With Russia, NATO has turned a potential ally into an adversary.
On June 14th, NATO leaders are meeting in Brussels to discuss the future of the Trans-Atlantic partnership as well as hot-button issues in the realms of security and defense, with Russia set to be high up on the agenda. In the past, NATO has maintained its treatment of Russia as an omnipresent threat that needs to be contained, however increasingly this continuation of Cold War-era policy has become counter-productive. Perhaps now more than ever, if a serious project for peace and stability is to be realized then NATO must engage with Russia in good faith and give due consideration to Russian concerns.
Evolution of NATO-Russia Relations
In the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO-Russia relations were on a course of steady improvement, beginning with cooperation on arms control within the framework of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). In 1991 Russia joined NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, followed by Russia’s signing of the Partnership for Peace Program in 1994. The Founding Act of 1997 sought to further guide the development of productive NATO-Russia relations and would go on to serve as a foundation for the NATO-Russia Council, which was formed in 2002 and constituted a significant step towards deepening cooperation. According to NATO’s website, the Council aims to provide “a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action” between Russia and NATO members.
By the early-2010s, however, the emergent NATO-Russia partnership began to show signs of a reversal. The 2008 Georgian War and especially the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014 have been watershed moments in the collapse of NATO-Russia dialogue. In 2014, NATO suspended all possible avenues of cooperation, and since then the Alliance has pursued a two-pronged approach of “dialogue and defense,” inviting Russia to return to the negotiating table whilst maintaining pressure by means of expanding deterrence capabilities and conducting military exercises along Russia’s territorial periphery. Perhaps the most notable of these exercises are DEFENDER-Europe 2020, which deployed around 37,000 troops in Central Europe and the Baltics, as well as DEFENDER-Europe 2021, involving the deployment of some 28,000 troops in the Balkan and Black Sea regions.
A Matter of Perspective
According to a 2020 report by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank that provides frequent advice to the US government, the present trend of deterioration in NATO-Russia relations results from Russian aggression that has forced NATO into a confrontational position. The report, entitled “Russia’s Hostile Measures”, analyzes cases of Russian “grey zone aggression” and provides strategies for anticipating and countering such acts. It states that Russia “threatens the security and stability of NATO and, bilaterally, many of its individual member states”, whilst claiming that this threat is simultaneously “understated and overblown” since Russia acts aggressively but also suffers from “a long track record of strategic shortfalls and even some ineptitude in its long game”. Critically, RAND acknowledges that certain Russian actions have been motivated by NATO enlargement, which has continuously encroached upon Russia’s neighborhood. For RAND, however, an understanding of Russian concerns is a fact to be exploited. It is supposed to render Russian actions transparent in their intent so that the US and NATO can respond in kind.
Source: Russia’s Hostile Measures, RAND Corporation
Though RAND admits that gradual encroachment is a cause for Russian concern and direct action, it is easy to miss its significance as an impediment to NATO-Russia relations. For one, NATO membership does not merely entitle a country to Article 5 protection (defense in the event of outside attack), it also (1) invites the deployment of foreign military personnel, such as Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States, and (2) provides a staging ground for combined force maneuvers, such as the previously mentioned DEFENDER-Europe operations. The amassing of multi-national forces is a thorn in Russia’s side since it is made the object of these military ops and sees itself as isolated from the West’s alliance.
Case in point, two years after the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002, the fifth and largest NATO enlargement round took place, which saw Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia join the Alliance. From a Russian perspective, the dialogue that had been built up over nearly a decade did not stop NATO from expanding its strategic posture on and near Russia’s border. Then, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power in 2014 and a new government sought to join NATO, potentially exposing a large portion of Russia’s western border and access to the Black Sea, Russia acted decisively and sided with the Crimean independence movement that desired to join the Russian Federation via referendum. This of course prompted condemnation from NATO and renewed confidence in the belief that Russia is an aggressor.
Intentional or not, NATO expansion has produced a positive-feedback loop where past and prospective enlargement elicits defensive reactions from Russia. These reactions in turn have been taken as acts of aggression that justify NATO’s continued existence. Thus, NATO has deepened the potential for conflict in Europe by forcing Russia to accept peace on NATO's terms.
A Way Forward
In a joint report published by the European Leadership Network and Russian International Affairs Council, several areas of practical cooperation are presented as possible starting points for restoring NATO-Russia relations. These include but are not limited to (1) counterterrorism, (2) counter-piracy, (3) arms control, (4) cybersecurity, and (5) the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan. Common ground issues such as these are echoed in NATO’s 2019 snapshot of Russia-U.S. relations.
That said, direct cooperation is not the only path towards immediate stabilization. During the Cold War, for instance, Austria and Finland sat on the iron curtain but opted for neutrality instead of NATO accession, and to this day neither country has changed course. Whilst it is unlikely that the Baltic states would exit NATO, neutrality may be a worthwhile consideration for countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, at least until a combined NATO-Russia security framework is deemed viable.
Ultimately, what NATO must realize is that lasting peace in Europe cannot be attained at the expense of Russia or vice versa. Moreover, genuine peace flowing from dialogue and economic interdependence might allow for a paradigm shift where the perceived need for armed deterrence such as NATO is exhausted, but then again, perhaps that was never the intention to begin with.
Julian Fisher is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).
This article was originally published with Modern Diplomacy.