At the end of November in Lisbon, NATO will adopt a new strategic concept, which should provide a general framework for the activities of the military-political organization over the next ten years. One of the key elements of the new strategic concept will be the formulation of an approach toward non-NATO states (Russia is one example in this context).This approach is important for NATO members because to meet the challenge of new global threats most security specialists prescribe to increase cooperation between Brussels and non-member states. In this context, for example, the report released by the so-called group of wise men on May 17, headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recommends the establishment of relations with Russia on a better footing as it is a vital partner for the Alliance in the 21st century.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in one of his first official statements after he became the 12th NATO Secretary General on August 1, 2009, confirmed the importance of Russia when he said that Moscow is the largest Alliance partner. However, Rasmussen did not fail to add that Russia also remains one of the most difficult partners for NATO. A recent episode in NATO-Russia relations once more vindicated Rasmussen’s pronouncement. About a year ago, Russia and NATO agreed to consult each other regarding the drafting of the new Russian military doctrine and NATO’s updated strategic doctrine. Moscow, however, quite surprisingly, accelerated the publication of its own document, which caused considerable turmoil within the Alliance. The Russian document quite clearly describes the eastward expansion of NATO and especially NATO’s activities in the post-Soviet space as one of the most critical threats to Russia’s security. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov has over and over expressed the Kremlin’s concerns over NATO’s expansion which, according to Russian authorities, is aimed at building up NATO’s military potential in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus in order to get a bit closer to Russian borders. Moscow is convinced that the geographical expansion of NATO cannot be justified by security concerns.
It is expected that in the spirit of the current warming of relations between Russia and the West, especially the United States and its “reset” agenda, NATO’s policy document will be prepared in such a ways as to not undercut the spirit of a new partnership with Moscow. Currently the idea that Russia may have a major impact on the success of the Alliance’s operations outside the members’ territory – particularly in Afghanistan – is prevalent in the United States and among other key NATO members. Nonetheless, there remain many unanswered questions with respect to the partnership and they must be addressed. If, on the one hand, there is little doubt that many intersections of strategic interests exist between NATO and Russia, on the other hand, Moscow remains suspicious and wary of NATO, which it holds to be a relic of the Cold War and, more importantly, perceives it as an anti-Russian security and political organization.
Russian officials also continue to look at NATO with a considerable dose of defiance, particularly in relation to escapades outside the Alliance territory, as they did during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. Since the very beginning of the NATO-Russia partnership, Moscow has been opposed to extra-territorial operations of the Alliance and has required that any such interventions should be subject to a clear mandate from the UN Security Council, where Russia can use its veto power. It is clear that in Lisbon the issue of the possible NATO role beyond its geographical borders may become another bone of contention between NATO and Russia. The new strategic concept will certainly have to confront this controversial issue.
The application of Article Five of the collective security organization, which calls on member states to assist another member under attack, is also another worrying aspect of the new strategic concept. The Head of the Commission Madeleine Albright as well as some influential leaders of the Alliance talk about the need to consolidate the mutual guarantees under Article Five of the Treaty. There are various proposals, mainly from Eastern European members, to improve defense planning and conduct military drills over a larger territory. Although there is no external threat to the Alliance clearly named in these proposals, no one has any doubt about who is the target, for the states calling for a renaissance of Article Five are geographically close to Russia. The question is whether Russia would put up with a tougher Article Five as demanded by some members of NATO. The risk is that it could strengthen the hardliner’s position in the Kremlin and boost the number of opponents of cooperation with NATO. Moreover, if the new strategic concept calls for softer qualifications for the entry of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, then one can expect more tense future relations with Russia.
These uncertainties are reflected in Russia’s rather low level of cooperation with NATO. One of the most acute issues for NATO officials is the military and political stabilization of Afghanistan. Russia, due to its geographical location, offers a potentially attractive land and air corridor for material supply to allied troops on the ground. The use of the Russian territory would allow NATO to rely much less on the turbulent routes of northern Pakistan. Although the Russians have reluctantly offered this option to the Alliance, the latter has failed to take full advantage of the northern corridor. Moscow’s deeper cooperation in Afghanistan is also compounded by its diplomacy which seeks to limit the presence of NATO troops in Central Asia. This openly contradicts Moscow’s avowed willingness to help stabilize Afghanistan.
There are many other ways to enhance a mutually beneficial cooperation between NATO and Russia: intensify the fight against terrorism, strengthen interoperability between NATO forces and Russia’s, and identify common security threats. An opportunity for cooperation also exists in the construction of a joint missile defense shield with Russia to cover Europe and to protect from a possible terror attack. The Kremlin has repeatedly voiced its opposition to missile installations in Eastern Europe, arguing that they could be used as offensive weapons. Nevertheless, Rasmussen still persistently tries to bring NATO and Russia together to discuss the proposal.
As in the case of Afghanistan, a serious challenge for NATO remains Moscow’s ambivalence in its long-term policy towards NATO. Despite the existence of a consensus on some key global security issues, Moscow and Brussels have sharply divergent views on their long-term vested interests. For instance, the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which Albright and her team of experts have put at the top of their list of potential threats to NATO, runs the risk of being partly opposed by Russia which is participating in different ways in the Iran’s sensitive nuclear program. Even though Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in September a decree banning the supply of arms like missile systems and military aircraft to Iran – although that does not mean a complete halt of military and technical cooperation –, he and the Russian political class work towards the strengthening of Russia’s influence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East more generally.
On September 22, the NATO-Russia Council met in New York at the level of Foreign Ministers as a prelude to the NATO-Russia summit in November in Lisbon with an expected participation of both Barack Obama and Medvedev. Rasmussen said afterward that the meeting had been “very positive and reflected the considerable progress we (Russia and NATO] have achieved in our relations over the past 12-14 months.” He mentioned the numerous important areas of cooperation, including Afghanistan, the joint struggle against terrorism and piracy in Africa, drug production and smuggling. “Russia’s future lies in the cooperation with the EU and NATO. It makes sense both from an economic perspective and from a security perspective.”
The West’s recent embrace of Russia, which neither Rasmussen nor Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk openly about but which is in everybody’s mind, has to do with the Russia’s internal political developments. Almost nobody in the West wants to give ammunition to the strong Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the political vision he stands for on the eve of a prsidential election in Russia. The return of Putin to the Presidential seat in 2012 would mean to go back to harsh confrontation, nationalism, repression of dissent and democratic institutions. Medvedev, on the other hand, is emerging as a leader who is going to reform Russia, to modernize the economy, the judicial and electoral systems, the Russian civil society, the army, and who obviously wants a close cooperation with the West. He desperately needs support from the West if he is to have a chance to win the presidency and thus determine Russia’s long-term policy. Cooperation would likely win over confrontation with Medvedev as Russia’s president.
Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Georgia