NATO and Russia continue to cooperate on many issues, especially within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). Primary areas of collaboration include maritime piracy, military exchanges, training exercises, terrorism, crisis management, WMD nonproliferation, small arms control, theatre missile defense, maritime rescue, defense reform, civil emergencies, and new security threats. In February, the heads of the NATO Military Committee and the Russian General Staff opened a direct communications hotline in their latest endeavor to promote mutual transparency and collaboration.
In recent years, the most visible element of Russian-NATO cooperation has concerned Afghanistan. The United States and other NATO countries now send about one-half of all their non-lethal supplies to their forces in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network, which includes supply lines through Russian territory. Moscow has also provided military assistance to the Kabul government, such as helicopters and counter-narcotics training, some of which is paid for by NATO countries. The changes in government in Ukraine and now Georgia have largely eliminated the prospects that these countries will soon join NATO, a previous source of Russia-NATO tensions. Ties between Moscow and many individual NATO countries have also improved in recent years.
Nonetheless, NATO-Russia relations have remained strained over the parties’ diverging regional security preferences and interests. Nothing on the horizon looks likely to resolve these differences. In a recent interview, the Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, stated that Russia wants pragmatic and predictable relations with NATO in approaching common threats. Grushko added that, despite speculation that the NRC format is outdated, cooperation is proceeding satisfactorily regarding maritime piracy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the situation in Afghanistan. However, Grushko joined other Russian analysts in citing serious NATO-Russia differences regarding missile defense, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, NATO membership enlargement, and other issues.
The most serious dispute is still over NATO’s missile defense program, which Russians claim threatens their nuclear deterrent. Russia also disagrees with the Alliance’s use of force in Libya, its stationing of Patriot air defense missiles in Turkey, and NATO’s continuing membership enlargement and installation of military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. Another dispute is NATO’s refusal to adopt the CFE Treaty, which Moscow sees as helping to constrain NATO’s conventional military superiority in Europe, unless Russian troops withdraw from Moldova and the occupied territories of Georgia. Russia refuses NATO governments demand that Moscow reduce and consolidate its massive holding of tactical nuclear weapons.
Above all, Russian representatives argue that NATO has failed to treat Russia as an equal on European security issues and has ignored Moscow’s insistence that European security is indivisible. Russian officials complain that NATO’s preeminent role in European security harms their national security since they have little influence on Alliance decisions, but they also object to the activities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), especially what they see as its Western-dominated agenda of promoting liberal democracy in the former Soviet republics. They want a new European Security Treaty that would guarantee an equal and indivisible treatment of European security. Western officials reject Moscow’s proposed treaty as a vague attempt to weaken NATO without establishing anything superior in its place.
Most NATO leaders consider Russia less as an imminent military threat and more as an important actor to be managed. The landmark NATO Strategic Concept adopted in 2010 declares that “NATO poses no threat to Russia…we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia…the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined.” NATO leaders have stressed their shared interests with Russia and their mutual threats. They have sought modest cooperation on specific projects in those areas where NATO and Russia share interests. Similarly, the May 2012 Chicago Summit declaration states that “we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia,” though the Allies add that “we will act accordingly, with the expectation of reciprocity from Russia.”
But the current effort to reorient NATO-Russia relations from conflicting issues—previously Yugoslavia and the Baltic states, now missile defense—and towards their shared interests has proved difficult. Russian policy makers still often interpret the same threats differently and therefore favor diverging solutions. For example, Russian officials do not believe NATO assurances that the Alliance’s policies actually enhance Moscow’s security by creating a belt of prosperous liberal democracies around Russia or by addressing the common menaces of WMD proliferation and Islamist terrorism.
Russian policy makers view their country as an important European power that should be consulted on all major European security questions. For geopolitical, historical, and other reasons, Moscow governments tend to treat all the former Soviet bloc countries as falling within a special Russian security zone. Perhaps for this reason, Russian leaders react extremely negatively when NATO offers membership to these countries or establishes military facilities or ballistic missile defenses in them. Also for this reason, the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states have frequently signaled their alarm about Russian foreign and defense policies. Some East European leaders have also expressed concern that the United States will sacrifice their security interests to reach an accommodation with Russia on missile defense or other issues.
In some cases, complementary interests and policies can bridge this gap. For example, NATO-Russia cooperation regarding Afghanistan persists because Moscow would rather have NATO fight the Islamist extremists in Afghanistan and Central Asia than have to do it themselves. Therefore the Russian government allows NATO countries to send personnel, equipment, and other goods through its territory to support their forces in Afghanistan. Russia also contributes small arms and ammunition to the Afghan National Security Forces; sells MI-17 helicopters and provides maintenance training to the Afghan Air Force as part of a NRC Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund; and joins with NATO in training counter-narcotics personnel from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan.
But in many other instances, the gap between NATO and Russia is too large to paper over. Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is perhaps the best current example of this problem. Russian officials attack NATO BMD on several grounds. They claim that NATO does not face a plausible missile near-term threat from Iran; that the link between strategic offensive and defensive forces means that NATO’s growing missile defense capabilities invariably weaken Russia’s offensive nuclear forces; that NATO provides Russia with too little information about its BMD plans; and that NATO could arm its BMD interceptors in East Central Europe with nuclear warheads and use them to inflict a devastatingly rapid first-strike against Russia’s nuclear deterrent. They criticize the boundless and open-ended nature of the NATO and U.S. BMD plans, which continue to develop in regions around Russia (Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe); and the proximity of NATO’s BMD assets to Russia’s strategic forces, which Russians see as increasing their vulnerability to NATO interception. Russian officials demand that NATO accept “legally binding” limits on its BMD deployments, with specific “military-technical criteria” as constraints, such as ceilings on the speed of the interceptor missiles, the number and location of Aegis-equipped BMD ships, and other restrictions.
NATO officials have tried to address Russian objections through a bottom-up approach that would start with progress on small joint projects as a means to generate trust and momentum for more comprehensive BMD cooperation over time. For example, NATO representatives have been trying to establish a joint Russia-U.S. missile defense data fusion center and a joint planning and operation center for coordinated (not joint) defense against missile threats. They also favor expanded information exchanges and other transparency measures provided they do not compromise NATO operational secrets or impede the development and use of NATO’s missile defense architecture.
Yet, they have been unwilling to yield on other areas. NATO leaders argue that an explicit legal guarantee that the Alliance would never use its BMD capabilities against Russia is unnecessary because the 1997 Founding Act already included a non-aggression obligation. Whereas Russia wants NATO BMD to develop in a predictable and constrained manner, NATO officials refuse to limit their BMD options since they see the potential missile threat is unlimited. The U.S. Congress and perhaps other NATO legislatures would also resist adopting a formal treaty that could weaken their self-defense capabilities.
The systems that NATO could possibly build in coming decades, whether in Europe or elsewhere, cannot seriously undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent given its massive size and great sophistication. Some NATO analysts suspect that the Russian government needs a NATO threat for domestic reasons or wants to keep NATO vulnerable to other countries’ missile systems to decrease NATO’s willingness to intervene in foreign military conflicts such as Bosnia, Libya, or Syria—all interventions Moscow opposed.
Serious divergence exists regarding other elements of Europe’s security architecture. Especially since the August 2008 Georgia War, Russian leaders have complained about being marginalized in Europe’s NATO-dominated security architecture. Russia has sought to rectify this situation by proposing a new European Security Treaty, whose provisions would prohibit countries from taking actions—which for many Russians would exclude further NATO enlargement—that could impinge on others’ security. The treaty’s main thrust is to reduce NATO’s preeminent status by mandating that the Alliance adhere to certain core legal principles, such as not using military force without the explicit approval of the UN Security Council—a recurring Russian objective since 1999, when NATO undertook a major bombing campaign in Kosovo against Serbia, Moscow’s main ally in the Balkans, circumventing Moscow’s veto in the UN Security Council. But NATO officials have constantly dismissed or challenged the need for such a treaty, arguing that Russia could find a home within Europe’s security architecture within existing frameworks, including as a partner—but not a member—of NATO.
Western leaders have also defended the continuing comprehensive security embodied in the OSCE and the original 1975 Helsinki Agreement. These made sure to balance security issues with two other “baskets,” economics and democracy. NATO officials have insisted that European security treaties and other agreements respect such core OSCE principles as inviolability of national frontiers; the territorial integrity of states; peaceful settlement of disputes; and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to free and fair elections. Russian officials consider the OSCE as an inefficient and unbalanced institution that focuses its efforts on criticizing former Soviet governments for alleged human rights and democracy flaws while neglecting to address more serious security challenges.
NATO and Russia have yet to agree how to revive the CFE Treaty, which has been hobbled since the Russian government suspended its implementation of the accord on December 12, 2007. Moscow unilaterally ceased participating in the treaty’s data exchanges, inspections and notifications. The official justification was NATO governments’ unwillingness to ratify an adapted version of the treaty adopted at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul or to replace it with a new arms control and security agreement for Europe. Russian opposition to NATO’s membership enlargement and its missile defense programs contributed to the Russian CFE suspension.
The Russian Foreign Policy Concept calls for measures to “bring the conventional arms control regime in Europe into line with the current reality.” In Moscow’s view, one of the original treaty’s main flaws was that it was predicated on the existence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which no longer reflects the current security situation in Europe. The amended CFE Treaty applies to individual countries rather than blocs. Moscow also wants the treaty to regulate the armaments of the new NATO member states, such as the Baltic countries, which joined NATO after the original CFE Treaty entered into force. NATO members have refused to ratify the adapted treaty until Russia first complies with its commitments under the original CFE Treaty and its Istanbul Commitments to remove its combat troops from Georgia and Moldova. After Russia rejected various NATO proposals to revive the talks, in November 2011, NATO leaders also stopped implementing certain CFE obligations regarding Russia pending Moscow’s resuming its CFE obligations.
NATO governments want Russia to reduce its massive holdings of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), which by some estimates are 10–20 times larger than those of NATO Europe. Russian military strategists are not eager to negotiate these weapons away. They consider their robust TNW stockpile potentially useful for, among other goals, deterring a NATO first strike against Russia’s smaller number of strategic nuclear forces, enhancing Russia’s ability to overcome any NATO BMD system, and compensating for Russia’s conventional force weaknesses in a possible conflict with NATO, China, or other countries. When asked what they might require to reduce or eliminate this capacity, Russian representatives have called for limiting French and British nuclear forces, removing all U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in foreign countries, and for other major NATO concessions. Russian experts might plausibly anticipate that NATO will keep reducing and perhaps soon eliminate its TNWs unilaterally, without Moscow having to make any concessions in exchange.
The recurring waves of NATO enlargement have generated the most longstanding Russian complaints. According to the 2013 Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, “Russia maintains a negative attitude towards NATO’s expansion and the approaching of NATO military infrastructure to Russia’s borders in general as…actions that violate the principle of equal security.” Russians claim that NATO leaders promised they would never establish military bases in former Soviet bloc countries in return for the Russian decision to allow Germany’s unification within NATO and to dissolve the Warsaw Pact. Russian leaders have since seemingly reconciled themselves to NATO’s granting full membership to its former Warsaw Pact allies and the Baltic states, but they continue to oppose membership for Georgia or Ukraine.
NATO governments still profess an open door regarding further Alliance membership for any European democracy. The Chicago Summit communiqué reaffirmed that NATO maintains an open membership policy for any European democracy that wants to join, has reformed its security sector along liberal democratic lines, and would make a net addition to Alliance security, such as by bringing new security capabilities into the Alliance. The communiqué endorsed the progress of the four aspiring NATO members—Bosnia, Georgia, Montenegro, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—but gave no timetable for accession. Still, the extent to which NATO will enlarge further—and the pace that it might do so—appears largely beyond the Alliance’s control. Those states that could most easily enter NATO—Sweden and Finland—do not want to do so, while the country that most eagerly seeks to join the Alliance, Georgia, faces what appears to be an enduring membership hold from Moscow, since NATO governments will not accept any country as a new member if it has an active foreign or domestic conflict. The newly elected Georgia Dream coalition in Georgia has expressed interest in improving bilateral relations with Russia. However, it also reaffirmed Georgia’s pro-Western orientation and commitment to “reestablish [the] territorial integrity of the country.” Russia continues to insist that the Republics of Abkhazia and of South Ossetia, occupied by Russian military forces in the August 2008 War, are independent states. That war has made some NATO policy makers more conscientious of the security risks of offering membership to countries under threat of military attack. In addition, the global recession has generated NATO concerns about assuming new security commitments when Allied defense budgets are already strained.
Tensions persist even with regard to Afghanistan. Although Russian leaders want to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, they do not want NATO to establish an enduring presence in Central Asia or to encourage NATO to intervene in areas outside of its traditional North Atlantic focus. Moscow has never fully supported NATO’s use of force in the former Yugoslavia, North Africa, or Central Asia. In Afghanistan, Russian government representatives constantly criticize NATO forces for not cracking down sufficiently hard on local narcotics production or its export throughout Eurasia. Afghan and Allied commanders are unwilling to take the risk of antagonizing the local population and facilitating Taliban recruitment by aerial spraying of herbicides, as Moscow has long demanded. The Russian government has also tried to induce NATO to deal directly with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of the most pro-Russian of the former Soviet republics, on Afghanistan and other Eurasian security issues. NATO has proved reluctant to deal directly with the CSTO rather than by bilaterally with its individual members for fear of legitimizing Moscow’s primacy in the former Soviet Union. Another reason Moscow wants to establish regular NATO-CSTO consultations is that Russian officials want to move beyond intermittent briefings they receive from NATO on Afghanistan and instead establish “a permanent mechanism for consultations with Moscow on the Afghan issue.”
Last month, the Obama administration decided to cancel the program to design and deploy advanced interceptor missiles in East Central Europe in the next decade, which would have represented the fourth phase of the administration’s phased adopted approach to European missile defense announced in 2009. The United States has therefore eliminated the NATO BMD plan that Russian analysts insisted would most threaten their nuclear deterrent. For example, last year Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that “the final stage will see the creation of an infrastructure and potential that will pose real risks for our nuclear deterrent.”
Yet, Russian officials initially downgraded the importance of the changes. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the U.S. government has denied that the decision was “a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such… All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a U.S. and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain.” Russian officials add that U.S. missile defenses outside Europe (including those based in the United States) that will still proceed will threaten the viability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. They therefore continue to insist on legal restraints on the growth of the Western BMD program in Europe and elsewhere. According to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, “The new plan shows that the United States continues to adhere to a course aimed at strengthening its global anti-missile defenses and increasing their effectiveness. We believe this confirms the need to work out reliable, legally binding guarantees that American missile defense efforts are not aimed against Russia.” At their recent summit, the Russian and Chinese governments again jointly criticized U.S. missile defense policies.
The Russian policy of rejecting all recent NATO BMD initiatives and outreach efforts as inadequate, including the 2009 and 2013 elimination of the missile defense plans that Russia considered most threatening, has deepened suspicions that the Russian government will always oppose NATO BMD—perhaps out of genuine security concerns, perhaps for domestic political reasons (the need to depict NATO as threatening to justify a domestic crackdown or greater Russian defense spending).
The Russian Ministry of Defense will host an international conference on European security in late May. It has invited representatives from all European countries as well as the main European security organizations to what it calls a “brainstorming” session on how to improve European security. The venue could offer a welcome opportunity for NATO and Russia to declare their BMD dispute solved and move on to address more important and urgent issues, especially how to ensure security in Eurasia following the withdrawal of most NATO combat forces from Afghanistan next year.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.