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Great expectations

Andrei Zagorski examines the thaw in NATO-Russia relations and the reasons for both optimism and caution.

Partners in peacekeeping: NATO-Russia cooperation in the Balkans has been a particularly positive experience ( © NATO - 31Kb)

Since the resumption of dialogue in May last year, relations between NATO and Russia have steadily improved. Solid progress and an expanding programme of cooperation activities were evident at the meetings of the Permanent Joint Council at NATO headquarters in December 2000, which brought together Allied defence and foreign ministers with their Russian counterparts, Marshal Igor Sergeyev and Igor Ivanov. But recent improvements mask underlying differences between the Allies and Russia in their perceptions of the evolution of Europe's security architecture and of the nature of the NATO-Russia partnership. Moreover, since Russia's relationship with the West is played out in many arenas, the prospects for the NATO-Russia dialogue may be influenced by external developments. As a result, there may only be a narrow window of opportunity to reconcile the interests of Moscow and Brussels and build a vigorous dialogue on security issues.

Having agreed a comprehensive work programme at the ministerial meeting of the Permanent Joint Council in Florence in May 2000, NATO-Russia relations underwent a lengthy process of rehabilitation, which was largely completed by the beginning of 2001. The work agenda has expanded to embrace a wide range of issues of mutual interest including ongoing cooperation in and consultation on peacekeeping in the Balkans, discussions of strategy and doctrine, and cooperation in arms control, proliferation, military infrastructure, nuclear issues and theatre missile defences, as well as the retraining of discharged military personnel and search and rescue at sea.

The practical experience of Russian and NATO soldiers working together in the NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and Kosovo has been particularly positive. Moreover, Russian officers have played an increasingly constructive role in the planning of joint operations at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. The opening of the NATO Information Office in Moscow in February 2001, after a year of tough negotiations, is another visible sign of improving relations.

Although Moscow generally seeks to avoid overtones in public statements, the spirit has changed notably in recent months. Foreign Minister Ivanov, known for his reticence, has publicly acknowledged that successes at the practical level are beginning to spin off in other areas and are improving the NATO-Russia relationship in general. Even Marshall Sergeyev has sounded more optimistic recently, praising, in particular, closer cooperation in the planning of joint operations. That said, he has also cautioned that the relationship has not yet been fully restored and that the page has yet to be turned on the sorry chapter in relations between Moscow and Brussels characterised by NATO's Kosovo air campaign.

There are reasons for both optimism and caution. The 2001 Permanent Joint Council work programme is almost as broad as the one that existed at the end of 1998, during what appears to have been the honeymoon period in NATO-Russia relations. This, however, does not substantiate expectations of the beginning of true partnership, but seems rather to identify items on the agenda of a forthcoming bargaining process. A tough road lies ahead. Fixing even simple things takes months and years. The protracted negotiations that eventually led to the opening of the NATO Information Office and those still ongoing to establish a NATO Military Liaison Mission in Moscow reflect unresolved differences between both sides in their perceptions of how European security should be organised. Such differences have not been reconciled in the rapprochement since the Kosovo crisis. Indeed, they predate the crisis. This begs the question whether NATO and Russia have actually achieved enough in terms of confidence-building, which has been the centrepiece of activities over the past months, to lay the foundations for a true partnership.

When the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997 and the Permanent Joint Council was created, the Russian lite saw it as a damage-limitation exercise in the context of the first wave of the Alliance's eastward enlargement. In the first instance, Moscow sought to prevent the eventual deployment of nuclear weapons, the extension of the Alliance's military infrastructure and the stationing of NATO troops in the new central European member states. For their part, NATO member countries tended to regard the Founding Act as part of a deal to make NATO enlargement more palatable to Russia.

Yet, the Founding Act itself was more ambitious. The Permanent Joint Council was supposed to "provide a mechanism for consultation, coordination and, to the maximum extent possible, where appropriate, for joint decisions and joint action with respect to security issues of common concern". The declared "shared objective of NATO and Russia" was "to identify and pursue as many opportunities for joint action as possible". Unfortunately, the envisaged joint decision-making process has failed to materialise. Dialogue has remained at the level of regular consultations and lost much of its initial purpose, after the launch of the Kosovo air campaign. Unwilling to share responsibility for an action it could not endorse yet was unable to prevent, Moscow found it better simply to withdraw.

Things have clearly changed for the better since then. The increased involvement of Russian officers in joint operations planning has improved significantly in recent months and there is greater consultation before NATO decisions are taken. Moscow has no power of veto, but its positions and concerns are given a fair hearing. However, while this mode of cooperation is working at the moment, it is not clear whether it would still work if more controversial issues were at stake, as in March 1999.

Lord Robertson's first trip to Moscow as NATO Secretary General in February 2000 was aimed at re-energising the NATO-Russia relationship. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that NATO and Russia should pursue a "vigorous dialogue on a wide range of security address the challenges that lie ahead and to make their mutual cooperation a cornerstone of European security". However, the two sides continue to pursue notably different concepts of European security, which have become more divergent since the Kosovo crisis. Similarly, while the joint statement released at the ministerial meeting of the Permanent Joint Council in December 2000 welcomes progress achieved and reaffirms the "commitment to build, within the framework of the Permanent Joint Council, a strong, stable and equal partnership", Brussels and Moscow still have different understandings as to the ends of such a partnership.

NATO member countries see the Alliance as the centre-piece and as the single most effective military arm of any European security system. They remain open to improving cooperation with Russia and with other Partner countries in ways which strengthen NATO's unique role in cooperative security. In this context, the Permanent Joint Council is regarded, in the words of Lord Robertson, as "one of the most important new institutional arrangements that have emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War".

Moscow, on the other hand, would like to see the development of a pan-European security architecture within which each country could feel equally secure and has consistently sought to boost the role of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The new Russian Foreign Policy Concept, signed by President Putin on 28 June 2000, emphasises the need to improve and deepen cooperation with the Alliance and recognises the important.role NATO plays in European security. But it is also unusually explicit about the problems Moscow has with NATO: "The current political and military postures of NATO do not coincide with the security interests of the Russian Federation, and sometimes even run contrary to them." This basically refers to the provisions of NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept, which do not exclude coercive "out-of-area" operations with no explicit mandate from the UN Security Council, and to the possibility of a second wave of NATO enlargement, particularly if parts of the former Soviet Union are included.

Russia, therefore, does not want to see the Alliance as the centre of the European security dialogue, but as one of several partners for such dialogue. The Permanent Joint Council provides a forum where Russian positions on security issues can be voiced, but it does not give Moscow the power directly to influence events. For this reason, Foreign Minister Ivanov, even while praising recent progress in cooperation, has described the role of dialogue through the Permanent Joint Council as limited to "an important channel for exchange of information and for the exploration of certain issue areas".

These different perspectives lead Russia and the Alliance to pursue different agendas for the NATO-Russia dialogue. During the past year, Moscow has pushed for the exchange of views on issues such as military doctrines, military infrastructure development and theatre missile defence, and for cooperation in science and technology. For its part, the Alliance has emphasised the importance of practical cooperation in areas such as military reform and has sought to motivate Russia to take a more active part in Partnership for Peace activities. These different agendas are not irreconcilable. The 2001 Permanent Joint Council work programme covers all these areas, as well as a number of others. However, unless underlying differences are reconciled, it will be more difficult and less likely to achieve substantial progress on any of the more controversial issues.

Different perspectives lead Russia and the Alliance to pursue different agendas for the NATO-Russia dialogue

In the meantime, progress can be achieved in less controversial areas. In addition to the successful cooperation that has developed between KFOR and SFOR troops on the ground in Kosovo and Bosnia (the rationale of which is nevertheless questioned in Russia each time things appear to go wrong in the Balkans), other success stories can be identified in areas such as search and rescue at sea and the retraining of discharged officers. The importance of even modest practical collaboration or the significance of opening a NATO Information Office or seeking to establish a NATO Military Liaison Mission in Moscow should not, however, be underestimated. Real partnership, if ever possible, can only grow out of such projects.

However, as recent history has revealed, the up-and-down cycles in NATO-Russia relations may prove to be short and could easily fall victim to worsening mutual relations resulting from developments in areas outside the Permanent Joint Council framework. Practical cooperation through joint ventures may not have sufficient time to mature and yield spin-off effects. A brief look at Russia's principal concerns helps understand how difficult it may be to reconcile the interests of Moscow and Brussels.

The fundamental concern, which was brought into sharp focus as a result of the Kosovo crisis, is the shape of the future world order and Russia's position within it. With NATO seemingly challenging the authority of the UN Security Council, in which Russia enjoys the status of a permanent member and a veto, and with it proving difficult to develop the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe into an effective regional collective security organisation, Moscow faces a difficult choice. Either give in to closer cooperation with NATO, or risk the further erosion of Russia's status as a great power, albeit one inherited from the previous bi-polar world and no longer backed up by real capabilities, apart from its nuclear arsenal. Upcoming decisions on NATO enlargement and on National Missile Defense (NMD) are likely to produce disturbances in Russia's relationship with both NATO and the United States because they will be seen as further challenges to Russia's status in the world order.

With regard to enlargement, Russian officials repeatedly confirm Moscow's opposition, particularly to possible NATO membership for the Baltic states. Military considerations are probably of less concern than the fact that a future NATO with an almost Europe-wide membership and links that stretch into the Caucasus and Central Asia through the Partnership for Peace would undermine the chances for developing an increased pan-European security role for any other institution. Moscow would be left with little alternative to closer cooperation with NATO.

On missile defence, Russia is concerned that its status as a global nuclear power would be threatened should the United States be unwilling or unable to find a compromise on the modalities of its NMD project and on the future of the ABM Treaty. Such concerns are magnified by Moscow's expectation that US foreign policy under the Bush administration will become increasingly unilateral. This, Moscow fears, could undermine the role of the United Nations and also impact on US cooperation with Russia, which might in turn limit Russia's possibilities for bargaining within the framework of the NATO-Russia dialogue.

So far, Moscow seems to be adopting a more unilateral policy approach and expressing a determination to maintain its freedom of choice and action. At the same time, Russia is showing its readiness to pursue ad hoc cooperation with both NATO and the United States in areas where there is no conflict of interest, while repeatedly stressing the supremacy of the United Nations and the rule of international law. Should Russia prove unable actively to oppose developments that it believes would undermine its great power status, it is likely to fall back to a more absentee stand in international politics.

The key decisions on enlargement and on NMD, which could potentially have a major impact on the NATO-Russia relationship, are likely to be taken sooner rather than later. This leaves little time for the development of the "vigorous dialogue" agreed between President Putin and Lord Robertson. Both sides have a long tradition of tough bargaining with each other. If no results are achieved in the near future and no progress is made in reconciling fundamental differences, the dialogue between Moscow and Brussels risks stagnation and the future direction of NATO-Russia relations could be held hostage to external developments.

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