—and the world—began to change. The time has come for a comprehensive review of the elements and the principles of European security. Such a review should reaffirm the role of the USA as a European power. But it should also develop ways to make Russia feel more attracted to, and less marginalized by, the institutions and organizations of European security and thus encourage Russia to define itself as a real stakeholder in the European security architecture, rather than as a critic of the system.


This essay was written by Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Germany (1998–2001).