NATO-Russia Council to Resume Meetings in the Wake of April Summit

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 47

NATO has not invited Russia to the alliance’s summit on April 3 and 4. The event to be held on both sides of the Franco-German border is billed as a family affair for NATO member countries. NATO has nevertheless initiated ahead of the summit a normalization of relations with Russia. The NATO-Russia Council and other political and consultative processes, which NATO had suspended after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, are to resume shortly after the summit (see article above).

The suspension of relations has done no more to ameliorate Georgia’s situation than the resumption of relations could conceivably do to moderate Moscow’s conduct in Europe’s East or toward NATO. Since the alliance’s summit one year ago, Russia has significantly stepped up its challenges to the post-1991 international order. In addition to invading Georgia, it has threatened to dismember Ukraine and to target Russian missiles on NATO countries that would station elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield. It has completed the evisceration of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, manipulated energy supplies for political leverage in Europe, resorted to cyber warfare, is posing a growing problem for Allies through penetration of Western economic and sociopolitical systems (Stratfor, March 3), and has orchestrated the closure of the U.S.-led coalition’s air base in Kyrgyzstanto list the challenges within NATO’s remit or affecting NATO directly. The alliance has yet to devise effective responses to these actions or at least consensual approaches in the run-up to this summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending her first NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on March 5, criticized Russia publicly on some of those counts on behalf of the United States, and certainly in harmony with some NATO countries. She rejected "Russia’s claims to spheres of influence over unwilling nations" and "any Russian veto right on countries’ aspirations to join NATO or the EU." She pledged "in no way to withdraw our support for Georgia," and recalled that "my country strongly condemned Russia’s actions in Georgia"; and borrowing from then-Vice President Richard Cheney’s 2006 phrase about Russia, she expressed "serious concern over the use of energy resources as tools of intimidation."

At the same time, however, Clinton called with some urgency for renewing NATO-Russia and U.S.-Russia relationships to work together in areas of common interest, listing: Afghanistan, Iran, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism and its associated threats and challenges (AFP, March 5, 6). The notion that the United States and NATO need Russia’s help to resolve those conflicts remains an insufficiently examined assumption on both sides of the Atlantic and is partly responsible for tying Western hands in Europe’s East.

At the outset of the Brussels meeting, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vygaudas Usackas suggested that it would be premature to reconvene the NATO-Russia Council so soon, in view of Russia’s recent conduct. A few other ministers shared that view, but the majority felt that reconvening the Council would encourage Russia to become more cooperative. The Lithuanian move did, however, help NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer strengthen the language on allied support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in his concluding statement (BNS, March 5; RFE/RL, March 9).

When the North Atlantic Council suspended official meetings with Russia in August 2008, it pointed out that Russia had breached fundamental principles of jointly adopted NATO-Russia documents, including those of the NATO-Russia Council. Those breaches multiplied in the ensuing months even as the alliance continued informal meetings with Russian officials and began preparing for full resumption of institutional relations. NATO-Russia dialogue never stopped at the working levels during this period. Official resumption accelerated with the change of administrations in Washington, particularly with a new U.S. administration hard pressed to act on the protracted conflicts inherited from the old.

Moscow sounds delighted with the resumption of institutional relations with NATO. Formally, the move restores Russia’s equality of status with the alliance, a prize that NATO has conceded for nothing in return. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and his spokesmen hailed NATO’s move as a "victory for common sense." Moscow seems to feel confirmed in its calculations that invading Georgia was a low-risk affair and that a strategically distracted West would soon reach out to Russia again (Interfax, March 6, 7).

At NATO in Brussels, Russian envoy Dmitry Rogozin taunts and insults the alliance on an almost daily basis irrespective of the state of relations. When NATO announced the NATO-Russia Council’s reconvening for next month, Rogozin warned, "Russia is in no hurry [to help] on the issue of Afghanistan. But NATO could hurry. Delaying by a month does not look very patriotic to its soldiers who are spilling blood in Afghanistan" (Interfax, March 5). The next day he went on: "The debate within the alliance was fraught with scandal. We know who spoke against cooperation with Russia….Those states with Russophobic policies are simply afraid of disappearing among the big powers. Old Europeans, however, as well as the new U.S. administration, need good relations with Russia; they don’t need this small trash, they could resolve issues together with Russia in an serious way, an adult way" (Interfax, March 6).

NATO leaders have tolerated such treatment in the alliance’s own house from the Russian ambassador on a quotidian basis for the last two years.

High-profile, political dialogue with Russia, now about to resume, would have been unexceptionable as part of a coherent NATO policy on manifold contentious issues. Without such a policy, however, Moscow will undoubtedly continue using the NATO-Russia Council and other forms of institutional dialogue as it has done in recent years: as propaganda platforms and opportunities to gain a voice in NATO’s own deliberations. Moscow will also offer putative "help" to NATO allies involved in the protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and with Iran, if NATO will in turn defer to Russian geopolitical priorities in Europe’s East and Eurasia.