NATO and the Unintended Consequences of Washington’s Anti-Russia Sanctions

At a recent special briefing, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Tod Wolters revealed a key and new part of NATO's global strategy.

When asked this question:

“What would you say are the major emerging threats as opposed to ongoing traditional ones like Russia?”

…Wolters responds by noting that he has two concerns:

1.) International terror groups that still form a "tremendous danger to civilization>

2.) Let's quote directly from his comments:

"The other – the other concern that we have that’s very widespread and known is the growing cooperation between Russia and China, and it really does suggest an emergence of a partnership of convenience so that each one of those can advance their mutual interest, and that advancement could be to the detriment of Europe and corresponding and surrounding nations. So we are ever so vigilant with respect to that growing cooperation.

And with respect to China, as many know, they’re not an adversary to NATO yet. China presents a rising influence, and it poses challenges for our security, certainly in terms of value, military modernization, and resilience.

So our focus and our vigilance is sky-high with respect to China, the relationship between China and Russia, and certainly with respect to international terror groups."

So, basically, China has now been added to NATO's "watch list" even though Wolters states that they are "not an adversary to NATO yet".

With this in mind, let's look at one key relatively recent link between China and Russia.  In 2018, Russia and China conducted a massive joint military exercise Vostok-2018 as shown here:

The exercise involved over 300,000 Russian troops, 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles, 1000 military aircraft and two naval fleets with more than 80 ships along with 3,200 Chinese troops, 900 tanks and 30 aircraft.  The military co-operation between the two fledgling superpowers was rather surprising given the fact that for decades, China has been viewed by Russia as a potential military threat, particularly along Russia's eastern flank.

Here is a quote from an analysis of the joint exercise by the German Institute for International and Security Affair with bolds being mine:

"Through the Vostok-2018 exercises, Russia and China sent a clear signal to the United States and its NATO partners. Their message was that, if the West continues to apply what they consider to be undue pressure, then they will increase their own level of bilateral cooperation – including defense coordination – in response. Although the two countries continue to stress that they have no intention to form a military alliance, some Russian analysts suggest that Vostok-2018 may have been partly an attempt to work out the technical details of an alliance in advance while leaving open the possibility of such an arrangement in the future. Even if it falls short of a formal military alliance, increased military co­operation by Russia and China could have significant implications for global politics.

Vostok-2018 is another in a series of mile­stones reflecting a strengthened Russia-China relationship, especially since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. After this crisis erupted, Russia and China increased their diplomatic coordination on a range of issues, including North Korea and cyberspace, and struck important deals in the arms and energy spheres. The downturn in US-China relations since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency has given China addi­tional reasons to strengthen its cooperation with Russia….

Growing defense coordination between Russia and China could, nevertheless, have significant implications for NATO. Even in the absence of a formal alliance treaty, the relationship could offer the two countries some of the benefits of an alliance. Al­though neither Russia nor China is likely to intervene directly in a military conflict involving the other’s regional disputes, the ongoing existence of tensions along both countries’ peripheries stretches US resources and strategic attention. This situation potentially gives both countries some additional room for maneuver. In a crisis, events in one region could offer opportunities for the other country to seize in its own neighborhood. In addition, Rus­sian arms sales strengthen China’s military capabilities, forcing the United States to expend additional resources to maintain its military advantage in the Asia-Pacific region."

The "undue pressure" that was applied to Russia is linked directly to the 2014 anti-Russia/anti-Putin sanctions imposed by Washington (and others) in response to Russia's "involvement" in Ukraine, as part of the Magnitsky Act and as a response to a series of other issues.  The sanctions result from both Obama-era executive orders and legislation and target specific companies, industries and individuals and have had an impact on Russia's economic growth but have had little impact on its overall agenda. 

Here is a summary of the U.S. sanctions on Russia from the Congressional Research Service:

It appears that Washington's approach to Russia under Joe Biden is unlikely to change if the highly influential Brookings Institution has its way.  Here is a quote from a December 2020 article entitled "Managing U.S. sanctions toward Russia" with all bolds being mine:

"First, the Biden administration should embed sanctions in a broader U.S. policy toward Russia.  If the Trump administration had an overall Russia policy, it never articulated it. Absent a broader framework, sanctions seemed to take on a life of their own.  An overall policy should include strong measures to deter and push back against Russian misbehavior. These measures include enhancing the NATO military posture in the Baltic region, support — including lethal military assistance — for Ukraine, and sanctions. 

Second, sanctions are not an end in themselves and should not be treated as such. They offer a means to achieve a policy goal and, thus, should be clearly linked to that goal, as in “this sanction will apply until Moscow does X” or “if Moscow does X, Washington will respond with this sanction.” The aim of sanctions should be to affect Kremlin calculations of the benefits and costs of its actions, hopefully tipping the balance against those actions that threaten key Western interests….The Kremlin should also have clarity on what it must do to get the sanctions lifted. 

Third, sanctions should seek to deter, if possible. It is easier to deter and dissuade an adversary from taking an unwanted action than compel the adversary to reverse an action it has already taken. Specifying the sanction(s) that would result from a particular Russian action in advance could have a greater chance of affecting the Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculation.

Fourth, for sanctions to be effective in achieving their policy goal, Moscow has to believe that, if it takes the action desired by Washington, the sanction will be lifted….If the Kremlin concludes that the sanction will remain in place regardless of what it does, it will have no incentive to change its behavior.

Fifth, coordination with allies, particularly the European Union (EU), can dramatically enhance the impact of sanctions. Multilateral sanctions send a stronger political message. They also generate a greater economic impact." 

Given that Washington's approach to its sanctions environment against Russia is highly unlikely to change under a Biden Administration combined with Washington's seemingly innate hatred of all things Chinese, it is quite likely that Russia and China will increasingly co-operate with each other on key issues, particularly the creation of a fighting force that is capable of threatening America's global hegemony, the current unipolar world and NATO's growing presence in Greater Europe.

Sometimes Washington just doesn't seem to understand that there are unintended consequences to its foreign policies.

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