‘Indivisible security’: the principle at the heart of Russia’s ire against Nato, ft.com

Utdrag ur Financial Times 7 februari

Vladimir Putin’s ire at the west and at Nato’s eastward expansion ostensibly hinges on a decades-old treaty provision the Russian president maintains is under threat: “the indivisibility of security”.

The concept broadly states that the security of any state is inseparable from others in its region. Putin’s stated belief that Nato strategy puts this principle in jeopardy is at the heart of Moscow’s justification for its military deployment on Ukraine’s borders, where it has stationed more than 100,000 troops.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the complaint last week when he cast western allies as aggressors following intelligence assessments that Russia was plotting to fabricate a pretext for a full-blown invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia is seriously concerned about increasing politico-military tensions in the immediate vicinity of its western borders,” Lavrov said. There were “differences in the understanding of the principle of equal and indivisible security that is fundamental to the entire European security architecture”.

But some observers say Moscow’s comments are only a way to buy time while it prepares its military strategy.

“Less important than its substance is the form and timing of this Russian messaging,” said Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme in London. “It’s a talking point designed to distract and divide.”

First crafted during the cold war, the term “indivisibility of security in Europe” was included in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which set ground rules for the interaction between two antagonistic blocs, the western alliance of Nato and the Warsaw pact made up of the Soviet Union and some of its satellite states.

The 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe stated that “security is indivisible and the security of every participating state is inseparably linked to that of all the others”.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summits in Istanbul in 1999 and Astana in 2010 repeated the importance of this concept, with the rider that this could not come at “the expense” of another state’s security. But both summits also reiterated that no state or group of states “can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence”.

The 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act, which aimed to build mutual trust, similarly recognised the concept and pledged Nato would not, “in the current and foreseeable security environment”, install permanent bases in new member states. Notably, the preamble also said Nato and Russia “do not consider one another adversaries”.

But things have moved on and today there is “a totally different reality”, said Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation think-tank in Washington. Russia under Putin has sought to create a sphere of influence, launching a war against Georgia in 2008 and annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Nato has meanwhile expanded to include former Soviet satellites, such as the Baltic states and Poland, with rotating bases in those countries.

Madriddeklarationen om Euro-Atlantic Security and Cooperation.

What does ‘indivisible security’ actually mean? Analysts take it to mean that the security of each state in the region is inextricably linked to the security of every other state. The problem is that the concept is open to wide interpretation. Even under the relatively pro-western 1991-99 presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Moscow took “indivisible security” to mean Russia would be involved in Europe’s security decision-making process, Charap said. It understood that any expansion of Nato that affected Russia’s “core security interests” must be made with its consent or it would take action to prevent such plans from being realised, he added. In contrast, newly liberated Soviet satellites saw the concept as an expression of their sovereign right to make their own security arrangements, including joining the EU or Nato, he noted.

The differences of interpretation are at the heart of Russia’s demands, which Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, paraphrased as: “You promised us indivisible security. But you haven’t given us that.”

But according to Charap, this is a misleading argument. In Moscow’s eyes, the principle of not increasing your security at the expense of others must hold when it comes to a former Soviet satellite joining Nato, he alleged, but not “when [Russia is] building up 100,000 troops on the border”.

Russia set out its security demands on December 17 last year, essentially demanding Moscow have a veto over European security arrangements, including a ban on “Ukraine as well as other states” joining Nato.

The US and Nato responses, leaked this week by Spanish daily El País, went through the legalese of past treaties but largely rejected Moscow’s demands.

However, the US said it was “prepared for a discussion of the indivisibility of security — and our respective interpretations”. Washington also offered Moscow a mechanism to verify that Nato’s missile defence systems in Romania and Poland were not equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, in exchange for similar transparency by Moscow.

Putin has yet to formally respond, but on Tuesday criticised the offer for ignoring Moscow’s demands

“The west needed to give a response, so it presented a carefully crafted document, with lots of references to the past, to try and give a salve to the Kremlin without offering anything really new,” said Boulègue. “It was an exercise in strategic ambiguity.”

For now, diplomacy continues. French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz are scheduled to meet Putin in Moscow in the coming days, and Scholz is set to meet US president Joe Biden in Washington on Monday. The US has toned down its rhetoric, no longer describing a Russian invasion of Ukraine as “imminent”.

Meanwhile, the ambiguity of what “indivisibility of security” means, and to whom, remains — and the relative chances of war or peace are unresolved. Analysts say it is difficult to see how a compromise might be reached.

“The problem is,” Boulègue said, “there’s no knowing what ‘success’ might mean for Russia, or the west”.