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NATO and Russia: Still a hesitant dialogue

Commentary, 19 November 2010
Americas, International Institutions, Europe
The forthcoming NATO Lisbon Summit has been heralded as a fresh start in NATO-Russia relations. This may be achieved in the detail, but less so in the bigger picture.

The forthcoming NATO Lisbon Summit has been heralded as a fresh start in NATO-Russia relations. This may be achieved in the detail, but less so in the bigger picture.

 By Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

nato russia flagsOne of the highlights of the whirlwind round of gatherings in Lisbon this weekend is the NATO-Russia summit. Everyone appears to be striking an optimistic tone: 'this will be a fresh start in the relations between NATO and Russia,' vows Angers Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary-General.

 The opportunity for a 'start' is clearly there. But, whether this will be a 'fresh' one is another matter.

 The Positive Ledger

Despite all the media spin, the fact that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be present in the Portuguese capital is not, in itself, unusual. Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president and now prime minister, also attended previous NATO summits, notably in Bucharest, Romania two years ago, which ended in a diplomatic disaster and acted as a prelude to the Russian military campaign against Georgia.

Nevertheless, matters are truly different now. For the first time in almost two decades this is a NATO summit in which the question of enlargement is not on the agenda. True, there will be some talk about Georgia's quest to become a member, and about NATO's arrangements in the Balkans. But Ukraine's bid to join NATO is now off the table, and nobody will discuss Georgia's application for membership. So, the bane of all previous gatherings - Russian opposition to what Moscow saw as an 'expansion' into its former sphere of influence - has disappeared.

Better still, the Russians have not made any demands; they have deliberately kept diplomatic expectations low, a tactic which facilitates real dialogue. Furthermore, relations between the US and Russia have been transformed: the two countries are talking to each other on a variety of topics, and the old confrontational language - so beloved by Putin - is largely gone. Instead, there is a list of issues on which the Alliance can talk with Russia, and on which real deals can be forged. But the difficulty, as always, is on detail. 

The Challenges

Russian fear that the 'reset' of relations with America may now falter, due to the Republicans' victory in the mid-term Congressional elections in the US, is a major issue which will probably not be tackled openly. The Obama administration is justifiably proud of its record with Russia; it represents one of the few foreign policy achievements of the White House in the last two years. But it is a fact that the 'reset' has followed rather traditional lines - the revival of negotiations on nuclear disarmament - and has not gone much beyond it. Curiously, therefore, Obama's agenda with Russia very much belongs to the 20th century, rather than the 21st: discussions on nuclear matters (where the Russians can still pretend to be equal to the US) with very little talk about broader security issues. The Russians have also noted that the US administration has not prepared public opinion at home. Quite a lot of the Tea Party candidates elected to Congress regard Russia as, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, an enduring hostile power.

The Russians also appreciate Obama's valiant effort to get the US Senate to ratify the recently concluded START treaty. Yet they wonder whether it was really wise for the Administration to wait until the very last moment on this ratification (the White House could have pushed the treaty's ratification months before the mid-term elections) and they have serious doubts on whether the current, so-called 'lame duck' Congress (i.e. the one which still represents the old political configuration) would be able or willing to ratify START before its term expires in January. Certainly, the Republicans in Congress have no stake in this treaty, and may well have an interest in embarrassing the Administration. Either way, the most important treaty Obama has signed can still come apart. With the Republicans in ascendancy on Capitol Hill, Obama's ability to negotiate further deals with Russia remains limited. So, as is often the case in Russian-US relations, Moscow is now wondering whether it is worth 'investing' in a president who may no longer be able to deliver.

Matters are not clearer on the thorny issue of missile defence. The NATO summit will paper over the divisions which persists between the Europeans over this project by opting for a 'modular' approach in which all Alliance members will contribute something, but which will be built up incrementally, over a decade. There is also a proposal to Russia to 'collaborate' in this project. But literally nobody in the West knows what this entails. And, although the Russians are no longer so stridently opposed to the idea of missile defence, they remain worried about the project's potential to increase the technology gap between Russia and the West, and sceptical about how much access to technology they would get in return for their co-operation. Simply put, the Russians do not wish to give their 'blessing' on a programme which may still work against the long-term interests of their military.

There is also the broader question of the institutional framework for Russia-NATO relations. Everyone agrees that the old Russia-NATO Council idea has not worked, although there is considerable disagreement as to who is responsible for this failure. But changing the framework is easier said than done. Basically, what the Russians want is to deal with individual European countries, or to be treated on an equal basis. Moscow is not enamoured by the idea of having to face the serried ranks of twenty eight nations on one side of the table, with little Estonia, for example, being able to dictate the agenda.

But NATO can hardly operate otherwise without endangering the Alliance's own internal cohesion. The East Europeans are now much more relaxed about their relations with Russia. Poland's links with Moscow have been transformed this year and even the Baltic States, always apprehensive about Russian policies, are adopting a far more constructive approach. Yet all this could be endangered if some key members - such as Germany or the US - were to suggest that future co-operation with Russia should go ahead on a national, rather than Alliance-based, principles. Finding a compromise which gives the Russians a meaningful, revamped role while reassuring the Alliance's new member-states will not be easy.

Nor would it be easy to discuss the set of measures which Moscow is still promoting, such as the establishment of a new European security framework, or an agreement that NATO should no longer conduct 'provocative' military exercises near Russian frontiers. Both these ideas are not bad in themselves, yet they still smack of an attempt by Russia to have its sphere of influence recognised by the West, or at least to obtain a "sphere of co-decision" in the­ heart of Europe. For these reasons alone, not much progress on these topics seems likely.


None of this suggests that the Russians will leave Lisbon empty-handed. Provided the discussions go well, the Russians could be involved in counter-terrorism initiatives undertaken by NATO, in discussions over cyber warfare, and in providing logistical assistance to the NATO-led operations in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the Russians have already scored some achievements. When the Strategic Concept exercise was first launched by NATO, everyone expected a difficult discussion over Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. The East Europeans demanded that the centrality of the Alliance's collective defence guarantee should feature prominently in the Concept, while some of the older NATO members argued that this would unnecessarily infuriate Moscow. In the event, the debate about Article 5 proved to be moderate, largely because the Russians recently adopted a more moderate approach towards their former East European colonies. So the small steps of confidence-building are producing some results.

But the grander objective of a 'fresh start' in relations between the Alliance and Russia will probably have to wait for another summit.

*The views expressed in this article are not the views of the Royal United Services Institute, but are the views of the author*

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