James Sherr of Chatham House argues that different understanding on either side of the NATO-Russia relationship keep leading to unwanted outcomes. And until each side accepts the other's understanding of what security means, he believes this will be a recurrent theme.

Within the past few years, many have rightly asked whether NATO-Russia partnership can at last become a meaningful term. The pause in the enlargement process, the reactivation of the NATO-Russia Council, the US-Russia reset, the New START accords and the intensification of cooperation in Afghanistan have given substance to these hopes.

But there is no secret that something is lacking in the relationship. For Brussels the missing link is trust. For Moscow it is equality.

James Sherr, Senior Fellow, Chatham House

These are very different perceptions, and they should sober expectations. Despite improvements, NATO and Russia retain decidedly dissimilar views about what preserves European security and what threatens it. They also bear the imprint of very different cultures of security. So long as these things are true, Russia will find it difficult to trust NATO, and NATO allies will be exceptionally hesitant about affording Russia the type of equality it seeks. Within these parameters, a productive and cooperative relationship is possible. Harmony is not.

For Russia, equality means co-management

At a fundamental level, NATO has never questioned Russia’s equality. Russia is NATO’s priority partner. No ally seeks to diminish its autonomy or limit its prerogatives. The NATO-Russia Founding Act rules out any ‘right of veto over the actions of the other’ or any restriction on ‘the rights of NATO or Russia to independent decision-making and action’.

But for Russia, equality means co-management; in the words of the Chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev: ‘full-fledged admission to the “Euro-Atlantic Club” and its real influence on the decision-making process’. In the view of the country’s leadership, Russia is entitled to such equality by virtue of its contribution to ending the Cold War, its dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and its strategic importance.

At the same time, in then President Putin’s words, Russia has ‘earned a right to be self-interested’. It is entitled to be equal but different—to remain, in Foreign Minister Lavrov’s words, an autonomous ‘values centre’. It is Moscow’s view that by ignoring these claims, by moving ‘military infrastructure’ towards Russia’s borders and by refusing to abandon the possibility of further enlargement, NATO is reviving the division of Europe.

Inside the Alliance, many view Russia in similar terms. In signing the 1994 OSCE Budapest Declaration and the 1997 Founding Act, Russia affirmed its ‘respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security’. It also renounced ‘spheres of influence’.

Yet Russian diplomacy has emphasised subtly different themes: that ‘security is indivisible’ (1990 Paris Charter) and that states must not ‘pursue security interests at the expense of others’ (1994 Budapest Declaration). On the basis of these principles, President Medvedev insists that Europe’s security system should not produce ‘zones with different levels of security’—which begs the question whether states have a right to enter ‘zones’ or leave them.

By confining undertakings to matters of hard security and ignoring political and economic threats, Russia’s draft 2009 European Security Treaty sets Russia apart not only from NATO but the OSCE, whose Corfu process emphasises dialogue on ‘all aspects of security’.

Agreeing on being partners - 1997 saw a clear new path mapped out for NATO and Russia

In internal and bilateral pronouncements, Russia’s position is far less subtle. From the first policy document on the so-called ‘near abroad’ in 1992 to President Medvedev’s invocation of a ‘privileged sphere of influence’ in 2009, Russia has implied that it has a right to limit the sovereignty of its neighbours. Medvedev’s August 2009 Appeal to then President Yushchenko of Ukraine reproached him for ignoring the ‘fundamentals of cooperation’ by undermining the two country’s ‘common history, culture and religion’, the principles of ‘tight economic cooperation’ and by ‘obstinately continuing its course towards NATO membership’. Three months earlier, Prime Minister Putin described attempts to separate Ukraine (‘little Russia’) from Russia as a ‘crime’.

Those habituated to negotiation with Russia will discern a degree of posturing in these positions, and there is some truth in this. But Russian policies are not gambits. They express state interests and have done so with notable consistency.

Five conclusions would be prudent.

First, we should not assume that recent improvements in relations will reconcile Russia to NATO’s place in the world. Russia’s latest Military Doctrine lists NATO as first amongst the ‘military dangers’ faced by the country. Strategic missile defence is also listed as a ‘military danger’. The doctrine was published in February 2010, 18 months after the enlargement process went into abeyance. It is starkly out of tune with NATO’s Strategic Concept, which declares that ‘the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined’.

In many areas, Russia is an inescapable partner. But it will remain a difficult one

Second, we should not assume that cooperation will be cumulative or that one agreement will generate momentum towards others. The New START Treaty has not facilitated progress in missile defence negotiations and, for the moment at least, the US Senate’s call for negotiations about sub-strategic weapons has been given a firm rebuff. Neither should we assume that Russia will pursue cooperation with NATO for its own sake. From Moscow’s point of view, negotiations and joint efforts are not exercises in group therapy, but means of advancing national interests. Cooperation in some areas in Afghanistan (e.g. supply and transit) will not rule out conflicting approaches in others (e.g. basing rights and regional security).

Third, we should not assume that the need for ‘modernisation’ and foreign investment will moderate Russia’s attitudes towards NATO. There are discernable connections between resource constraints, administrative incapacity and the deficiencies of Russia’s conventional armed forces. But the setbacks in Defence Minister Serdyukov’s defence reform have only intensified hostility to NATO missile defence and opposition to further nuclear arms reductions.

Missile defence - will it bring more cooperation, or more causes for disagreement?

Fourth, we should not discount the influence of our respective values and traditions. For three generations, mind-sets in Western democracies have been shaped by consensus-building, collective decision-making and ‘habits of cooperation’ that aim to reconcile national interests with mutual interests. Today NATO and the EU are committed to a post-Cold War security order defined not by lines on maps but by the freedom of states to choose their partners and their mode of development. They also believe that there are occasions when ‘universal’ values must be defended beyond their borders. Russia does not share this tradition. It is an emphatically modern state without post-modern additives. It maintains a remorselessly geopolitical understanding of security, an unapologetic defence of spheres of influence, an unyielding belief in sovereignty and an undisguised distrust of ‘Western messianism’.

Fifth and by extension, we should be prepared to accept that some of our most cherished policies conflict with Russia’s own sense of right and entitlement. Supporting the ‘freedom of choice’ of Russia’s neighbours might benefit Europe, but it conflicts with Russia’s interests as Russia presently defines them. To a military establishment that equates security with dominance of ‘space’, the presence of NATO forces ‘in the vicinity of Russia’s borders’ poses a ‘military danger’ irrespective of our intention.

These conclusions should not diminish the priority that NATO attaches to its relationship with Russia. To the contrary, they should strengthen NATO’s determination to deepen cooperation where common interests exist and confine our differences to areas of genuine disagreement.

In many areas, Russia is an inescapable partner. But it will remain a difficult one.

Russia’s own national interests will place stringent limits on the degree to which it can either support or oppose NATO policy. Within these constraints, we can achieve finite but important results. If we expect more than that, we are doomed to disappointment.