The NATO-Russia Partnership: A Marriage of Convenience or a Troubled Relationship?
Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank.
Four years after the NATO-Russia Council came into being, it represents a picture in ambivalence and incomplete realization of partnership. This monograph focuses on the Russian side of this growing estrangement. It finds the Russian roots of this ambivalence or alienation in the increasingly visible manifestations of an autocratic and neo-imperial Russian state and foreign and defense policy. These strong trends in Russian policy inhibit the formation of a genuine security partnership that can provide for Eurasian security in the face of multiple contemporary threats. Indeed, it is debatable whether Russia really wants a comprehensive partnership with NATO. The author examines Russia’s perspectives in this relationship and this growing estrangement between the West and Russia, tracing it to trends in Russian domestic, defense, and foreign policies.
Four years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Russia Council came into being, it represents a picture in ambivalence and incomplete realization of partnership. This monograph focuses on the Russian side of this growing estrangement. It finds the Russian roots of this ambivalence in the increasingly visible manifestations of an autocratic and neo-imperial Russian state and foreign and defense policy. These strong trends in Russian policy inhibit the formation of a genuine security partnership that can provide for Eurasian security in the face of multiple contemporary threats.
It is debatable whether Russia really wants a comprehensive partnership with NATO. Its military-political elite still views NATO and the United States in adversarial terms, even though its leadership speaks positively about the value of this partnership. Recent U.S. military initiatives like missile defense or the wars in Kosovo and Iraq are leading Russia to entertain thoughts of withdrawing from many of the existing European arms control treaties. Another cause of estrangement is to be found in that, as Russia regenerates its autocratic imperial model of state building, it aspires to the goal of a free hand in creating an exclusive Eurasian security bloc from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This effort is incompatible, not only with the democratic choice of many of those peoples, but also with European security as a whole. We can see this, for example, in Moscow’s refusal to evacuate the Trans-Dniestrian territory it effectively has annexed from Moldova and its demands for a 20-year base there. Another example is Russia’s attempt to block Ukrainian and Georgian efforts to join NATO at some point. Thus the tendency to demand a free hand in creating a kind of exclusive bloc in Eurasia, buttressed by an approach to security which still remains mired in zero-sum categories, precludes Russia’s effective integration with NATO and the maximum benefit that could accrue to it from partnership with NATO.
Russia’s ambition to form an exclusive militaryeconomic bloc with its Commonwealth of Independent States neighbors also inhibits it from fully using the possibilities for partnership with NATO in the economic sphere as it relates to defense industrial cooperation. Although NATO is actively pursuing Russian participation in many projects, Russian officials and firms either cannot or will not make the best use of such opportunities. These problems similarly appear in regard to military operations and exercises.
Even though numerous exercises involving NATO and Russian forces take place, the atmosphere remains one of mistrust. Plans for a joint theater missile defense remain just that—plans. Russian military and political leaders express growing concern about Washington’s desire to build missile defense bases in Eastern Europe. They dislike the possibilities often discussed in the United States of using nuclear weapons as warfighting weapons, or of using nonnuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, or of space-based weapons. Leading Russian military men have trouble understanding how it is that NATO still functions, and they are reluctant to participate in NATO peace operations either in Afghanistan or potentially in Iraq. Indeed, Russia is creating its own peacekeeping brigade for such operations. On the one hand, this brigade is supposed to be interoperable with NATO. On the other, it may be earmarked for use in and around Russia’s borders. In either case, it is highly unlikely that Russia will acquiesce to its own forces being placed under NATO command and control.
If one adds to this geopolitical mistrust and rivalry for influence in and around the former borders of the Soviet Union the absence of either a strong economic basis for East-West cooperation or popular support for it, it becomes clear that the opportunities for partnership are limited intrinsically. Even naval operations to counter terrorism and proliferation on the high seas have now become an issue because NATO wants to conduct exercises in the Black Sea, and Russia is resolutely opposed to any exercise there. Although the naval dimension has been the most productive one for NATO-Russian joint exercises, this dimension of partnership also now is coming under increasing strain and mistrust.
Accordingly, we may observe that, in the ambivalent partnership between NATO and Russia, the inhibiting factors consist of both the so-called values gap and the continuing geopolitical rivalry that never fully went away. Russia’s demands for a sphere of influence based upon its autocratic form of rule are intrinsic challenges to the Eurasian security order, not just because the success of that project is predicated upon freezing instability in Moldova and the Caucasus. Rather, the real problem is that Russia has neither the resources nor the capacity to formulate adequate and enduring solutions to regional security issues, and its desires are resisted by key players in Ukraine and Georgia. Russia’s attempts to impose its preferences, absent genuine democratization, mean that it necessarily will add to the security burdens of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eurasia in general, leaving those areas vulnerable to a series of potential threats that Europe and the United States ultimately cannot permit to flourish. As long as the political will to maximize the benefits of partnership—enhanced security, democracy, and prosperity for all of Eurasia—is lacking, this ambivalence will remain and, with it, enduring stresses and tensions between East and West.
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