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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Take the Devil Out of NATO

They say the devil is in the details, but if you listen to leading Russian politicians and conservative journalists and analysts you would think the devil is in NATO. Despite the fact that NATO has radically changed its military structure and heavily demobilized since the Soviet collapse, Russia continues to demonize NATO.

We all remember the exaggerated phrases of then-President Vladimir Putin: “Comrade Wolf who knows who he is going to eat,” or, after the 2004 Beslan hostage tragedy, when he referred to the enemy “who wants to seize the richest parts” of Russia. Although these statements were veiled, it was clear from the context that they were aimed at NATO or the United States, both of which are often used interchangeably in Russia.

During U.S. President George W. Bush’s two terms, the inflammatory anti-NATO or anti-U.S. statements could have been dismissed as an overly emotional reaction to what was then a global phenomenon of anti-Bushism. But what is disturbing is that this negative rhetoric continues even after U.S. President Barack Obama has offered the world a new foreign policy paradigm based on the respect for diplomacy, international organizations and multipolarity that includes a clear recognition of Russia’s important role as a global power.

In a recent example, President Dmitry Medvedev said during a Sept. 20 interview with CNN, “Let’s not forget that NATO is a military bloc, and its missiles are pointed at Russia.” (After hearing this, you can imagine how many Russians scrambled to find out where the closest bomb shelter is located -- just in case.)

What NATO missiles was Medvedev talking about? After the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed in 1987, all nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles with a range of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers were destroyed by June 1991, including their launching installations. The INF was truly unprecedented. It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of existing weapons.

Surely, Medvedev did not mean to imply that NATO’s European members have somehow reconstructed Pershing intermediate-range missiles, snuck them back onto European military bases and aimed them at Russia? These missiles, with a height of more than 10 meters and a weight of 4,600 kilograms, aren’t exactly easy to hide from satellite surveillance. If they had already been redeployed in Europe, we would have definitely heard something about this from Russia’s military brass long before Medvedev’s CNN interview.

In reality, of course, there are no ground-based, intermediate-range missiles located anywhere on NATO territory — unless you count the few empty Pershing missiles on display in museums (or the scrap parts of an old Pershing that were incorporated in Zurab Tsereteli’s sculpture “Good Versus Evil”). But it is doubtful that Medvedev had these missiles in mind when he spoke to CNN. (Although the INF applied to only two countries — the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia — NATO's European members have strictly observed the treaty limitations that prohibit the new production, testing and deployment of these missiles for obvious reasons: to avoid directly contradicting U.S. disarmament policy and inciting a new Cold War-like arms race with Russia.)

Medvedev could have meant NATO missiles that don’t fall under the INF — for example, French, British and U.S. sea-based missiles or U.S. land-based missiles that have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers — but these missiles aren’t aimed at Russia either. The rationale behind the 1994 declaration signed by then-Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin that neither country will aim its remaining missiles at each other during peacetime has not lost its relevance today.

Perhaps, Medvedev simply misspoke.

But the more likely explanation is that he still clings to the old image of NATO from the late 1970s and early 1980s when the alliance’s European members were armed to the teeth with intermediate-range missiles aimed at the Soviet Union.

There is a rich Soviet history of crude anti-NATO propaganda. Old copies of Krokodil magazine, for example, contain plenty of grotesque caricatures filled with the bloody hands of rapacious Uncle Sam-like figures representing NATO, craving to take over the world. Two generations of Russians grew up reading Krokodil as well as Sergei Mikhalkov, who, in addition to writing several versions of the Soviet anthem, wrote popular, highly politicized fables such as “The Wolf-Diplomat” with direct references to NATO as the predatory wolf that gobbles up innocent hares. Even today, the sound of the word “NATO” invariably evokes a knee-jerk negative response among many Russians, even among the intelligentsia who understand perfectly well that NATO’s military capability and its relationship to Russia are completely different now than they were during the Cold War.

Given the degree to which NATO has disarmed in Europe over the past 18 years, it is ridiculous, of course, to speak seriously about a NATO military threat to Russia. The alliance’s “political threat” to Russia should not be confused with a military threat. What concerns the Kremlin the most is that the political and security model that NATO offers may become more attractive for the former Soviet republics than the one Moscow is offering. But instead of focusing on ways to improve Russia's model (or to increase cooperation with NATO to fight common enemies), the country's conservatives are pulling out the old skeletons from the Cold War closet, recreating the bygone image of a terrible NATO bogeyman -- one that supposedly threatens Russia militarily and sabotages the Kremlin's relations with its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Thus, the spirit of Krokodil has been revived among Russia's leading archconservative journalists and political analysts, such as Mikhail Leontyev and Alexander Prokhanov. One popular radio and television host recently described NATO on Ekho Moskvy radio as “the iron leviathan that crushes all humanity.” Granted, many Russians to this day find it hard to forgive NATO for its military campaign in the former Yugoslavia, and true, we hear plenty of inflammatory Russia-bashing from Poland and the Baltic states. But isn’t “iron leviathan that crushes all humanity” a bit of an overstatement to describe NATO?

This overblown rhetoric can be heard on a regular basis in the Russian mass media, particularly on government-controlled television. It would be nice if this could be dismissed as harmless bluster — or even encouraged as diversity of opinion, if such pluralism, in fact, existed. But the problem is that anti-NATO and anti-U.S. propaganda by the country’s conservative journalists and analysts dominates the mass media, and it has a direct impact on the public. Opinion polls, including the most current ones, confirm that anti-NATOism and anti-Americanism have stayed at the same levels as during the Bush era, despite Obama’s clearly new approach to Russia. Some polls indicate that negative feelings toward NATO and the United States have actually increased since Obama became president. This results in a self-perpetuating vicious circle: the more anti-NATOism increases, the more the politicians and journalists want to cater to this public opinion, fueling anti-NATOism even more. This can hardly help “reset” U.S.-Russian relations.

The anti-NATO rhetoric looks particularly primitive and obsolete after Russia agreed in July to provide the United States and other NATO countries with an air corridor for military shipments. In addition, new NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made a commitment to improve NATO-Russian relations, and this offers a lot of hope.

It was thus very pleasing when Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee and a member of United Russia, cut against the grain several weeks ago. During a debate on the popular "Sudite Sami" talk show on Channel One, he said: “Remember that NATO is defending Russia’s southern borders! I realize that this may not be a popular view in this audience.” Nine months earlier, Russia's representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, widely known for his hawkish statements, let the truth slip out in an interview on Echo Moskvy radio in January when he said: "I would suggest not demonizing NATO. ... There are U.S., French and German military bases, but there is no such thing as 'NATO bases or forces.' The only military equipment belonging to NATO is a couple of AWACS [reconnaissance] aircraft." These contrarian voices need to be heard more often in the mass media to give a more balanced discussion and debate within the country on NATO and its new relationship with Russia.

At the same time, Russia’s leading conservatives who have such a strong impact on public opinion should take a sober, objective look at the Krokodil-like caricature of NATO that they have created. Russia has a wonderful saying: “Не так страшен чёрт, как его малюют” (“The devil is not as terrible as he is made out to be”). There are enough real devils in the world without concocting chimerical ones.

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.