Russia–NATO Relations: Crisis or Opportunity?

Main Image Credit Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a meeting in 2015. Courtesy of NATO / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Russia has shown that it has no interest in dialogue. NATO should review its policy towards Russia and label it a hostile actor.

On 18 October 2021, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the Russian Federation would, to all intents and purposes, suspend relations with NATO. The announced pretext was ‘the absence of the necessary conditions for conducting diplomatic activities’, following a withdrawal of the accreditation of eight members of the Russian Mission to NATO, a decision taken by the Alliance for reasons obvious to those who care about the security of NATO Headquarters. Using disinformation (blaming NATO for the myth of an alleged ‘Russian threat’, aggressive policy towards Russia, and lack of interest in dialogue), Moscow decided to suspend the operation of its own mission in Brussels, as well as that of the NATO Military Liaison Mission in Moscow, and close the NATO Information Office (NIO) in Russia. NATO HQ did in fact close the NIO on 29 October.

While the public announcement was designed for dramatic effect, NATO itself reacted calmly. It expressed regret at this decision and pointed out that it was Russia that has been refusing – for many months – to engage in the format of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC). There are plenty of good reasons for NATO’s sangfroid.

First, platforms for dialogue have been idled before – after the Kosovo air operation in 1999 and after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. These could be reactivated easily. The NATO–Russia Founding Act of 1997 remains in force, as does the hotline installed between Brussels and Moscow.

Second, the reality since the 2014 annexation of Crimea is frozen cooperation and minimal interaction between NATO and Russia, barring infrequent meetings of the Secretary General with Lavrov. The last such meeting took place in September 2021 and again only served to show how far the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has veered away from the high standards of international diplomacy.

Third, it was clear that in the weeks preceding the announcement Russia was employing the tactic of a ‘preventively shaped narrative’ by upping its efforts to denigrate NATO with false or even nonsensical accusations. These included claims of an information or cognitive war against Russia, preparation of a military attack against Kaliningrad, as well as scaring its Commonwealth of Independent States partners with stories about Western plans.

Moscow calculates that by cutting off channels for diplomatic and military dialogue it will create divisions among NATO Allies

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the real motives of Moscow’s decision are hiding in plain sight. The goal is to present NATO as merely a vehicle for US domination in Europe and thus reduce the Alliance’s importance. Echoing the Kremlin’s thinking, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote that ‘it does not make much sense to talk to proxies’ and played down a provocative Russian decision as a simple ‘diplomatic streamlining’. The rector of the Russian Diplomatic Academy went further, describing the very existence of NATO as a problem, promoting militaristic thinking in Europe.

Moscow calculates that by cutting off channels for diplomatic and military dialogue it will create divisions among NATO Allies. Specifically, it counts on capitalising on the unhealthy temptation of some individual Allies to pursue dialogue for dialogue's sake.

I see the closing down of the NIO as perhaps the saddest casualty of the cynical Russian manoeuvre. I led the NIO between 2010 and 2015. Established in 2001, it has survived the ups and downs of the NATO–Russia relationship, staying true to its basic objective of facilitating debate. For 20 years it has helped thousands of experts, journalists and young Russians to visit NATO HQ and to gain access to factual information about NATO.

In better times, it even served to publicise facts about cooperation with Russia. Such cooperation in the past benefited NATO and Russia in equal measure – in many areas, including, for example, counterterrorism, fighting piracy, help for former Russian military servicemen requiring new qualifications in the civilian domain, or Afghanistan. It is quite symbolic that one of the Russian winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Zhores I Alferov, was a recipient of a grant under the NATO Science Programme.

By proceeding with the closure of the NIO, Moscow is admitting to being afraid of the existence of direct channels of engagement with Russian civil society.

The suspension of the work of its own mission to NATO also speaks of Moscow’s current motivations. Irrespective of the abuse of diplomatic status by its personnel in Brussels, Russian representatives – by the very existence of this outpost linked to the NRC – had unique opportunities to utilise the soft power of persuasion, and offer unhindered views of Moscow’s security concerns to 30 Allies and NATO institutions. The decision communicated on 18 October confirms, without any doubt, that Russia has no desire to engage with NATO on improvement of relations. Instead, it is choosing to stay on the path of confrontation and hostility. What should be the key elements of NATO’s response?

The diplomatic impasse should be turned from a potential crisis into an opportunity, by undertaking a comprehensive and decisive review of current Russia policy

First, now is the time to push back even more strongly against the Russian disinformation machinery working 24/7 against NATO. Despite the professional and energetic efforts of NATO institutions in this regard, individual Allies are not pulling their weight sufficiently. Too often, baseless verbal attacks against NATO’s record, conducted in the real and digital information spaces, are left without any response from Allied capitals. It has dangerous consequences, often leading to a glaring contradiction between political wishes and political reality. This is particularly frustrating, bearing in mind that the capacity of Western institutions to detect, analyse and expose such disinformation is growing in strength. In no small measure this is thanks to the invaluable work done by countless non-governmental and academic outlets and experts, in member and partner countries alike.

Second, the diplomatic impasse should be turned from a potential crisis into an opportunity, by undertaking a comprehensive and decisive review of current Russia policy. Such an exercise would cement the essential unity of the Alliance and safeguard against harmful unilateral initiatives with Moscow. Policy revision should be guided by hard-nosed facts about Russia’s intent and capabilities. These facts show Moscow to be the most active and unpredictable threat to the Alliance.

The priority should be to raise the costs of any further aggressive behaviour by Russia – towards Allies, third countries and the international order in general. Due to the multifaceted nature of the challenge presented by Russia, a revised policy could inject more vigour into the ‘whole of government’ approach, and augment the self-defence capacities of Allies. Raising resilience levels against specific cases of hybrid warfare (including complex threats like corruption) waged by Russia is a natural candidate for such reinvigoration.

Third, in order for the deterrence strategy to be effective, NATO’s new Strategic Concept (coordinated as far as possible with the EU’s upcoming Strategic Compass document) should label Russia’s present policy and posture as hostile to NATO. Meeting at their last summit in June 2021, Allied leaders agreed in their communique that ‘Russian aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security’. They devoted no less than six paragraphs to describing these actions in more detail. However, they did stop short of defining Russia as a hostile actor, still offering the route of dialogue (to supplement defence and deterrence pillars). Now that Russia has declared that it has no interest whatsoever in a dialogue with NATO, Allies would be well advised to lift their self-restriction.

Defining Russia as an adversary would simply mirror Moscow’s own description of NATO. It would further the goals of operational deterrence, by sharpening NATO’s defensive posture – through providing clear guidance to the Alliance’s civilian and military structures – thus making it more credible. Last but not least, such attribution would serve as a message of political deterrence to those who continue to be tempted to enter into dangerous liaisons with Moscow – they would have to calculate the benefits of doing so, with a power that has been defined as hostile by NATO.

While superficially such a political labelling may be seen as escalatory, in the absence of dialogue it may actually be used to better define the conditions which would allow NATO to change its evaluation of Russia and its policy.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Robert Pszczel

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