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NATO-Russia relations: a new beginning?

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 30, 2010

    A summit meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) took place in Lisbon on 19 November 2010. It was held in the backdrop of President Medvedev’s long standing proposal for a common security space in the Euro-Atlantic area and NATO’s invitation to Russia to participate in the joint development of a European Missile Defence programme. The Summit sought to put Russia-NATO relations on a cooperative path while ending the cold war antagonism which lay at the heart of NATO’s creation. Is it the beginning of a new chapter in Russia-NATO relations?

    The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the summit contained some important decisions including the undertaking of the “first ever Joint Review of 21st Century Common Security Challenges …and ways to address them through practical cooperation,” a joint “ ballistic missile threat assessment and … the future framework for broader missile defence cooperation,” “broadened transit arrangements through Russian territory for non-lethal ISAF goods, “and counter-narcotics training and an NRC Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund in 2011.”

    The NRC summit has been described as ‘historic’ since both sides approached the other not as an antagonist but as a prospective partner. In NATO Secretary General’s words, NATO and Russia have agreed in writing that they “pose no threat to each other. That, alone, draws a clear line between the past and the future of NATO-Russia relations.”

    At the Lisbon meeting NATO adopted a new 10-year strategic concept which will guide its future actions. The newly adopted strategic concept says “NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance as it contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security. NATO poses no threat to Russia. On the contrary, we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, and we will act accordingly, with the expectation of reciprocity from Russia.”

    And further,

    “Notwithstanding differences on particular issues, we remain convinced that the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined and that a strong and constructive partnership based on mutual confidence, transparency and predictability can best serve our security. We are determined to: (i) enhance the political consultations and practical cooperation with Russia in areas of shared interests, including missile defence, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, counter-piracy and the promotion of wider international security; (ii) use the full potential of the NATO-Russia Council for dialogue and joint action with Russia.”

    Thus, the new concept makes a bold departure in so far as Russia is concerned. It emphasizes cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia. This is a marked change in NATO’s approach although it must be said that NATO has not given up the core principle of collective defence. Nor has it closed its doors to admitting new members. Russia is unlikely to be totally convinced that NATO would cease further encroachment on its strategic space.

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also gave a positive assessment of the NRC summit. Addressing a press conference after the summit, he spoke of a conducive atmosphere for cooperation between NATO and Russia. While acknowledging that there remained differences of perception on a number of important issues, he said, “Now we are starting to build up our cooperation, and so I would agree overall that this is indeed an important stage in building a full and productive partnership between Russia and NATO.”

    Medvedev also said that Russia was willing to discuss with NATO all issues which cause concern to both sides. In particular, these relate to the European missile defence plans of NATO and the differences over the Caucasus crisis of 2008 which resulted in Russia recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia following a brief military operation, much to NATO’s chagrin.

    On European missile defence, Medvedev categorically stated that in its present shape NATO’s ballistic missile defence plan was targeted at Russia and that this was unacceptable. Russia will participate in a missile defence plan as an equal and as a partner on the basis of complete reciprocity and transparency. Thus, Russia wants an equal participation in NATO’s decision making process in so far as European ballistic missile defence plan is concerned. Russia is sceptical that NATO’s missile defence plan will change the nuclear deterrence equation which it finds unacceptable. Medvedev also warned that if the US senate failed to ratify the new START treaty, that will be counterproductive for peace.

    Russia has decided to step up cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan. It has signed several agreements with NATO on the supply of non-lethal materials to Afghanistan and also agreed to discuss the transit of military equipment. In an important development, Russia will also allow reverse transit from Afghanistan to other countries. These arrangements will help NATO maintain its supplies to Afghanistan which have come under repeated attacks in Pakistan.

    The NATO-Russia Council meeting at Lisbon promises the start of a new phase in Russia-NATO relations. But the relationship is complex and setbacks in future cannot be ruled out. NATO has still to accept the Russian proposal for a common security treaty. It is unlikely that NATO will recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. While Germany, Italy and France are for closer cooperation with Russia, countries like Poland and the Baltic republics are sceptical in this regard. Even on European missile defence, the ideas are not fully formed and discussions could prove tough. It is because of Afghanistan that NATO is turning towards Russia for help.

    Russia also needs NATO’s help. A confrontation with NATO could result in an expensive arms race which Russia, battered by the global economic crisis, can ill afford. Cooperation with NATO gives it a chance to play an important role in Afghanistan and to stem the unceasing flow of drugs from there. Russia is also considering selling arms to Afghanistan, which will help the Russian economy.

    The NRC summit meeting marks a promising beginning for both sides but it is too early to be complacent about the outcome of the engagement. Future cooperation will depend on what transpires during the difficult negotiations on European missile defence that lie ahead.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.