Barely on speaking terms: A rough road ahead for Russia and NATO

Moscow and the alliance will have to learn to live in a state of antagonism. Source: Reuters

Moscow and the alliance will have to learn to live in a state of antagonism. Source: Reuters

The recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels has only underlined the divisions between the alliance and Russia, with Moscow expressing its displeasure at the results. It is clear that, with relations between the two parties in the deep freeze, the next few years will be a period of tension. Yet while some Russian observers argue that both sides need to take steps toward reconciliation, others claim that the onus is on NATO to initiate a rapprochement.

Moscow has reacted sharply to the decisions taken at the recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. According to Russian diplomats, NATO is not willing to enter into an equal partnership with Russia and is exploiting the confrontation over Ukraine to expand its military potential. Even though Russian experts think NATO has no desire for another Cold War, they see no prospects for neutral relations in the coming years.

The central topic of discussion in Brussels was the establishment of a potential military unit on high alert within the NATO Response Force that would be able to deploy in just a few days in the case of a military threat from Russia. Meanwhile, experts are urging officials not to attach great importance to an expanded NATO military presence in Eastern Europe.

“The rapid response unit will not be used outside the NATO countries. This is about giving security guarantees to the alliance’s Eastern European members, like the Baltic states,” said Timofei Bordachev, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

“Russia has no need to respond to these decisions by the NATO foreign ministers,” said Andrei Sushentsov, a managing partner at the Foreign Policy analytical agency. “First of all, the threats they voiced (such as the deployment of rapid response forces) are illusory. Secondly, Russia has sufficient forces to deflect any threats that might for whatever reason pass from the realm of the illusory into reality. Thirdly, an answer on Russia’s part would mean a further escalation of the situation, which would not be beneficial to Moscow.”

The parties to the Brussels meeting also made statements regarding the situation in Ukraine. They urged Russia to exercise its influence over the separatists and withdraw its forces from Ukraine (Russia denies any military presence in its neighbor’s territory), restore Ukraine’s sovereignty, and fulfill all the items in the Minsk peace agreements.

Despite the criticism it has leveled against Russia, NATO does not want to enter a new Cold War and is still holding out hopes for constructive relations with Russia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Asked by RBTH whether there is any possibility of rebuilding ties with Russia in the future, the Norwegian official used his native country as an example – Norway maintained entirely normal political and business relations with the Soviet Union, even at the height of the Cold War.

Far from normal relations

However, Russia’s envoy to NATO Alexander Grushko expressed skepticism over the prospects of resuming the work of the Russia-NATO Council. “I don’t see any need to call the Council at the moment, given the fact that NATO is adhering to the position it formed on April 1 of this year,” he said. On that date, NATO terminated all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia due to its position on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

In an interview with RBTH, the chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Fyodor Lukyanov said there are no Russia-NATO relations to speak of at this point. “The rhetoric of confrontation has been revived amid a lack of opportunity to invest resources in that confrontation. There simply aren’t sufficient quantities [of resources]. With NATO this is already obvious, and it will soon be obvious with Russia, when even the defense sector will start to feel the economic crisis,” Lukyanov said.

NATO is not mentally ready for a confrontation with Russia, he said, adding that “there is a desire to exploit the situation to breathe new life into the dilapidated alliance.” In his opinion, NATO is trying “to show firmness without provoking” Russia.

According to Grushko, Russia and NATO could restore their rapport if the latter were to reconsider the decisions it has made with respect to Russia. “Then we’ll see in which areas cooperation can yield concrete results,” he added.

“These [areas of cooperation] are primarily the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, the fight against terrorism, challenges like nuclear weapons proliferation, the struggle against piracy – basically, everything we did in conjunction with the alliance in the framework of the Russia-NATO Council,” he explained. “The ball is in NATO’s court,” he said, adding that “Russia-NATO relations are close to freezing point.”

According to Timofei Bordachev from the Higher School of Economics, “Russia will respond to NATO’s new strategy by expanding its defense capabilities, which is already happening. So we shouldn’t expect relations between Russia and NATO to normalize in the next three to five years.”

According to Sushentsov, one of the key issues in Russia-NATO relations is mutual misunderstanding. “NATO’s leadership is trying to pressure Moscow because it believes Russia can only speak in the language of force. That is a very dangerous delusion. Russia, which sees that pressure even when it is really taking colossal strides to stabilize the situation in Ukraine, is drawing its own conclusions,” he said.

“That’s why the Russian leaders are rejecting any sort of compromise solutions and behaving according to the logic of conflict. If they want to end that vicious circle, NATO and Russia need to jointly try to work out some rules of coexistence.”

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