Dmitri Trenin takes a hard look at the NATO-Russia relationship on the fifth anniversary of the NATO-Russia Council and the tenth of the Paris Founding Act on Mutual Relations.

 Ionian Sea, 15 February 2006: The British destroyer HMS Nottingham and the Russian cruiser Moskva during training activities conducted to help prepare Russian Navy crews for participation in Operation Active Endeavour (© NATO )

Ionian Sea, 15 February 2006: The British destroyer HMS Nottingham and the Russian cruiser Moskva during training activities conducted to help prepare Russian Navy crews for participation in Operation Active Endeavour (© NATO )

For nearly a decade after the emergence of the Russian Federation, NATO-related issues were a key focus of Moscow's foreign policy. The Alliance was both a symbol of the Cold War and the premier Western club. Russia vacillated between half-hearted attempts to join the Alliance on special terms, and futile efforts to prevent the country's neighbours from seeking membership as a security guarantee against Russia itself.

Three main developments shaped the relationship during the 1990s:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the NATO/US use of force in 1995 led to the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, and the subsequent peacekeeping operations, in which Russian troops took part under NATO command;

  • NATO's enlargement invitation in 1997 to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and their accession in 1999, a bitter pill barely sweetened for Moscow by the creation of the Permanent Joint Council (PJC), a consultative mechanism between Russia and the Alliance; and

  • the 1999 Kosovo crisis, which culminated in NATO's 78-day air campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, despite Russia's most vehement protests.

Despite these serious issues, Russia continued to participate in Stabilisation Force (SFOR) operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and indeed requested to join the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in June 1999, again under NATO command. Nevertheless, by the end of President Yeltsin's time at the Kremlin, Russia-NATO relations were in a deep freeze.

A New Start?

At the beginning of President Vladimir Putin's first term, there was hope for a new start. Some believed that, if Russia were to accede to NATO, this would serve as a silver bullet, doing away forever with past enmity and ushering in genuine friendship. But it was not to be. Relations were restored and membership was probed anew, but again without success.

There were, however, unexpected bonuses. A few weeks after 9/11, a US-led military campaign removed the most serious post-Cold War external threat to Russia's security, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Soon thereafter, NATO forces took on the mission of helping to stabilise Afghanistan - the Alliance's first major out-of-area military campaign. From Moscow's perspective, an alliance, which for decades had been facing the Soviet Union in Central Europe, had turned into a coalition that was helping to secure the approaches to Central Asia, Russia's most vulnerable flank.

After a bumpy ride through the 1990s, solid improvements in the first few years of this decade, followed by the recent souring of relations, it is clear that for the relationship to improve, both sides must make significant efforts

n 2002, the Alliance's relations with Russia were reconfigured and the new NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established. In contrast to the Permanent Joint Council which was essentially a bilateral structure, the new NRC meets at 27, so that each nation participates in its national capacity, and on an equal footing with the others. Thus the Russia-NATO relationship has been able to survive and develop, even though Moscow's foreign policy from 2003 onward became more independent and assertive, and Russian relations with NATO began to sour.

The NATO-Russia Council meets regularly - most recently in June 2007 in St. Petersburg and Moscow to commemorate its fifth anniversary. Russia has a mission at NATO Headquarters and a military office at the Allied Command Operations (SHAPE), while NATO keeps a military liaison as well as an information office in Moscow. There is a range of common interests, from fighting terrorism to ensuring WMD non-proliferation.

Under the auspices of the NRC, 17 subordinate bodies work on key areas of cooperation. Occasionally joint exercises are held in areas such as emergency response. Russian warships have started to participate in NATO's Active Endeavour maritime counter-terrorist operation in the Mediterranean. Moscow signed a Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO, and allows Germany and France to use a corridor across its territory en route to Afghanistan. There has been wide-ranging collaboration in defence reform, military-to-military cooperation (importantly, the NATO-Russia military interoperability programme), maritime search and rescue and a joint pilot project on counter-narcotics training for Central Asian and Afghan personnel.

The Russians certainly understand NATO much better today than they did in the 1990s. All this lends a degree of stability and predictability to the relationship, even though mutual expectations have been revised downward.


There is fundamental ambivalence in Moscow about the existing situation. Russia treats NATO as a geopolitical "factor", rather than as a partner. The country now has a window on the Alliance - but still has no handle on it. Russia is voicing strong objections to what it views as negative developments:

  • the possibility of the Alliance admitting Georgia and Ukraine as members;

  • the temporary use by the United States, on a rotational basis, of existing military facilities in Bulgaria and Romania; and especially

  • the planned deployments of elements of a US ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia has several additional concerns: NATO countries delaying ratification of the Adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Alliance's reluctance to establish formal relations with the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Some of NATO's newer members bring memories of Soviet domination to the table. So Moscow is now emphasising bilateral relations with individual European countries, concentrating on remaining sympathetic ears in Central Europe and hoping for more farther to the west.

It is clear, though, that five years after the Rome Declaration on NATO-Russia Relations and ten years after the Paris Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, Russia-NATO relations are not currently headed toward any kind of major convergence. Yet, the relationship continues to be important. What it needs most is careful management to ensure that inherent rivalries are minimised, and that cooperation is maximised wherever possible.


On the issue of NATO enlargement, Moscow would be wise to leave the decisions to the countries in question. Whether candidate countries join the Alliance - and if so, when - should be up to those nations themselves. In view of Moscow's stated goals, Russian intervention can only be counterproductive. The Kremlin's official position of treating Alliance accession as a sovereign right of each individual country, and of focusing on the management of Russia's own security, makes good sense.

It may be that Georgia will get the Membership Action Plan in the spring of 2008, which would put the country on track to join the Alliance a few years later. In Ukraine, however, NATO must admit that the accession issue is likely to remain politically divisive and potentially destabilising. Calm handling of these situations by both sides would help to uphold stability and security in Europe's east.

Missile Defence

While these do not fall under NATO, the issue of the US ballistic missile defence plans represents both a risk and an opportunity for the NATO-Russia relationship. The risk is that, if the United States shuts Russia out, anti-Western trends in Russia's security and defence policy could be exacerbated, which is clearly not Washington's objective.

The opportunity is that, if the issue were to be used to reinvigorate WMD cooperation, mutual confidence would be strengthened. It would lead to closer interaction on the source of the perceived danger; that is, Iran's missile and nuclear programmes. Cooperation on ballistic missile defence will not be easy, but is certainly worth trying. Indeed, a shared system - which would use Russian radar and detection facilities, as well as information-sharing sites - has been recently proposed by President Putin as an alternative to current US plans.

The Russia-NATO relationship has been able to survive and develop, even though Moscow's foreign policy from 2003 onward became more independent and assertive

The current NATO and Russian joint efforts in the field of theatre missile defence could be a model for possible US-Russia MD cooperation and could provide a basis for a more integrated and comprehensive approach for a missile defence architecture for Europe.

Similarly, the issue of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), prohibited under the 1987 INF treaty and now being raised again by Russian officials, calls for close consultations between Russia and NATO with a view to strengthening mutual confidence and preventing a destabilising arms race.

CFE Treaty

Since it was signed in 1990, the CFE Treaty has been the principal material foundation of the European security order. It must continue to play that role. Moscow's concerns about the Baltic nations' accession to the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty, and its ratification by the United States and other Western countries, are genuine and should be taken seriously - Russia's withdrawal from the CFE Treaty would be in nobody's interest.

By the same token, NATO members' concerns about Moscow's implementation of its Istanbul commitments concerning its remaining troops in Georgia and Moldova call for joint action - even if, in Russia's view, there is no formal link between these commitments and the ratification of the Adapted Treaty.

President Putin's declaration earlier this year of a "moratorium" on the Treaty was followed by Russia's call for an Extraordinary Conference, which occurred in mid-June. Russia had already begun to delay CFE inspections, but after President Putin's meeting with the NATO Secretary General during the NRC anniversary celebrations, the inspection regime resumed. The President took another positive step in recommending that CFE issues should be discussed in the NRC, and this recommendation was taken up.


Moldova's frozen conflict on the Dniester offers a real opportunity to launch the first-ever peacekeeping operation in which Russia and NATO act as equal partners. Arguably, this is the least difficult of the former-Soviet flashpoints to be resolved.

Moldova has reaffirmed its intention to abstain from seeking NATO membership. The operation would involve only a limited military and police force, probably just a few hundred men. Russia is genuinely indispensable to any solution in Moldova, and can be expected to act on an equal footing with NATO.

If successful, such a joint operation could pave the way for Western countries to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty. It could also serve as a model for other joint peacekeeping missions - most likely in the southern Caucasus - in situations that meet what might be called 'the Moldova criterion', that is, where Russia has an interest in finding a solution, is indispensable to that solution and yet is unable to solve the conflict single-handedly.

With some of NATO's newer members bringing memories of Soviet domination to the table, Moscow is now emphasising bilateral relations with individual European countries

For several years, Russia and NATO have been working on increasing interoperability, with a view to engaging in joint peacekeeping operations. Neither the Middle East nor Africa appears to be likely areas for putting that expertise into practice. Certain areas of the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, could - and, in my view, should - represent an ideal area to test interoperability.


The Russians have no reason to feel any schadenfreude as a result of the difficulties faced by NATO and the United States in Afghanistan. If international efforts fail to stabilise that country, Moscow will be faced with a resurgent Taliban threatening Russia's soft Central Asian underbelly. There is therefore a clear need for closer consultations between Russia and the West on how to turn the tide against Islamist radicals.

Helping the moderates to hold on to Kabul and the Afghan provinces is a far better alternative than having to start reconstituting the Northern Alliance in Taloqan.


That, in turn, raises the issue of NATO-CSTO ties. So far, NATO has been very reluctant to formalise any relationship with the organisation, fearing that such a step would seal Russian dominance of Central Asia.

In reality, there is not much evidence of any such domination. Kazakhstan has been openly pursuing a multi-vector policy, successfully manoeuvring between Moscow, Beijing and Washington. Uzbekistan's fealty to Russia is uncertain and at best temporary, as Tashkent refuses to be Moscow's pawn. Two years after the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's (SCO) call for a US withdrawal, Kyrgyzstan is still permitting a US base to exist next to a small Russian one. Tajikistan has adopted a tous azimuts foreign policy, its president having symbolically de-Russified his last name.

By engaging with the CSTO, NATO could contribute to that organisation's evolution toward a more modern regional security arrangement. It would also reassure Moscow that the Alliance does not seek to displace Russia as a major player in Central Asia, which would not be in Western interests anyway.

Agreement on a NATO-CSTO link could come as part of a package with the SCO opening up to the United States as an observer. It is senseless for NATO members, Russia and China to continue to play a petty game of regional rivalry at the price of allowing their common adversaries to take them on one by one.

The NATO-Russia partnership may well be at a turning point. After a bumpy ride through the 1990s, solid improvements in the first few years of this decade, followed by the recent souring of relations, it is clear that for the relationship to improve, both sides must make significant efforts.

Russia should let its neighbours to join NATO if they wish. At the same time, NATO should think strategically about which countries it offers membership. Cooperation on missile defence - excluding, for the time-being, the United States' controversial plans for a European ballistic missile shield - is at least being attempted, thus boosting cooperation in the area of WMD non-proliferation and building confidence for consultations on the INF Treaty. Beyond this, both sides need to take steps to ensure ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty. NATO-Russia interoperability can and should be tested in joint peacekeeping operations in areas of the former Soviet Union such as Moldova. Russia and the international community would also be well-advised to collaborate on stabilising Afghanistan - and in stemming the flow of drugs out of that country. Lastly, NATO should engage with CSTO.

In my view, these actions would almost certainly improve the NATO-Russia partnership.