Re-thinking the NATO-Russia Strategic Partnership

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s bid to promote closer relations with Russia suffers from excess caution and lack of imagination. In Brussels, just as in Washington, an antiquated Cold War mentality still holds sway.

Re-thinking the NATO-Russia Strategic Partnership

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

“We must all aim for a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia sees herself reflected.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, Brussels, 18 September 2009

“At issue is the establishment of a truly universal system of collective security in the Euro-Atlantic area with the full integration of Russia in it.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Moscow, 1 September 2008

During last week the international press had a great deal of new material to digest with respect to Russia’s relations with the West and European security issues. On Thursday, 17 September President Barack Obama formally announced the U.S. decision to shelve plans for building anti-missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. The next day, speaking in Brussels before the Carnegie Foundation for Peace, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen devoted his first major policy speech to the subject of improving NATO-Russian relations. Taken together these events prompted wide commentary in the media about the practical implementation of the policy of ‘re-setting’ relations with Russia first announced by the Obama administration soon after its accession to power in January.

Let us begin this brief analysis with a look at the speech of the NATO Secretary General, which was probably the least expected of the two media events by foreign policy professionals and had greater impact on chancelleries all across Europe among the NATO members states. By contrast, the missile defense issue tended to be primarily an impasse between Russia and the United States, affecting their bilateral relations, with a secondary locus of interest in the Czech Republic and Poland, which were to host the system.

The speech which NATO Secretary General Rasmussen delivered on 18 September, “NATO and Russia: A New Beginning,” must be seen in the context of rethinking NATO strategy per the marching orders he was given at the time of his appointment this past spring. Though it may be merely coincidental, his speech follows rather quickly on a specific and controversial proposal for improving relations with Russia published by veteran Cold Warrior and now Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Brzezinski identified Russia as one of four priority issues facing the North Atlantic Alliance now that it contemplates reform to meet the challenges of a new century. In the on-line edition, the Editors informed their readers already in the first days of September that Rasmussen had told them he would study the proposal closely.

How can we characterize the Rasmussen speech?

First, there is an appearance of honesty or, at least, transparency of reasoning. Rasmussen tells us that he decided to dedicate his first speech to Russia because the relationship holds the greatest potential for progress among those with NATO’s Partners given how it has been burdened by what he calls ‘misperceptions, mistrust and diverging political agendas.’

And yet his speech goes on to demonstrate that this conscientious new Secretary General is wholly unimaginative, a creature of conventional thinking. He offers in the space of 9 typewritten pages what is, shall we say, a pedestrian attempt to identify opportunities for enhanced cooperation. There is no objective set by Rasmussen which could remotely be called ‘transformational.’ In the first minute of his speech, he tells us that he is no ‘dreamer,’ and, alas, it is only too true.

His speech is divided into three parts:

1)A list of practical steps to extend cooperation between Russia and NATO such as in the fight against terrorism, the prevention of proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, missile defense, fighting the narcotics traffic, cooperation in Afghanistan, and common action against piracy and terrorism at sea;

2) A proposal to rejuvenate the NATO-Russia Council as a talking forum so that Russian concerns on the Euro-Atlantic security architecture would be taken into account in NATO deliberations;

3) And a proposal for Russia and NATO to jointly review the security challenges of the new century so as to identify further areas of prospective cooperation.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen reiterates NATO’s longstanding insistence that it has the right to enlargement, saying baldly that this does not create security problems for Russia. He seeks to dispel any concern which may arise on the Russian side with the nonchalant and empty reassurance that “a more stable and prosperous Europe is indeed contributing to the security of Russia.”

We hear the oft-repeated words that NATO’s ‘open door policy’ – a euphemism for extending membership to Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics at Russia’s borders – by no means ‘encircles’ or ‘marginalizes’ Russia. None of this is directed against Russia, he says; it is merely an assertion of the right of each sovereign state to decide for itself about its security policy and alignments.

This is a precise restatement of what we have heard for years now from the Neoconservatives in the U.S. In what way does it represent a ‘re-setting’ of relations or new outreach? To be sure, in none!

The feeble suggestion of novelty comes in the following: “recognizing that Russia has security interests which we need to understand and take into account.”

For Rasmussen, the final objective of the policy he is setting out is stated succinctly as “a relationship that allows us to pursue common interests even when we disagree in other areas.”

It is a testimony to timidity and thinking within the box that Rasmussen concludes his speech with the remark that the proposals he has just laid out are “ambitious.” He professes to believe that improvement of relations will meet great resistance within Russia, and that they will have to be won over by applying a lot of common hard work.

The guiding mentality in all of the initiatives laid out by Rasmussen is to deal with Russia as an outsider to the Euro-Atlantic Alliance without a moment’s thought to why this has to be so. The question of Russia’s eventually joining NATO does not appear as a matter worthy of consideration. It is not raised. It is not knocked down. It simply does not exist.

The Russians themselves do not help matters by keeping their true desires cloaked in code language. To anyone with eyes to see, it is clear that the Russian government is seeking entry to NATO, not just the ‘reflection’ of its interests in NATO deliberations. The citation from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s 2008 speech at the ceremony opening the academic year at MGIMO, the elite university for the Russian diplomatic corps, all but said this, and was made at what had to be the absolute nadir in Russian-NATO relations, the period immediately following the August war with Georgia.

One might object that Lavrov was talking about some new, as yet non-existing security architecture and not NATO itself. However, the sheer realism, the sober calculations we see in all his other remarks in the same speech make it clear that he has in mind the here and now, not some unattainable dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a more neutral platform.

Time and again, Lavrov has said of the NATO-Russia Council that it must not be 26 countries plus Russia, still less – 26 countries against Russia. That is as close as you can come to saying Russia should be a member. Full stop.

So why doesn’t the Kremlin come out and say that it wants to be in NATO? I believe that is a domestic issue, to avoid an outright refusal or even just foot dragging by the NATO Council that would humiliate the Russian leadership. The spectacle of Turkey’s biding its time
at the doormat of the European Union cannot escape their attention.

I referred to this Russian hope to properly bury the Cold War past in my blog article “Camp Talk: Solving the World’s Problems over a Goblet of Bordeaux,” La Libre Belgique, 15.08.2009. That essay was cast in the jocular tone of vacation notes, but there was nothing light-headed in my discussion of why Russia’s candidacy for NATO membership has to be reopened by the North Atlantic Alliance members.

Regrettably, the very same evidence of timidity and small-mindedness may characterize the presentation last week of President Obama’s decision to abandon the missile defense shield in Europe projected by the Bush administration.

Within Russia, the announcement on the cancellation of radar and interceptor installations in Central Europe, which locally is known under the acronym ‘PRO,’ was met with reserve.

By way of example, in its 19 September issue, the middle-of-the-road St Petersburg paper Nevskoye Vremya summarized the domestic reaction to the decision to drop PRO as being one of ‘restrained optimism’ over the removal of a major stumbling block in improved relations with the U.S.: “’Finally we have been listened to – that is the premise of the majority of commentaries by Russian politicians and experts.” They quote President Medvedev’s expression of appreciation for the ‘responsible approach’ taken by the President of the U.S. regarding implementation of their mutual commitments. And the article quotes Medvedev as saying he was now ready to continue the dialogue. The paper noted the diversity of reactions of media in the countries most directly affected by the decision, namely the Czech Republic (satisfied with the cancellation) and Poland (feel betrayed).

At the same time Nevskoye Vremya remarked that the U.S. had by no means given up plans for an anti missile defense in general, and would pursue a cheaper and more technically advanced sea-based system. The paper concluded that Washington had performed a chess grand master’s move, or to change metaphors, it had killed several hares at one go: earning the image of peace-maker, making a nod in the direction of Russia while replacing an ineffective project with a more up-to-date and functional system. Moreover, it expected the U.S. now to press Russia still harder to join its ‘anti-Iranian coalition.’

The generally right-of-center Moscow Times relied on factual coverage from the Associated Press to inform its readers about Obama’s decision on PRO and on official reactions in Moscow, Washington and other interested capitals. It opened its Opinion pages to the divergent views of local pundits.

In the US press, neoconservative hawks came out in force, with the Wall Street Journal leading the way. The paper devoted a large part of its weekend edition of September 18-20 to the change in course on missile defense policy

The feature article on page one, abutting a photo of billionaire Roman Abramovich and reporting his latest record-breaking property purchase in the Caribbean as if to remind us of what kind of people run Russia, bears a title certain to dispose the readership to pursue the heavier material inside: “Russia cheers U.S. decision on missiles.” A hint of glee and malice on the opposing side that will surely fire the blood of American patriots. It is indicative of the manipulative treatment of news by the editorial board that this article was given a semantically different caption in its continuation on the next to last page of this issue: ‘Russia pleased by U.S.’s change of course on missiles.”

The Journal’s reporting team in Brussels, Washington and Moscow informs us in its opening paragraph that Russia was “triumphant” at President Obama’s abandonment of the nuclear defense shield in Europe.” But the body of the article does not demonstrate anything remotely resembling jubilation on the part of President Medvedev, the Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin and even the nationalist politician Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian State the quotes attributed to them. All come across as quite calm and, at most, merely satisfied that common sense has won out in the U.S.

While the article does give some brief attention to those in Europe who welcomed the decision, more importantly for its readership it carried the accusation of Republicans on Capitol Hill that the administration was “putting its relations with the Kremlin ahead of the security of North American Treaty Organization allies in Europe.”

Similarly, a rather balanced report on Polish reactions to Washington’s decision has a bold type inset quoting Lech Walesa’s disapproval.

As if tendentious reporting were not enough, the Wall Street Journal on the same day put out its own editorial, “Building a Coalition of the Unwilling,” in which it claimed that the reversal of course on missile defense rewarded the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic badly for their loyalty and readiness to assist the Bush initiative and, accordingly, America’s friends will not be so eager to answer its summons in the future. Moreover, it puts in question US readiness to defend Central Europe against the powerful neighbor to the East. All in all, it makes plain that: “America’s security guarantees are no longer what they used to be.”

Finally, in the same issue an Op-Ed article written jointly by Hudson Institute senior fellow Jack David and a Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the WSJ, asserts that with this decision “Obama has undermined America’s credibility.” These neoconservative authors fulminate over how the change in policy on missile defense from a ground-based system to counter long-range threats to sea-based system to meet the short and medium-range missile potential of Iran will go down in history as triggering a new arms race and increased nuclear proliferation, while dealing ‘a blow to the security architecture that protects the American homeland.” The only surprise is that these scare mongers and prevaricators have not yet called for the President’s impeachment. Surely that will come soon.

As part of the Obama team’s damage control measures, on Saturday, 20 September Defense Secretary Robert Gates published an op-ed article in the New York Times explaining the logic of the change in policy and stressing that: “Russia’s attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue.”

In a sense, the Obama administration protested too vigorously over misrepresentation of its decision as a concession to Russia and possible sign of weakness. It should come as no surprise that the Kremlin took offense. In an article drawn from the AP and Bloomberg wire services and published on 23 September, The Moscow Times quotes Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin as saying the denial of the Russian factor in the decision Washington took on PRO “undermines the value of the decision in our eyes” and betrays a Cold War mentality which still weighs on American foreign policy.

All-in-all, it is clear that the Kremlin will remain very cautious in its dealings with the Americans even as progress continues in the nuclear disarmament talks and other priority issues highlighted during the July summit of presidents in Moscow. Right they are….

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


One thought on “Re-thinking the NATO-Russia Strategic Partnership

  1. Dear Mr. Doctorow,
    I read regulary Your articles in this blog. I appriciate very much your open-mind, neutral way of thinking and analysing the relations between “the West” and Russia. As much as I criticize the inner-policy of Putin’s System, I agree in many points in his foreign policy, especially with the U.S./NATO. Russia is getting more and more humiliated from emperial actions and the negative reporting in the U.S. Media.
    It is useful to read the russian Press in the russian language, to achieve further information from another point of view than the uniform reporting from the U.S.
    I thank You very much for Your contribution to lighten the truth.
    With Regards


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