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Building hope on experience

Paul Fritch examines how NATO-Russia relations have evolved since the creation of the NATO-Russia Council.

Historic Moscow meeting: The NATO-Russia Council gathered for the first time in Moscow in May (© NATO)

Russia cannot be understood with the mind

Or measured with a standard yardstick,

She has a peculiar character -

In Russia, one can only believe.

Fyodor Tyuchev, 19th century Russian poet and diplomat

Russian schoolchildren have been taught, since long before Tyuchev's day, that their vast country is a special place that cannot be understood or measured with an ordinary yardstick. Periods of dramatic change traditionally have prompted the Russian people to strive for a renewed sense of national purpose, more often by seeking to shape the world around them than by seeking to adapt to it. The 12 years since the fall of the Soviet Union have certainly brought dramatic changes, and if the new Russia has been seeking her own bearings, the same could be said of the often difficult relationship between Russia and her partners in the North Atlantic Alliance.

When tank armies faced each other across a seemingly permanent inner-German border, that relationship was a masterpiece of simplicity. As the statues of Lenin began to tumble, however, it steadily became less tangible, harder to measure in terms of numbers, facts and figures. Euphoria gradually gave way to disappointment, and disappointment to resentment and rivalry. Both in Russia and in the West, many preferred to cling to old, comfortable stereotypes, to blame the other side when the (perhaps unrealistic) expectations of a post-Cold War world of peace and harmony failed to materialise.

This disillusionment obscured the fact that in the decade between 1989 and 1999, impressive and quantifiable progress was made. Dramatic reductions in both nuclear and conventional weapons were codified in landmark arms control treaties. Military forces that had faced each other for generations in a seemingly permanent state of confrontation simply withdrew without firing a shot. The "iron curtain" that had divided Europe for half a century was erased permanently from the map, as states of the former Warsaw Pact asked for, and were granted, full membership in NATO. The drive to integrate a continent so long divided extended to social and economic spheres as well, as the European Union launched its own enlargement process. Russia herself, however, remained largely on the outside, oscillating between democratic reforms, Euro-Atlantic aspirations and lingering imperial ambitions, and - as so often in her history - struggling to find a suitable place in the world.

The world around NATO and Russia was changing as well. Though the overwhelming "threat" of the Cold War had receded, a broad array of new threats, from civil war and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to the growing menace of religious extremism and international terrorism, began to challenge NATO and Russia alike. The old adversaries even managed to join forces on occasion, as in helping to oversee implementation of the Dayton Peace Accord, the agreement ending the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet despite a long and growing list of shared interests, the NATO member states and Russia did not "feel" like partners. The Cold War legacy of hostility and suspicion was simply too powerful to overcome.

The first attempt at formal partnership did not fully succeed in closing this gap between reality and perception. The lofty language of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in May 1997, included an explicit recognition that NATO Allies and Russia shared a vision of a "Europe whole and free". Unfortunately, this did not prevent an enduring - even growing - divergence in strategic analysis. Paper partnership barely concealed creeping rivalry and mutual suspicion, and the first decade of the "post-Cold War era" ended with the schism brought on by the 1999 Kosovo crisis. When Russia walked out of the Permanent Joint Council, many on both sides honestly believed that nothing of great value had been lost.

Then came 11 September 2001. For the member states of NATO, the massive terrorist attacks on the United States represented a wake-up call, a signal that the longer we spent patting ourselves on the back over our successes in overcoming the security challenges of the past, the longer the security challenges of the future would have to creep up on us from behind. The need to engage Russia in the struggle against terrorism was obvious - intelligence capabilities, political influence in relevant regions of the world, heightened sensitivity to the threat, even simple geography made Russia an indispensable partner in the campaign against al Qaida and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan. But the immediate crisis also unearthed a deeper truth. Even the most cursory look at the list of NATO's most pressing "contemporary security challenges" - terrorism, proliferation, regional instability, trafficking in drugs, arms and human beings - made clear that in most areas, any solution that did not include Russia as a cooperative partner was no solution at all. "Going it alone" was not likely to ensure Allied security.

In Russia too, the appetite for an increasingly pointless rivalry with the West had begun to subside. Russian policymakers and analysts, facing real and potential security threats from the south and east, as well as from within, began to advocate a broad rapprochement with the West. Chief among the advocates of such a policy was Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, who did not shy from telling his countrymen in sobering terms the magnitude of the challenges they faced. But if the case for cooperation was even more obvious in Russia than in the West, the psychological obstacles that had to be overcome were far more substantial.

A second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience, all the more so when the partners are the same

t is said that a second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience, all the more so when the partners are the same. It took a substantial leap of faith from both sides, therefore, to bring the NATO Allies and Russia together in May 2002 to build a qualitatively new relationship, where Russia would sit as an equal partner in a Council of 20. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) did not seek to replace NATO itself. The idea - a very simple one - was to create a body where NATO member states and Russia could meet as equal partners to discuss and develop areas of common interests, assuming the same rights and the same responsibilities for implementation of decisions. This new NRC took on an ambitious agenda, including many of the most urgent problems of the day. Expectations for the new body were high. Almost a year and a half after the Rome Summit, which created the NRC, it is worth examining how the new NATO-Russia structures have worked in practice.

Even hard-nosed sceptics have been forced to acknowledge an impressive array of concrete NRC achievements. These include the following highlights:

Joint intelligence assessments of various aspects of the terrorist threat;

  • Political modalities for future NATO-Russia peacekeeping operations;

  • A framework agreement on submarine crew escape and rescue;

  • A roadmap to interoperability of theatre missile defence systems;

  • A comprehensive training and exercise programme designed to promote military interoperability;

  • Successful civil emergency planning exercises; and

  • Expanding cooperation on defence reform.

Ministers and ambassadors have exchanged views regularly on issues ranging from the situation in Afghanistan to the progress and the remaining challenges of the shared effort to bring peace and stability to the Balkans. The NRC has mobilised its substantial political clout as well, taking stands in promoting enhanced border security in the Balkans and military reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina. High-level conferences in Berlin, Moscow and Rome have explored further avenues of practical cooperation in defence reform, peacekeeping and the struggle against terrorism. In May 2003, the NRC gathered for the first time in Moscow itself.

Other visible signs of cooperation - for example, a highly successful NATO-Russia Retraining Centre for discharged military personnel - have brought tangible benefits of cooperation directly to the Russian people. Moreover, cooperation has not been a one-way street. In October 2003, for example, NATO officers participated for the first time in a Russian military training programme, a course focused on air crew survival techniques. Perhaps most remarkably, in a year when differences of opinion over the nature and scope of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction caused deep rifts within the international community and NATO itself, NRC experts are nearing agreement on a comprehensive common assessment of proliferation dangers.

Here again, the facts and figures tell only part of the story. Perhaps the biggest change brought about by the NRC has been in the atmosphere of NATO-Russia cooperative work. With three committees and seven standing working groups, as well as a range of projects underway in ad hoc expert groups, the NRC has reached out to constituencies at all levels that had never before been involved in the NATO-Russia relationship.

New faces have been particularly evident on the Russian side. Beyond familiar interlocutors in the Foreign and Defence Ministries, the NRC has involved intelligence officers, border guards, interior ministry troops and civil emergency planning experts. Russian scientists have made regular and substantial contributions to the work of the NRC Science Committee. Colleagues in the Russian Mission to NATO - itself no longer an adjunct of the Russian Embassy to Belgium, but a fully fledged mission headed for the first time by its own ambassador - have even begun to commiserate with NATO counterparts over the sudden surge in "travel agent" duty typical of a busy multilateral delegation hosting a broad array of capital-based visitors. The NRC Preparatory Committee has become one of the hardest working and most collegial bodies at NATO Headquarters, a place where diplomats exchange ideas freely, without the protocol restrictions of an ambassadorial or ministerial meeting. After years of awkward, formal "partnership", NATO Allies and Russia finally feel like partners.

Eighteen months of cooperative work in the NRC have also yielded another positive surprise - the degree to which NATO-Russia work and broader cooperation within the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the Partnership for Peace (PfP) can be mutually reinforcing. As early successes in civil emergency planning, science cooperation and joint political initiatives have demonstrated, NRC initiatives can complement, even energise, broader cooperation with EAPC Partners. Also, as military experts have discovered, the most efficient way to jump-start our drive toward technical interoperability - among military forces, air-to-air refuelling aircraft, transport aircraft and in other fields - is through deeper Russian engagement in existing practical cooperative projects in the PfP framework. At their last meeting, NRC defence ministers pledged to redouble efforts in this area. The final goal, of course, is the development of joint capabilities that can take NATO-Russia cooperation out of the meeting room and into the field.

We have a long way to go to achieve the full promise of the project that was launched last year in Rome. Many in the West continue to view Russia with an almost instinctive suspicion, and many in Russia continue to harbour fears about NATO's intentions. Allies continue to voice concerns about the prolonged crisis in Chechnya - its humanitarian consequences, its potential to destabilise neighbouring states, and certain aspects of Russian policy toward the breakaway republic. And as the Russian Ambassador to NATO points out in an interview in this issue of NATO Review, Russia continues to have questions about technical issues associated with the NATO enlargement process. Even here, however, open and frank dialogue has the potential to bring us closer together. NATO and Russia share a lasting interest in spreading peace and prosperity throughout the Euro-Atlantic area, whether in the Balkans, the Caucasus or Central Asia. Individual differences and historic rivalries are gradually yielding to a broader spirit of partnership - a mutually beneficial relationship that, as Tyuchev might say, may not always be comprehensible, but must be believed in.

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