There’s a concept in international relations, almost one of the first that students learn, called the ‘security dilemma’. It’s hardly rocket science, but it’s something governments and armed forces planners seem to consistently forget when it comes to making policy.
The idea is basically this: Country A feels threatened by country B; it therefore takes some measures – such as increasing its defence spending – to make itself more secure; but when country B sees what country A is doing, it in turn feels threatened, and so takes reciprocal measures of its own. The result is that country A ends up less safe than it was to start with.
The obvious way out is to break the spiral. Avoid escalating and resort to other measures, such as negotiation and arms control. All it may take is for one side to unilaterally step back, and the vicious circle will turn into a virtuous one.
It’s pretty basic stuff, but again and again, state leaders choose to ignore it and prefer instead to march down the path of the spiral. So it is today in the case of Russian-NATO relations, which are as classic an example of the security dilemma as you could possibly hope to find.
For instance, earlier this year, the Russian military undertook a series of exercises close to its Western borders. From a Russian perspective, these were purely defensive. From a Western perspective, they appeared potentially threatening, justifying in turn Western exercises that NATO claims are entirely for defence, but which Russia considers a threat, prompting further Russian measures.
The latest round in this dangerous process is the announcement this week that NATO has developed a new ‘masterplan’ to defend against a possible Russian attack. The plan itself is secret, so we don’t know its contents, but it’s said to focus on non-conventional war, including nuclear strikes, cyberwarfare, and even war in space. Geographically, it covers the whole spread of NATO’s border with Russia, from the Baltic to the Black Seas inclusive.
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s reaction to NATO’s new military concept has been decidedly negative. “There is no need for dialogue under these conditions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, continuing: “this alliance was not created for peace, it was conceived, designed and created for confrontation.”
From the Russian point of view, NATO’s actions justify Russia’s recent decision to sever ties with the Atlantic alliance. Rather than bringing Russia to heel, NATO may merely be driving it into an ever more hostile position.
The more Russia defends itself, the more it incites NATO. And the more NATO defends itself, the more it incites Russia. A security dilemma par excellence. The risk both parties run is that the situation will continue to spiral further and further into ever more dangerous territory. Already this spring, Europe passed through a period of high tension in which it looked entirely possible (although unlikely) that war might erupt between Ukraine and Russia. Anything that contributes to a further worsening of the situation is therefore thoroughly undesirable. NATO’s new military plan, it seems fair to say, runs the risk of doing just that.