What should NATO’s new strategic concept say about Russia?

What should NATO’s new strategic concept say about Russia?

Tomas Valasek
09 March 2011

by Tomas Valasek

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has strived to reduce mutual suspicions with Russia and to build a more co-operative relationship. So it is vexing that 20 years on, Russia continues to view NATO as a hostile alliance. Moscow competes with NATO for influence in Eastern Europe, it seeks to halt NATO’s eastward enlargement and its recent security proposals for a new European security architecture were aimed in part at weakening NATO's role in European security. Moscow’s policy worries the Central European members of NATO, who have been demanding that the alliance draft defensive plans for the unlikely, but not unthinkable, possibility of a conflict with Russia.

The alliance's new strategic concept - its key guiding document, an update of which is due in the autumn – will not fundamentally change Russia's views. But many speakers at a recent seminar which the CER co-organised with NATO's public diplomacy division concluded that the document could be instrumental in unifying the allies' views on Russia, and in clarifying NATO's intentions towards Moscow.

The document should make two important points regarding Russia, several speakers argued. The first message is one of reassurance to the Central and Eastern European members of NATO who worry about Russia, especially after the war in Georgia in 2008. Their anxieties are eroding solidarity in NATO. Some are seeking bilateral security assurances from Washington in the form of US bases on their territory - but this would leave the 'have-nots' more vulnerable than the ‘haves’. It would therefore be better if the strategic concept sent a clear message that the alliance's mutual defence clause – Article V – remains as valid as ever. NATO should also underpin this message with the minimum necessary military planning and exercises.

The second message concerns Russia itself. No NATO ally wishes a conflict with Russia – least of all those on the alliance's eastern fringes, who know they would be more secure if Russia enjoyed a co-operative relationship with NATO. The alliance has repeatedly made this point in its communiqués, to little avail. But some speakers at the CER seminar argued that NATO should try again, and that this time the allies should go for a full ‘reset’: that is, tell Moscow that NATO is open to Russian membership, should it decide to join and meet the accession criteria. This would allow the Russian military – historically focused on a possible conflict with the West but now in the midst of deep reforms – to pay greater attention to the far more real threat of terrorism on its southern border, in the North Caucasus. It would also strengthen the hand of those in the Russian government who argue for an economic and political modernisation of Russia and for a closer relationship with the West.

In essence, NATO would follow a two-pronged approach: showing strength and solidarity vis-à-vis Russia but, at the same time, sending a message of inclusiveness to Moscow. The idea is not novel; the alliance pursued a similar ‘dual track’ approach for most of the 1970s and 1980s. But would it work in this day and age? Can the twin messages of reassurance and reset be reconciled?

Several speakers at the CER seminar argued for a positive answer, though they acknowledged the difficulties. The Russian government would view any new reassurance measures such as military exercises in Central Europe as a sign of ill intent. That would weaken the effect of any positive words the strategic concept may have for Russia.

Other speakers emphasised that reassurance measures should calm the relationship. By increasing solidarity among the allies, NATO would take away the opportunities – and the incentives - for the Russian government to pit one NATO member against another, as it has been doing in recent years. Moreover, reassurance measures would make the new allies feel more secure and therefore more willing to support a bold new outreach to Russia. Reassurance, several speakers said, is a precondition for reset.

Would a message of inclusion change Russia’s view of NATO? It is a tall order: the newly released Russian military doctrine calls the enlargement of NATO the most significant danger to the country's security. The Russians seem more and more concerned about NATO; the number of those worried about a conflict with ‘a major country’ – presumably western – has increased 12 per cent year-on-year in 2010 in one respected poll (though this could also reflect rising anxiety about China).

NATO’s ability to change this mindset is limited. The alliance carries so many negative associations in Russia that its capacity to aggravate tensions far outweighs its ability to induce positive change in Russian thinking. Nor is it obvious that the current government in Moscow is unhappy with the current situation – as one speaker at the seminar suggested, it suits some Russian elites to paint NATO as an enemy: doing so stimulates nationalist sentiment that may strengthen public support for the government.

Even so, a clear offer of reset from NATO could bring long-term benefits. The economic crisis has made Russia less certain and self-assured. While the regime is too inflexible to change in the short term (as Katinka Barysch argues in her recent CER policy brief http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/pb_eu_russia_22feb10.pdf), it also seems more introspective than at any time since the boom years of the mid to late 2000s. As Dmitri Trenin argues in his recent study http://http://www.carnegie.ru/en/pubs/briefings/engaging_russia.pdf today’s bluster often hides uncertainty about the country’s economic and political future.

To overcome the mistrust between NATO and Russia, the country’s leaders would have to rethink some of the most fundamental bases of their foreign policy. NATO by itself cannot bring about that change. But it can create space for Russia’s independent thinkers and for the more reform-minded parts of the government to entertain the possibility of a future without a hostile relationship with the West. That could be a significant benefit of NATO’s new strategic concept carrying a message of reset.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.