The strained relations between NATO and Russia are on the mend. President Obama has promised to push the reset button and NATO has sent positive signals as well. Even Moscow, deeply troubled by the economic crisis. and cut down to normal size by decreasing oil prices, is striking a more conciliatory note.
Let there be no misunderstandings: The war in Georgia, the sabre-rattling vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia’s use of energy weapon threats have not been forgotten. At the same time, it was obvious that the ice age in Russia and NATO relations could not last, particularly since all NATO members had bilateral relations with Moscow.
However, any re-establishment of the NATO-Russia relationship has to be built on a sober assessment of Russia’s way of thinking. Different perceptions by NATO and Russia exist in at least four areas:
(1) NATO bases its threat assessments primarily on the intentions of a potential opponent. Russia, on the other hand, tends to perceive the geographical space (and the military capabilities therein) as a potential threat. This explains Russian longstanding protests against NATO’s enlargement process, which Moscow sees as an expansion of NATO toward Russian borders.
(2) Russia sees itself as a resurgent world power - more or less on the same eye level with the United States. This perception, however, is far removed from reality. Russia’s economy is still grounded mostly on selling energy and raw materials. Russia’s population is likely to drop below 100 million by 2050, leaving large parts of eastern Russia depopulated. The military, despite all the boastful announcements by the Russian leadership, remains grossly underfinanced and ill equipped for true global power projection.
(3) Russia continues to cultivate the obsession of being constantly misunderstood and isolated. In fact, Russia has always been included to the maximum extent possible. Russia was accepted into the group of the largest economic powers worldwide, the G-7, although it did not match up to the criteria. Russia has its role in the so-called “Middle East Quartet,” although still delivering weapons to Syria. Moreover, Russia constantly undermines international efforts to end Iran’s nuclear program.
(4) For NATO the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was first and foremost a forum for identifying fields of common interest and common action. On tricky issues, though, there was occasionally an agreement to disagree. Russia instead saw the Council primarily as a vehicle to take on the tricky issues and to have an impact on NATO’s decisionmaking processes. This, in turn, was unacceptable for NATO as an alliance of sovereign states.
Fortunately, diametrically different perceptions do not exclude cooperation. However, this must not be based on the illusion that collaboration alone can ignite Russia’s transformation toward freedom and democracy. Indeed, for NATO there can be no “business as usual” after the events of 2008.
Instead, cooperation with Russia should be based on four concrete areas:
- Afghanistan: There is a common interest in stabilizing the region of the Hindu-Kush that should lead to a number of projects for NATO’s cooperation with Russia. Securing transfer routes, providing overflight rights or common efforts to counter drug trafficking could be some of them.
- Arms Control: In both areas, nuclear weapons and conventional forces, amicable solutions are overdue. The Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe was suspended by Russia in 2007 and has been in limbo since then. The vast numbers of tactical nuclear weapons deployed on Russia’s European territory are not subject to any restrictions at all. However, arms control should no longer end up in the “bean counting” of the Cold War. The global economic crisis and shrinking defense budgets will already lead to further cuts in global military arsenals. Instead, negotiations should focus more on information and transparency - a goal NATO and Russia are both interested in.
- Arctic Security: The consequences of global warming will lead to fundamental changes in the Arctic region affecting NATO and Russia likewise. Melting ice-caps will open new shipping routes, providing new strategic options but also increasing the dangers of ecological disasters. The competition for oil and gas as well as territorial claims might be another potential source of tensions and conflicts. Thus, crisis management and confidence building must have the utmost priority and must be put into practice as early as possible.
- NATO-EU Cooperation vis-a-vis Russia: Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has suggested a new pan-European peace order - an idea affecting both NATO and the European Union. These suggestions merit serious debate. At the same time, given their Eurocentric orientation, the Russian proposals might be detrimental to the trans-Atlantic relationship. So, what can be more obvious than NATO and EU trying to find a common, cohesive answer?
Russia has a right to be taken seriously. At the same time, Russia will be measured by its deeds rather than by its words. Cooperation with Russia is possible as long it is not based on wishful thinking but on pragmatic steps and concrete projects.
Karl-Heinz Kamp is the research director of the NATO Defense College in Rome. The views expressed in this article are his own.