Nato expansion, demonising Russia trigger for conflict

Russia’s invoking of a right of self-defence was blended out of all published opinions, says the writer. Picture: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russia’s invoking of a right of self-defence was blended out of all published opinions, says the writer. Picture: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Published May 22, 2022


Dr André Thomashausen

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) began as a regional military alliance on April 4, 1949. It provides for a system of “collective security”, meaning the members are committed by Article 5 of the Nato Treaty to defend one another against attacks in Europe and North America.

The original number of 12 member states have since 1949 grown to 30. The latest announced accession requests by Finland and Sweden would bring the number to 32. Militarily non-aligned or neutral countries in Europe have been a pillar of European peace and security. Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and Sweden provided crucial buffer zones during the Cold War.

Why would Finland and Sweden, just like thus-far neutral Ukraine, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, wish to change a status that has served them well? Sweden, already in 2016, became an unofficial Nato member when the Swedish military began training with Nato.

Since then, Sweden has purchased and installed US-built Patriot missile systems, and effectively integrated its important military industry with Nato, as its only customer and client. South Africa’s preference at the end of the ’90s for the Swedish SAAB Gripen planes is, in this context, a significant victory of its pro-Western orientation and the identity of its military and defence industry.

The case of Finland, after many decades of peaceful coexistence with Russia in strategically important and very territorial proximity, is not explained by economic considerations alone. Ever since Russia emerged weakened from the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Sweden and Finland aligned their political identities with the US and ended up supporting Nato’s controversial mission in Afghanistan, leaving aside all doubts about its legality.

In Finland, support for Nato typically hovered in the 20% percent or so range. In January this year, less than 30% of the Finnish public were in favour of Nato membership. After Russia’s military intervention, it rose 53 points, to an incredible 76% in May.

Clearly, public opinion shifted in response to the worldwide focus on the accusation of a “war of aggression”. Russia’s invoking of a right of self-defence was blended out of all published opinions. The fearful perception grew rapidly that “we could be next”.

The admission of any new members to the Nato alliance requires unanimous consent. Turkey and three other Nato members do not believe that accession of Russia’s two northernmost neighbours to Nato could serve as confidence-building or conflict de-escalation.

This will at least delay the process until, hopefully, the tension might have subsided to a degree. Why are the keywords of de-escalation, conflict mediation, peacekeeping, or minority accommodation never uttered by Nato or its protagonist in Kiev?

Instead, Nato and EU leaders repeat daily that Russia must not be allowed to win “its war”, must be defeated, “deprived of its industrial and economic base” and, if necessary, “fought for many years”. From its inception, Nato functioned under American military command. Article 9 of the Treaty established the permanent North Atlantic Council under which the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur) operates.

Nato’s Saceur is appointed by the US exclusively. As recently as a week ago, General Christopher G Cavoli was chosen by US President Biden for the position of Saceur, to replace General Tod Wolters.

Nato’s Saceur remains answerable to the president of the US, and not to the organisation’s Atlantic Council. Nato, as an organisation, lacks democratic checks and balances. No elected body exists that could oversee Nato’s military spending, which is just over $1 trillion (about R16 trillion) annually, making up 57% of the world’s military expenditure.

Nato is founded ideologically on the 1947 “Truman Doctrine”, spelt out by then-US president Harry Truman that ”it must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”.

The political identity of Nato is “to make the world safe for democracy”, rather than to respect the equal sovereignty of nations, or safeguard peace. Winning “wars of liberation” is a subjective concept that should have died with the ending of the Cold War, just like the military pact organisation of the East, the “Warsaw Pact”, was dissolved. Instead, Nato remained fixated that its members' need for protection against Russia (and thereafter against China).

In a globalised and economically interdependent world of equal states, this is, per se, a threat to international peace and security. Successively, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of modern Russia in 1991, Nato integrated one by one the states bordering Russia’s western borders: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia.

In every one of the new members, Nato installed the most modern anti-missile interception systems pointing eastwards and capable of rapidly being converted into strike weapons. Such effective anti-missile systems along Russia’s western borders disturb the balance of deterrence.

If Nato can neutralise any westbound missile attacks, Russia’s so-called second-strike capability is neutralised, permitting Nato to carry out the first strike with little risk of suffering retaliation. Believers in the noble nature of Nato’s objectives will dismiss as absurd the proposition that Nato could ever launch a first nuclear strike against Russia.

But Russia is mindful of the many and detailed operational plans of Nato in the 1950s and 1960s to wipe out or “cancel” Russia entirely. Early operations, codenamed “Dropshot”, “Bushwhaker”, “Broiler”, “Sizzler” and “Pincher“ were, in 1960, consolidated into a “Single Operational Plan” that detailed the “carpet bombing” of the entire territory of Russia, by dropping 3500 massive nuclear bombs, projected to kill between 285 to 425 million people. It is not surprising that Russia sees itself encircled.

What was the intended message when the US, starting in 2002, cancelled one after the other, the most important nuclear disarmament treaties, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty, meant to discourage the weaponisation of Outer Space?

Nato missiles and strike craft positioned in Sweden and Finland could reach the two main cities of Petersburg and Moscow within a few minutes, too fast for the activation of any countermeasures. Despite the veil of secrets surrounding the numbers and locations of American nuclear bombs in Europe, a fair estimate is that their number has recently increased to more than 300.

Understandably at the current height of tension, the Nato Northern Expansion ambition could become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, just like the Russian missiles in Cuba in 1962 could have triggered a global nuclear exchange.

The growing demonisation of Russia is an enabler for a tragic conflict escalation. If the escalation is not moderated, the world could slide into a nuclear confrontation, possibly rendering most of Europe uninhabitable.

It is for Africa and the BRICS to resist taking sides and thereby help maintain the balance of reason that must diffuse the nuclear trigger.

* Thomashuasen is a German Attorney and Professor Emeritus of International Law (Unisa)