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NATO and Russia: resuscitating the partnership

There have been major improvements in the practical cooperation between NATO and Russia, argues Andrew Monaghan. But deeper, real meetings of minds about each other's roles remain elusive.

© Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko

A brake on progress - the Georgian war of August 2008

The Russo-Georgia war proved a pivotal time in NATO-Russia relations. It was a culmination in the growing strategic dissonance between Russia and NATO, where each side drew differing, discordant conclusions from the same evidence: from the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine to the gas disputes between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukraini.

Any sense of partnership and cooperation generated by the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) in 2002 began to dissipate. It was to be replaced by mutual frustration with the slow development of practical cooperation, accusations and distrust about the intentions of the other. Against this, the war in August 2008 dramatically brought NATO-Russia tension to a peak. The NRC was suspended.

2009 saw beginning of the other side of this pivot, as the US and the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia sought to reset relations. In many ways this echoed the drive to rescue and resuscitate relations with Russia that had taken place nearly ten years before, when relations were under similar strain after the Kosovo war.

Now, as then in 2000, a new Secretary General sought to invigorate and prioritise the Alliance’s relationship with Russia. Secretary General Rasmussen sought to attend immediately to a relationship ‘in urgent need of repair’, and to establish a ‘true strategic partnership’ with Russia. The agenda of the relationship was to allow focus on a more coherent agenda and extend practical cooperation in areas of shared interests.

both sides appear to have agreed to disagree on some issues that divided them previously, particularly the Russo-Georgia war

The NATO Lisbon Summit and NRC in November 2010 was an important staging point in resuscitating relations, as the senior leadership of both NATO and Russia emphasised the emergence of a ‘new phase’ in the relationship and highlighted the efforts being made to modernise it.

NATO's new Strategic Concept emphasises the foundations of the relationship established by the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the Rome Declaration. It recognises that NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance, contributing to the creation of a common space of peace, stability and security. The NRC thus endorsed a common agenda, including cooperation on counterterrorism, counterpiracy, counternarcotics, the promotion of international security and missile defence.

Further reflecting the resuscitation of the relationship after the Georgia War, the NRC at Lisbon welcomed the agreement on the NATO-Russia Joint Review of the Twenty First Century Common Security Challenges and some cooperation, particularly the arrangements offered by Russia to facilitate ISAF transit to Afghanistan and the resumption of theatre missile defence exercises.

Other aspects of the common agenda also reflect progress in resuscitating the relationship.

In counterterrorism, in June this year NATO and Russia mounted the exercise “Vigilant Skies 2011”, responding to a simulated hijacking of a passenger airliner by terrorists. This exercise was the first of its kind and forms part of the Cooperative Airspace Initiative, a priority project for the NRC, to establish a shared NATO-Russia radar image of air traffic to allow early warning of suspicious air activities. This stands alongside other counterterrorism cooperation such as the STANDEX project on the remote detection of explosives carried by suicide bombers.

Cooperation is also taking place in other areas, such as submarine search and rescue. Russia participated in spring 2011 in the Bold Monarch exercise, simulating the rescue of a submarine in distress. The turn-around in the relationship, particularly in military-to-military cooperation, since the suspension of the relationship since August 2008 is noteworthy. Such exercises offer considerable potential benefit, establishing trust and important links between partners. It was such exercises that laid the platform for the cooperation that rescued the Russian submersible in August 2005, for instance.


Back to the negotiating table - the NATO Russia Council in Lisbon

At a more strategic level, both sides appear to have agreed to disagree on some issues that divided them previously, particularly the Russo-Georgia war and Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At the same time, both sides have many other priorities that absorb time, attention and resources away from developing the relationship. And there are ongoing ambiguities and underlying tensions in the relationship itself. If, for instance, the two sides ‘share a clear goal’ in ensuring that the people of Libya can ‘shape their own future in freedom’, it is also the case that Moscow has criticised NATO’s actions there. Ambassador Rogozin has suggested it is the beginning of NATO’s expansion to the south. Moscow has also criticised NATO for exceeding its UN mandate to protect civilians.

More broadly, the strategic documentation from both sides recently suggests that each has other priorities that do not coincide with the other - and sometimes directly contradict each other. Moscow’s strategic overhaul, rolled out since 2008, has emphasised the decline of western influence in international affairs, the inability of NATO to resolve European security problems and pointed to NATO posing potential threats to Russian interests. Long-standing Russian opposition to NATO, and distrust of it, has not substantially declined. Many in Russia continue to question whether the organisation either has a role or even should continue to exist since they feel it cannot act positively or effectively.

Moscow repeatedly emphasises it cannot accept the idea of NATO as a ‘global policeman’

For its part, NATO has emphasised its commitment and reassurance for its member states against conventional attack. This is partly due to some member states' concerns about role Russia's role in international affairs. NATO has also reiterated its open door membership policy and its intentions to reach out for more political engagement to partners around the globe. Moscow repeatedly emphasises it cannot accept the idea of NATO as a ‘global policeman’, and argues that NATO’s Article V and Open Door policies fragment European security.

Different understandings of the indivisibility of security illustrate a particularly important gap in visions between the partners.

In NATO, the indivisibility of security is defined in terms of the comprehensive nature of security in its three dimensions (human, economic and political-military), security among states and the recognition that European and Eurasian security are embedded in global security. For Moscow, it is defined differently, in terms of levels of security – one, at the OSCE level of politically agreed security, but another at the NATO and EU level of legally binding commitments. The European security architecture is currently divided along these lines, according to Moscow, creating a two-tiered security space in which Moscow has neither a vote nor legal guarantees.

Keeping things afloat - Russia and NATO countries carried out joint submarine rescue exercises in 2011

This has meant that headline policies for both Brussels and Moscow have yet to gain significant success. One example is NATO’s unenthusiastic approach to Moscow’s European security treaty proposal, guiding it instead through the OSCE’s Corfu Process rather than addressing it directly.

Another is NATO’s emphasis that missile defence cannot be truly collective since Russia is not a member of the Alliance. These illustrate the conceptual gap and differing visions of security between Brussels and Moscow.

Repairing the NATO-Russia relationship after the Russo-Georgia war is a strategically important step for European security. The relationship has a more focused, more beneficial agenda. This has yielded significant successes, particularly in military-to-military cooperation.

But without addressing (and at least beginning to assuage) political divergences, it will be difficult to move beyond the current practical cooperation level and move to a strategic agenda that is truly mutual and joint: the basis of a Strategic Partnership.

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