What’s happening with NATO – Russia relations?

This article explores the status of NATO-Russia relations in particular since the NATO Summit that took place in Lisbon in November of 2010. It is divided into three parts. The first section summarizes the history of NATO-Russia relations since the fall of Communism and the launching of the Partnership for Peace program in 1994. 

PART 1 of 3

Many political commentators celebrated the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Lisbon Summit on November 20th of last year as a significant success for NATO-Russia relations and an important step forward after the impasse of the 2008 Georgian Crisis. "We will leave behind us not only the Cold War, but also the post Cold War period …and will move forward," noted NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a BBC interview.

During the Summit, the Heads of State and Government of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) affirmed that they would increase cooperation on such issues as Theatre Missile Defense, Arms Control and the intervention in Afghanistan. Many saw the Summit as a step forward in the "reset" of relations with Russia under President Barack Obama's administration, and hoped that a new era of collaboration could now start. They argued that the warming of relations was also a result of a "new Russia" under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, which seemed more open to negotiation with NATO than Putin's Presidency had been. "All that we wanted to tell each other, but were afraid to earlier, was said today, and this makes me optimistic" Medvedev himself told journalists after the Summit. The logic was that as long as delicate issues such as the presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Transnistrian region of Moldova were not addressed head on, progress could be made in other areas of mutual interest through the NRC. "We underscore that the NRC is a forum for political cooperation at all times and on all issues, including where we disagree" the NRC's Joint Statement of the Lisbon Summit reads.

Since these declarations, media coverage over the progress of NATO-Russia relations has been largely overshadowed by other events such as the "Arab Spring", the death of Osama Bin Laden and NATO's military intervention in Libya. Notwithstanding this, on July 4-5 of this year, a NRC meeting took place in Sochi, Russia, that helped shed some light on the progress of the dialogue. It seems that, as has been mostly the case since the fall of Communism and the launching of the Partnership for Peace program in 1994, NATO and Russia are once again collaborating in some areas and remain at odds with each other in others.

NATO Russia Relations: Fifteen Years of Progress and Setbacks

If one briefly goes over the history of NATO-Russia relations over the last fifteen years or so, one can detect a pattern of alternating success and setback. As known, the NATO-Russia Council had its predecessor in the Permanent Joint Council (PJC), established by the "NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security" of 27th May 1997.

Though some progress in NATO-Russia relations was made during the PJC's first year and a half of activity, the Council would not prove strong enough to overcome the confrontation that occurred in March 1999 on the occasion of NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia. The breakdown was short lived and in July 1999 the PJC was re-established with the purpose of collaborating in the reconstruction efforts. Russia had realized that it would be against its own interest not to take an active role in that process and NATO thought that it was necessary to continue cooperation with Moscow, and to work together on common issues of strategic importance.

As known, the events of September 11th demonstrated the need for NATO to worry less about conventional threats by sovereign states and to re-focus its strategy on the fight against terrorism. One of the main ways to achieve this endeavor would be to include the participation of important global actors, such as Russia, which could play an essential role due to its strategic position, strong military and significant political experience. Thus, the solidarity originating from 9/11 was fundamental in creating the conditions for the NATO-Russia collaboration to take up a more advanced structure than under the PJC. In May of 2002 this was the main factor leading to the creation of the NRC in its present form, which attributed to Russia not only the co-decision rights but also the obligations inherent in participating in a consensus-based organization.

In establishing the NRC, the declaration titled "NATO-Russia Relations: a New Quality" reinforced the principle of consensus and offered a mechanism within which NATO and Russia could cooperate in nine areas: struggle against terrorism, crisis management, non proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, small arms control, theatre missile defense, research and maritime rescue, military cooperation and defense reform, civil emergencies and new threats to security. "The NATO-Russia Council will provide a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision, and joint action for the member states of NATO and Russia on a wide spectrum of security issues in the Euro-Atlantic region" the declaration reads. Notably, the document also included a "safeguard mechanism", by which any member could veto the continuation of the process in case of conflict with its own interests.

Looking at the decade or so of NATO-Russia relations, one can conclude that the general rapprochement has had the NRC as one of its main instruments. In this respect, the NRC can be said to have achieved several goals in the above-mentioned areas of intervention, most notably in the fight against terrorism. In 2003 for example, the Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI) was launched by the NRC to increase air traffic information exchange and help build confidence in case of airspace infringements. This Initiative has greatly increased air traffic transparency and serves as an early notification system of a terrorist hijacking for NRC members. The system reached full operational capacity in 2011 and has seen some important operative progress, as will be later discussed. Also, in December 2004, the NRC agreed on an Action Plan on Terrorism that laid out common areas of interest in which NATO and Russia could collaborate. This plan was fundamental in identifying a common direction and is subject to regular review. A NATO-Russia project on Counter-Narcotics training for Afghan, Central Asian and Pakistani personnel is also being carried out, and by June 2011 over 1500 personnel had been trained. The illegal drug business has been an important financial resource for terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, and the Counter-Narcotics Initiative is essentially aimed at reducing this type of income. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 the Russian Navy also participated in NATO's Operation Active Endeavor, NATO's anti-terrorism patrol in the Mediterranean. Such participation was subsequently halted due to the crisis in Georgia, however Russia confirmed its interest in resuming support for the mission on the occasion of the Lisbon Summit.

At the same time, the NRC has clearly shown its inability to deal with several major problems. One of the biggest failures was the inability to bring the NATO members to ratify the Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which was signed on the occasion of the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit. NATO member states were unwilling to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty until Russia fulfilled the political commitments it undertook on the occasion of the OSCE Summit, namely withdrawing its forces from Moldova and Georgia. Russia maintained that it had already fulfilled its Istanbul commitments, and eventually in November 2007 it withdrew from the Treaty.

Another major setback was the NRC’s inability to avoid the Georgian crisis in 2008. In that case there was a general Western criticism of Russia’s intervention, maintaining that the sovereignty of Georgia had been breached. The event led to another halting of NRC’s operation and the suspension for some time of the dialogue between NATO and Russia. In much the same way that the PJC was not able to prevent the crisis in the Balkans in the late 1990's, the NRC was not able to function as an early warning mechanism, nor as a forum for negotiating with Russia, a solution to respond to the crisis. Nonetheless, after the end of the turmoil, NATO-Russia relations returned to normal in March 2009.

But what have been the latest developments in NATO-Russia relations? It appears that, even though there has been some specific progress since the Lisbon Summit on some initiatives, the major collaboration that was hoped for is still not underway, notably in the area of strategic armaments.

The second part of this article will focus on the Theatre Missile Defense and other common initiatives. The third part will examine what has been Russia's position towards the NATO intervention in Libya and what the future perspectives of collaboration are.

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