The ministers of foreign affairs of NATO’s 26 countries held an informal meeting on March 5 in Brussels, following the defense ministers’ meeting in Cracow on February 19 and 20 (see EDM, February 23, 24). Both preparatory to NATO’s April 3 and 4 summit. The Brussels meeting decided to resume full official relations with Russia, effective soon after the summit. NATO had largely suspended political relations and fully suspended military ones in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. That event challenged the post-1991 international order and continues to reverberate strongly in Europe and Eurasia, although its implications are not being fully addressed.
The alliance had ruled out "business as usual with Russia" (as the stock phrase went) in August 2008 until Russia abided by the French-brokered armistice in Georgia, withdrew its forces from internationally recognized Georgian territories, and returned to the "status quo ante." Since then, however, Russia has introduced thousands of additional troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is building a network of military bases there, has recognized the "independence" of the two territories, carried out ethnic cleansing of Georgians, and bars United Nations, OSCE, and European Union observers from entering the occupied areas (unless these organizations first recognize the two territories’ "independence").
Nevertheless, NATO is now reverting to business as usual and even more than usual with Russia. The reasons for NATO’s turnabout are both structural and circumstantial. Some of the most influential West European governments have developed separate bilateral relations with Russia that often enfeeble allied policies, particularly in Europe’s East. A group of five countries—said to be Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Norway—took the lead in pushing for full resumption of relations with Moscow (AFP, February 26, March 4). Meanwhile, both the new U.S. administration and NATO sought with growing urgency Russian "cooperation" to extricate themselves from policy failures on Iran and Afghanistan.
Consequently, NATO is inviting Russia to resume regular official meetings at various levels, starting with a reconvened NATO-Russia Council meeting shortly after the alliance’s summit. Defending this decision at the March 5 ministerial meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer argued, "Russia is an important global player and this means that not talking to them is not an option" (DPA, March 5; Ahto Lobjakas, "NATO U-Turn on Russia Seen as an Embarrassment," RFE/RL, March 9).
This would imply that NATO had no option left; and that Russian military action is a cost-free option for Moscow outside NATO territory, in Europe’s East. It also implies making amends for "not talking" to Russia officially for a while in response to the invasion of Georgia. That response was little more than symbolic, but the alliance is now ruling even this symbolic option out, apparently without a substitute let alone a more effective one.
The ministers agreed that the situation in Georgia would be discussed with Moscow in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council. This decision is meant to demonstrate that the alliance is not ignoring the issue and will raise it in a dialogue with Russia. Moscow also wants this issue referred to the NATO-Russia Council in order to criticize NATO for, in Russia’s view, abetting Georgia’s "aggression." Moscow even wants NATO to "restore [Russia’s] trust" in the NATO-Russia Council a through "joint assessment of why NATO blocked this mechanism" and measures to prevent a recurrence (Interfax, Itar-Tass, March 5, 6). Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, his ministry’s spokesmen, and the envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin have repeatedly aired this position in recent months, down to the very day of NATO’s Brussels ministerial meeting (they had earlier sought outright self-criticism from NATO).
Thus it seems almost certain that the NATO-Russia Council will become deadlocked on that issue, without affecting the situation on the ground in one way or another. The alliance (as well as the United States in a national capacity) will undoubtedly uphold the legal principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity and right eventually to join NATO; but the Allies and Russia will agree to disagree with each other on these issues and move on with the NATO-Russia Council’s agenda. NATO will be going into that forum to encourage Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as the top allied priorities. Those will probably relegate the Georgia issue and other festering issues in Europe’s East to the back burner in the NATO-Russia Council soon after the resumption of that process.