Future Perspectives of the NATO-Russia Relationship

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 part summarized the history of NATO-Russia relations since the fall of Communism and the launching of the Partnership for Peace program in 1994. The second part focused on the Theatre Missile Defense and other common initiatives. The third part examines what has been Russia's position towards the NATO intervention in Libya and what the future perspectives of collaboration are.

PART 3 of 3

NATO Intervention in Libya

Russia's posture regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO's) intervention in the Libyan conflict gives an example of the ambiguous character of Russian relations with NATO. Following international condemnation of Gaddafi's use of lethal force on Libyan civilians, particularly by the leaders of France, Great Britain and the United States, United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 were passed in February and March of 2011 respectively. Resolution 1970 condemned the killing of Libyan civilians and imposed an arms embargo on weapons being imported or exported from Libya. It also imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on individuals that were part of or closely linked to Gaddafi's regime. Resolution 1973 authorized the international community to establish a no-fly zone and to "use all necessary means" short of a foreign military occupation of the country, to protect civilians. NATO implemented these resolutions with a “high operational tempo” against the Government's forces, and its intervention was pivotal in allowing the rebel forces to defeat Gaddafi's regime.

Russia voted in favor of UN Resolution 1970 and abstained from voting on UN Resolution 1973. This was hailed by some political commentators as an indication that the "reset" of relations was indeed working. They claimed that Russia would no longer go "out of its way" to counteract US Foreign Policy as it had done in the past. Nevertheless, the Russian response to NATO's intervention as reported in the media was critical. At one point Putin even went so far as to compare the UN Security Council resolution to a medieval call for a crusade. The Foreign Minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, reiterated this critical view when he declared: "We consider that certain actions by NATO in Libya do not correspond to its mandate." In an interview with the EU Observer on September 1st, the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin affirmed: "The war was the end-stage of Nato's eastern expansion. From now on, Nato will expand toward its southern borders, it will project its efforts toward the South, toward traditional Islamic societies". However Russia's criticism of NATO's mission was far less confrontational in other moments. Indeed, during the Nato-Russia Council (NRC) meeting in July in Sochi, in a trilateral encounter between Rasmussen, Medvedev and South African President Jacob Zuma, the Russian PM's comments were quite toned down when he stated: "We look at Libya's future practically identically, and everyone would like Libya to be a modern State, naturally, and a sovereign and democratic State."

These seemingly inconsistent declarations have some strategic reasons behind them. Under the Gaddafi regime Russia had important economic interests in Libya such as a 2.2 billion euro equivalent railway contract, a 3.2 billion euro weapons contract, and millions of euro equivalent invested in oil and gas exploration. Naturally, the regime change puts all of these economic interests into jeopardy. Indeed, Vladimir Chamov, the ex Russian Ambassador to Libya, allegedly told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets that endangering profitable ties with Muammar Gaddafi's government was "a betrayal of Russia's interests."

More in general, the Kremlin is also worried that the Arab Spring might have a spillover effect into the Russian Federation, which is already subject to strong separatist and Islamist movements in North Caucasus, as well as in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. In comments broadcasted on national television, Medvedev told Uzbek President Islam Karimov last June that he hoped events in the region would advance "in a way that is clear and predictable for us… Everything that relates to providing for regional security and stability, and consequently what is occurring in North Africa and the Middle East, cannot fail to concern Russia and Uzbekistan".

At the same time, the Russians realized that it would be in their best interest to keep good relations with the new regime. Had Russia blocked the UN resolutions, there would have been no guarantee that a non-UN mandated coalition of say France, the UK and the USA would have not intervened all the same, and that the Gaddafi regime would not be eventually overthrown. On the other hand, a Russian veto would have ensured that the Libyan rebels would stay away from collaborating economically with Russia. A Russian veto would also have caused a cooling of relations with western countries, a particularly untimely move as a meeting of NRC’s Foreign Ministers was about to take place in April in Berlin shortly after the UN vote.

Another important aspect to take into consideration is that Russia does not want to promote NATO's ongoing trend of taking part in operations outside its traditional North Atlantic geographic area of activity. As is known, after the fall of Communism NATO’s focus of interest expanded to “out of area” parts of the world, first the Balkans and the Middle East, then Afghanistan then, with a few humanitarian interventions in Asia and America, up to a level considered by some at least potentially worldwide. The Russians have constantly tried to check this geographical expansion of NATO activity and this was most recently demonstrated in September, when Russia rejected a UN proposed resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown on protestors. Having learnt their lesson from Libya, Russia (and China for that matter which also voted against,) did not want to see a doorway open for a possible NATO intervention in Syria. Indeed, Damascus remains a close ally of the Kremlin's and hosts a Soviet-era naval base in Tartus.

Future Perspectives of the NATO-Russia Relationship

In conclusion, in the several years since its establishment, the NRC has been a useful venue for collaboration in a wide range of areas of common interest between NATO and Russia. Even when their relationship was at its lowest, the NRC ensured that there never was a complete breakdown of the dialogue. Both sides remain aware that modern day political undertakings remain global in nature. Furthermore, many areas of mutual common interest exist between NATO and Russia. However, whether the progress made at the 2010 Lisbon Summit will succeed in having a major impact on the relationship and make it less unstable is a point that remains to be seen.

The joint proposal for a Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system was a major achievement of the Lisbon Summit. A failure in the negotiations relating to its implementation would have dire consequences for the NATO-Russia relationship and for the vitality of the NRC. Should the present stand-off not be solved, the Russian leaders have threatened the start of a new arms race with the positioning of tactical missile systems targeted against Europe on Russia's western borders such as in the Kaliningrad enclave. Although such an arms race between NATO and Russia remains quite unrealistic, and both sides are facing a difficult economic period in which increased military spending is not possible, failure to agree on TMD would undoubtedly have a spill-over effect that would cause a stalemate in other common initiatives as well.

Following the meeting of the NRC Defense Ministers in June, Secretary General Rasmussen noted that there was still some time to reach agreement: “…I have a summit in May next year as my time horizon. I would expect us to make steady progress. It will be hard work but I am still optimistic. I think at the end of the day we can reach a solution." During the Sochi meeting in July, the May 2012 summit in Chicago was once again mentioned as the proposed timeline. "My hope is that we can all meet again in less than a year at the NATO summit in Chicago, and that we will be able to agree on a solution on missile defense that can make the security of NATO territory and of Russian territory more effective. Let's build the path of partnership together, from Sochi to Chicago" Rasmussen said. There seems to be a genuine hope that in Obama's home city progress can be made and no one is advocating this more than NATO's Secretary General.

But the clock is ticking, and unless both sides are able to make some concessions, there is the possibility that the TMD negotiation will fail. There is also the question of how the 2012 US Presidential election will affect the NRC's progress. The Obama campaign is well underway and Chicago will host its headquarters. Should the President appear amongst the American public as too yielding to Russian interests it would definitely be held against him. In the case that a Republican candidate prevails who will be less likely to make concessions to the Russians, the NRC will probably have a harder time reaching new agreements on major issues such as TMD.

The announcement in September that Putin will run for the Russian Presidential election in 2012 does not substantially change things on the Russian side. An excessive enthusiasm following the Lisbon Summit led some political commentators to speculate that since Medvedev was more "western leaning" than Putin he was therefore more open to collaboration with NATO. The reality of the situation is that Putin ultimately controls Medvedev's decisions, and that the two have engaged in a "good cop/bad cop" strategy when dealing with the West. Should the Russian leadership support the hostile sentiment held by the majority of the population, a substantial step forward will not be made. In recent times NATO and the Obama administration have extended a hand, yet it appears that Russia still views cooperation with NATO as a zero-sum game. In this case the pattern of progress and setback in the relationship that has been described above will continue in the future. Quite on the contrary, let’s hope that Rasmussen’s stated optimism will eventually prove right.

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