by Tomas Valasek
There are growing signs that Russia’s relations with NATO are on the mend. Senior Russian thinkers, some close to the government, have been cautiously talking up the possibility of Russia joining the alliance, as have several western officials and think-tanks (including the CER.) While some powerful forces in Russia continue to view NATO as a hostile force, the latest signs from Moscow are encouraging. But even assuming that the more pro-western forces within Russia prevail, membership of NATO will remain at best a long-term goal. In the short and medium term, Russia and NATO need to put considerable effort into reducing mistrust.
A group of prominent Russian thinkers recently invited their western counterparts to talk about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. What prompted this initiative is not obvious, but the atmospherics have clearly changed. Russia is being nicer to its neighbours, while a number of European countries – including those in Central and Eastern Europe – are being nicer to Moscow. NATO has effectively put enlargement on hold. Barack Obama’s ‘reset’ seems to be changing attitudes on all sides. The challenge before Russia and NATO is to try to turn this opportunity into a lasting improvement in relations.
The allies are not of one mind on the subject of Russian membership of the alliance. But conversations with NATO officials and diplomats suggest that NATO could be ready by its November summit to offer Moscow the possibility of joining, if and when the latter meets accession criteria. With additional persuasion – though this is more questionable – NATO may even create a special accession track for Russia, different from the one NATO used for previous candidates, so that Moscow feels that it is being treated like a great power. But the allies’ bottom line is that, one way or another, Moscow will need to adopt many of NATO’s norms, including those on democracy and transparency, before it can become a member.
Those Russians who want to explore the possibility of accession seem to have a different approach in mind. They are looking for a bargain of sorts with NATO. The alliance would promise not to enlarge eastward or arm regimes deemed unfriendly by Russia. Moscow would gain a veto over alliance decisions on matters which may affect Russia. In exchange, NATO would get better co-operation from Russia on things like missile defence or Afghanistan. NATO’s rules or norms do not seem to be a part of the bargain. Tellingly, few Russians use the term ‘membership’ with regard to NATO. They talk either of ‘integration’ or ‘organisational unity’. The former implies that both sides adopt some of the other side’s rules; the latter implies that neither side compromises internally. Either model is distant from what NATO has in mind.
But if membership is not the right thing for NATO and Russia to focus on in the near term, are there other viable ways to improve co-operation in the next few months and years? One Russian speaker at the meeting in Moscow put forth a possible solution. Instead of exploring membership, NATO and Russia should ‘demilitarise’ their relationship. Moscow would stop holding exercises that simulate a war with NATO, like the ‘Zapad’ exercise last year, in which 12,500 Russian and Belorusian troops repelled a fictitious attack from NATO. Russia would also change its strategic documents to make clear that NATO is not a ‘threat’ or ‘danger’. NATO would respond in kind, with no exercises and no new bases near Russia’s borders. If demilitarisation is successful, the theory goes, NATO and Russia would gradually come to view each other as partners. And that could open doors to even closer forms of co-operation in the future.
This is a sensible idea but not without difficulties. For a start, is Russia ready? The government is sending out mixed signals. Besides being nicer to its neighbours lately, Moscow has also launched sweeping defence reforms. These will change the Russian military from a grand force built to fight NATO into a smaller but more agile army better suited for regional conflicts like the one in Chechnya. That is good news for NATO. But only last year the Russian government also agreed a new military doctrine, which calls NATO’s activities the greatest danger to Russian security. So there is presumably a large segment of the Russian establishment that would oppose closer ties with the alliance.
In order to take up demilitarisation, NATO would have to be convinced that Russia is equally serious. Just as important, this initiative would need to win the support of the new allies in Central and Eastern Europe. Some of them feel that NATO has been neglecting the possibility of a conflict in Europe, and they want the alliance to adopt new ‘reassurance’ measures. These would involve, among other things, the creation of a new centre at NATO tasked with keeping an eye on future crises, including those involving Russia.
Some in NATO will argue that ‘reassurance’ would kill the hopes of a rapprochement with Russia, by provoking Moscow. But in fact the opposite is the case: without reassurance NATO will not reach the consensus it needs to offer Russia a new relationship – whether it means demilitarisation or, in the long run, integration. The right approach for NATO is to rebuild trust among the allies through reassurance while striving to reform its relationship with Russia. ‘Demilitarisation’ sounds like a useful idea to explore. The new allies should be supportive: after all, they stand to gain the most should Russia stop rehearsing attacks on Central and Eastern Europe. ‘Demilitarisation’ would be the ultimate reassurance measure.
Tomas Valasek is Director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.
Argument between reassurance and engagement with Russia is almost eternal. Neither can be caried out separately as both sides at NRC table have their doubts about the other. Talking openly about Russian hypothetical membership in NATO at the Lisbon Summit is a little bit far fetched for several Allies. However, strong language about engagement can serve several purposes: first, to show that it is Russia that needs to cross threshold of 21st century political thinking; second, diminish pressure to openly kill Medvedev/Lavrov initiative; third, show that NATO is the place for consultations on euro-atlantic security.
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