Taking steps to reset Nato relations

Ever since US vice-president Joe Biden called for pressing a "reset" button in US-Russian relations, officials from both countries have been making tentative steps in that direction. But the thaw in relations should not obscure the need for improvement of the overall state of relations between Russia and the West.

To better coordinate their approach toward Moscow, Western countries should pursue all possible avenues - particularly in multilateral forums such as the European Union and Nato. As for Nato, its new secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has declared that improving the alliance's relations with Russia is one of his top priorities. Nevertheless, Moscow's rapprochement with Nato still stands on rather shaky grounds.

But the window of opportunity for the alliance and Russia to sort out their differences may slowly but surely be closing. Although further Nato enlargement has been put on a back burner, the pledge made by the alliance leaders at the Bucharest summit in 2008 states that Ukraine and Georgia should be able to obtain membership eventually. In many ways, this constitutes a significant fault line in Nato-Russian relations, which is further exacerbated by the potential renewal of tensions on Georgia's borders or in Crimea.

Steps to reset Nato-Russian relations need to be taken now. The key goal should be to construct more durable and effective building blocks for cooperation rather than to strive for quick fixes. Above all, the leaders of the alliance should make an unequivocal commitment to the Nato-Russia Council with an aim to transform it into a genuine pan-European security forum. Founded in Rome in 2002, the council has been hampered by crises of confidence, but neither Nato nor Moscow has walked away. Accordingly, we should treat the council as a primary venue for a sustained security dialogue between Russia and the alliance.

The willingness to discuss even the thorniest issues on the agenda, such as the situation in post-war Georgia or arms control in Europe after the collapse of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, could become instrumental in recovering lost trust. This might also prove appealing for the Kremlin leaders who have been calling for reforming the European security landscape to give Russia a larger voice on security issues in Europe.

Second, Nato and Russia should go the extra mile to intensify military-to-military cooperation. One of the apparently forgotten achievements of President Barack Obama's July visit to Moscow was the signing of a series of military agreements to deepen bilateral exchanges and joint exercises between the two countries. Nato should use this blueprint and try to increase cooperation with the Russian armed forces in order to strengthen day-to-day contacts between our military forces. In addition, Russia and Nato should boost joint peacekeeping and combined training, increase intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism, deploy joint maritime patrols and expand their cooperation in research and development with a focus on effective regional missile defences in Europe.

Although these areas have been pursued to varying degrees of success, they should be pursued more vigorously. This would help instill a sense of cooperation and confidence in the minds of army officers and civilian leaders on both sides. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's representative to Nato, has repeatedly said his country would like to play a more active role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. The alliance should invite Moscow and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to participate more in aspects of cooperative international efforts such as countering drug trafficking and returning peace to war-torn Afghanistan.

Nato leaders should encourage working closely together and insist that Russia do its part in whatever new joint endeavours the alliance and Russia undertake. The current Russian leadership may ask to play a more prominent role in joint projects, but the Kremlin needs to deliver on its promises.

In the meantime, the gradual increase and broadening of daily contacts between Nato and Russian officials should be encouraged because they will help build a more durable and trusting relationship.

Donald K. Bandler is a former career diplomat and special assistant to President Bill Clinton. Jakub Kulhanek is a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic.

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