Gregor Konzack and Christian Franz interviewed Natalia Burlinova at the Munich Security Conference. Natalia Burlinova was part of the Munich Young Leaders Round Table of the Koerber Foundation. She talks about the problems Russia has with NATO enlargement and the new Europe-based missile defense shield and the possibility of Russia joining the NATO one day. 

NATO Russia Relations: Interview with Natalia Burlinova

Gregor Konzack and Christian Franz interviewed Natalia Burlinova at the Munich Security Conference. Natalia Burlinova was part of the Munich Young Leaders Round Table of the Koerber Foundation. She talks about the problems Russia has with NATO enlargement and the new Europe-based missile defense shield and the possibility of Russia joining the NATO one day. 

Q - We are wondering if the new threats to global security which you wrote about in your PhD, such as terrorism, cyber security, or environmental degradation, create more commonalities between NATO and Russia.

A- I can say that relations between NATO and Russia are very difficult. Although we have already passed the spirit of the Cold War, we still have many disagreements. I would say we have a different perception of our world and of regional situations.

As for common global threats such as terrorism, we support our allies and we support our friends. President Putin was the first to call President Bush after the attacks of September 11. Russia has a lot of terrorist attacks and regional instability in some parts of our country. So we are familiar with this and we understand all the consequences of this threat, which we are facing all together today.

The second threat we are facing today is regional instability. We are observing many regional conflicts, especially in the Middle East, from Tunisia to Afghanistan; and simultaneously, the rise of extremism and radical religious movements. This is something that harms us all.

Q - Many NATO leaders are pronouncing that Russia should be incorporated into this missile shield and that it should become a common project. We are wondering whether the new missile shield is perceived as a threat to Russian security. What could NATO offer Russia, to make Russia appreciate this project?

A- This is a very old threat concerning our defense system. It was President Medvedev who suggested this missile defense system to our NATO colleagues; this was just before the NATO Lisbon Summit. 

I was a participant in the Young Leaders Meeting at the NATO Summit in Lisbon and I asked the General Secretary of NATO if they are ready to build a united missile defense system with Russia. He said, “No, we are not because there is always the question, who is going to press the button. Americans, Russians or Europeans?”.

As far as I see, Europeans are ready to give this right to their American colleagues and allies, but they are not ready to give this right to the Russian side. I understand why, but I also understand my country when we disagree with the situation in which we have no influence on this defense system within NATO since we are not a member. We don’t have any chance to influence this decision making process within NATO.

This missile defense system preoccupies us a lot because we don’t believe this is against Iran. If this were about Iran, why do Americans and NATO need elements of this missile defense system in Japan and Canada? So if these elements are not against Iran, then against whom?

Q - Would it be possible then to give this control to another organization which includes both parties; like the OSCE for example? Do you think the OSCE could bridge this gap between NATO and Russia by taking a more active role in the European security architecture?

A- You mean the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Unfortunately I think this organization has already died. And it died in the beginning of the ‘90s because we missed the opportunity to develop this organization. First, it was a conference, and then it became an organization. We missed the opportunity to make this organization the real European base for security because the role of NATO has become so big after the collapse of the Cold War that everybody forgot about the OSCE.

Q - With the new US military strategy and their retreat from Europe, could this open new ways of cooperating with the European Union? 

A- Russia expected the European Union to develop its own security system on the basis of the European Union, the so-called third pillar of security. But today we mostly see that Europeans decided to leave security questions to NATO. Today we had a chance to build a very strong cooperation with Europe within this European security system, but again we missed it.

Russia cooperates with NATO in some aspects: We have a very good cooperation on Afghanistan and Russia does the NATO a big favor in terms of transit via the territory of Russia. But fully cooperating with NATO is a big issue for us because there is still a question of trust. As Minister Lavrov said today, we always should remember the Russian-American saying; ‘Trust, but check’. This is part of our relations with the US from both sides.

Q - Now that the dependency on Russian oil has dropped from nearly 50% to 25% in the last few years, Russia is losing influence in Europe. Do you think the Russian Federation compensates for this loss through aggression towards its nearer neighbors, for example, as in the 2008 war with Georgia?

A- You combine very different things. As for our oil resources, it is a good thing that Europe is not so dependent on us anymore because it enables the Russian economy to be modernized. As a citizen of Russia, I don’t want the economy of my country to be only dependent on oil and gas. I want it to be more productive. Now we start thinking about modernizing our economy and building it up on different bases. Why did you connect this oil and gas issue with the war in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Q - I thought of Russia losing influence in the international sphere. 

A- But this conflict has nothing to do with losing influence. This conflict was about the reaction of Russia to the situation in the region. Georgia was not an importer or exporter of our oil and gas.

Q - No, I thought about NATO expansion with a more western encirclement in Russia, simultaneously with the loss of western dependency on Russian oil.

A- The position of my country was to protect civilians in this region and we have an international report on the beginning of this war, of who started this war. This report was prepared by the European Commission, not by the Russian side. And we have a clear answer that the first step was made by President Saakaschwili, his step destroyed the stability in this region. Before this, Russia never insisted on the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. We were mediators in the process of peace cooperation.

We are against this NATO enlargement in terms of including new countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova because these are our closest neighbors. This means that NATO will have a border with Russia, as we already have in the north with the Baltic States. But this is a different issue because we are speaking about the Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. These are three countries which historically are very connected with Russia, and this is a question of history and geopolitics, not just about economic enlargement.

We have integration processes by the current Russian government on the post-Soviet space.  We have launched a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, so economies were united. It is an obviously positive thing because in the period of the Soviet Union these economies were one, they were very interdependent and closely connected. And we have also launched the initiative of a Eurasian Union, the counterpart to the European Union.
Q - Most attempts to reconcile the European Union, the NATO and Russia have failed so far. Where do you think we will be in 2025? Do you think the rise of China will change the geopolitical situation to a point where there is no threat from Europe anymore?

A - I’m not Nostradamus, so I’m not able to predict all the threats which will appear in a few years. I strongly believe that Russia and NATO should cooperate. Who knows, maybe one day, Russia will become a member of NATO. The European Union is a different case: Russia keeps it sovereignty very strong. Joining the EU means giving a part of your sovereignty to Brussels, to the European Commission. Russia is not ready for that and we’ll never be ready because we are a big power with a big territory.

As for NATO, why not. Mr. Putin has already made statements about the possibility of Russia joining the NATO. We should not forget that Europe and Russia also are facing migration problems. And mostly these are the immigrants from the Muslim world, so if the Muslim world is getting radicalized, who knows what will happen in five years in Europe, in Germany and in Russia. I see the main threat in the future in religious extremism because that is what we observe in the Middle East and the North of Africa. We must be united in the face of this radicalism and must be ready to act and respond.