Spinning friction and suspicion during a major crisis

NATO members Romania and Bulgaria were singled out in the recent statements put forth by the Russian Foreign Minister on Friday, January 21. The call for NATO’s “withdrawal of foreign forces, equipment, and weapons, as well as taking other steps to return to set-up we had in 1997 in non-NATO countries” has been immediately rejected by both Romania and Bulgaria, as well as by the Alliance’s spokesperson.

Why have these proposals been put forth “with utmost clarity to avoid any ambiguity”, given the high likelihood, almost, certainty that they will be slammed?

One basic interpretation is that, in complex discussions involving multiple issues, one technique is to come up with extreme demands in order to create space for concessions and counter-offers. This interpretation notwithstanding, we consider the demands of the Russian Foreign Minister to illustrate two meta-narratives of Russian strategic communication, one addressing NATO audience overall, the other addressing local Romanian and Bulgarian audiences.

According to the former meta-narrative, NATO is an “over-stretched alliance”, with an outdated purpose. It breached its (alleged) promise of not “expanding” further East after the end of the Cold War, although such an agreement has not been found in a formalized form in NATO official documents/ transcripts of high-level meetings. References to this alleged promise are periodically made especially in reference to Romania and Bulgaria, sometimes to Poland, too, as a way, among other things, to convey a feeling of betrayal and to create some legitimacy for breaches of international agreements, as a way of saying “you’ve done it, so we can do it, too”.

According to the latter narrative, which targets more the local audiences of Romania and Bulgaria, these countries are allegedly used as “pawns”, “trading lots” or “bargaining chips” in the “negotiations” taking place between the “big guys behind closed doors”. This is not something new in the narratives’ arms race taking place in the Black Sea region for quite some time, where historical insecurities and fears of “being left alone” in case of an invasion are weaponized in public debates (“sitting duck” narrative).

Irrespective of the audiences targeted, both meta-narratives serve the strategic goal of spinning friction and amplifying possible sources of suspicion among and within NATO countries, thus testing Western resolve.

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