Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Policy Brief: The Curious Case of NATO-Russia Relations: Keeping Open the Political Dialogue



by Raluca Csernatoni

Since the end of the Cold War many critical voices have questioned NATO’s raison d’être and whether NATO has outlived its original usefulness. Current events, from the crash of the Malaysia Airline Flight 17 under the alleged attack of pro-Russian rebel groups from the areas outside Donetsk, the two Ukrainian military jets recently shot down near Dmytrivka, to the overall Ukrainian crisis, all demonstrate that there are no clear-cut answers to such questions. On the contrary, the military escalations in the Crimean Peninsula and Russia’s geopolitical revisionism in the region have put a new spin on NATO’s long-term role in the future, its possible enlargement, and where its actions should prove to be more useful as regards Russia and Ukraine.

The NATO-Russia Council

The NATO-Russia Council (NRC), established in 2002 at the NATO-Russia Summit in Rome by the Declaration on “NATO-Russia Relations: a New Quality”, is a diplomatic mechanism meant for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision, and joint action. The Rome Declaration is based on the goals and principles of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, which stands as the official framework for NATO-Russia relations. Within the NRC, the individual NATO member states and Russia work as equal partners on a wide spectrum of security issues of common interest and the NRC meetings are chaired by NATO’s Secretary General.

Since its creation, the NRC has been viewed by some as a constructive collaborative platform and by others as a pointless “talking-shop”. Following Russia’s disproportionate military action in Georgia in early August 2008, the Alliance suspended formal meetings of the NRC, halted cooperation in some areas, and re-examined the implications of Russia’s actions for the NATO-Russia relationship. Nevertheless, cooperation continued in key areas of common interest, such as counter-narcotics and the fight against terrorism. A decision to resume formal meetings and practical cooperation was taken in March 2009. The Ukrainian Crisis triggered another round of tensioned relations, with the North Atlantic Council condemning the Russian Federation’s military manoeuvres in Crimea on 2 March 2014.

Missile Defence

NATO’s missile shield for Europe is an important strain in NATO-Russia cooperation. In a bid to fight the proliferation of ballistic missiles that pose a threat to the trans-Atlantic community, the United States’ ship-borne defence system with deployed land-based sites in Romania and Poland has antagonized Russia’s position in the region. The Obama Administration’s plan of short and intermediate missile defence (SM-3 the US Navy’s Standard Missile 3 and sea-based systems in Turkey, Poland (2018), and Romania (2015) – though seen as an appeasement strategy as compared to the former Bush long-range ballistic missile defence strategy with missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic – has not particularly eased the East-West divide.

To that end, NATO should discontinue the development of a missile defence capability (Lisbon Summit of 2010) in the pursuit of its core task of collective defence against Iran and other state or non-state actors who seek to develop threatening missile technology. Conversely, the current Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) programme’s command, control and communication capabilities is to be expanded beyond only the capability to protect forces to also include NATO European populations and territory.

In reality, this move is not designed or directed against Russia and it should not be perceived as threatening by Moscow. The Chicago Summit in May 2012 reiterated the fact that NATO missile defence strategy “will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities”. However, Russia could also resort to the possible deployment of its Iskander missiles for defensive purposes in the enclave of Kaliningrad which borders Lithuania and Poland, and aimed at NATO missile interceptor batteries.

Energy Security

Energy security has become a chapter of utmost importance in NATO-Russia cooperation, the Black Sea region being a transit route for energy from the Caspian Sea to European markets. The New Strategic Concept tasks NATO to “develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning”.

In this respect, common NATO-Russia action is needed to respond to armed threats to energy supplies, be they through terrorist attacks or piracy, and to address the political instability in many energy-producing states. Moreover, Russia should avoid the use of energy supplies as a political weapon in the negotiation with European and NATO member states. NATO should discourage any attempts by Russia and other relevant actors to (ab)use energy supplies as a political weapon by taking relevant steps in assuring a comprehensive approach to energy security. NATO, from this perspective, should encourage its European member states to seek to diversify suppliers and to search for alternative scenarios to Russia’s monopolistic energy leverage.

Reconciling diverging political and economic national interests is of utmost importance, by taking into account Russia’s resources on the one hand, and NATO’s structural limitations on the other hand. A three pillared acquis on energy security is the best way ahead: 1) dialogue and sharing of information and intelligence; 2) projecting stability; 3) the security of critical energy infrastructure and transit countries.

Frozen Conflicts

The problematique of the frozen conflicts and their escalation potential in terms of hard security concerns has become another important chapter in NATO-Russia relations. From this point of view, the Eastern EU periphery has always been regarded as a source of latent conflict escalation and as an antagonizing dividing line between NATO and Russia. The corrosive influence of the existing frozen conflicts remains the most dangerous source of insecurity: impacting the structural security in the region, affecting the statehood, sovereignty and democratic process, proliferating asymmetric security threats such as the traffic of human beings, armaments, black economies, and lastly, justifying Russian “stabilizing” military presence in the area.

By using the argument of the responsibility to protect and self-determination in the case of Russian minorities in frozen conflict areas, Russia could continue to justify its military presence by appealing to alleged human-rights protection imperatives. The Alliance’s enlargement plans are still very often perceived as a challenge to Russia’s security interests, Moscow wanting to prevent the central security role in Europe to being played by a structure to which Russia does not and will not have direct access.

NATO should be more involved in the resolution of the frozen conflicts in the Wider Black Sea area and acknowledge their corrosive influence and primary source of insecurity and justification of Russia’s paradigmatic policy of controlled instability. NATO should refocus on the Transnistrian frozen conflicts as a possible next target in Russia’s geopolitical revisionism.

The Ukrainian Crisis

The NATO Atlantic Council considered the so-called referendum from 16 March in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea to be both illegitimate and illegal. On 1 April 2014, NATO Foreign Ministers ruled to “suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia. Our political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue, as necessary, at the Ambassadorial level and above, to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis”.

The decision came as “a direct consequence of Russia’s illegal military intervention in Ukraine and of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. On 25 June 2014, NATO Secretary General Andres Fogh Rasmussen declared that NATO and Russia relations would remain under review until the June meeting, but currently all practical cooperation is still halted. NATO’s actions during the crisis have been proportionate to the status quo, and strictly defensive in nature: “the Alliance has deployed additional aircraft to reinforce air policing missions, additional ships to the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas, and additional troops to exercises on the territory of Eastern Allies.”

Ukraine needs to address the rampant economic crisis and the deeply ingrained political, ethnic, and linguistic divisions on its territory. Ukraine’s current problems are manifold, from needing to broker a national common front between pro-European regions and a more Russia-oriented east, to still having to forge its democratic future in the shadow of Russia. While the Alliance’s role is mostly figurative as Ukraine is not part of it, NATO should review the effectiveness of its sanctions against Russia, especially because Russia appears to be unscathed by them. NATO should also freeze sales of armaments to Russia.


Recent developments demonstrate that a coherent NATO strategy is needed to deal with Russia, because building security and stability at Russia’s borders through democratic integration and collective security is seen as threat by Moscow. With the upcoming NATO Summit in Wales this September and against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis, international leaders have the opportunity to reinforce NATO’s historic role in building international stability and security.



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