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Cooperation Impossible? A Relapse of the Competitive Race between NATO and Russia

April 9th, 2015

By Ielizaveta Rekhtman

A year ago the Crimean crisis significantly undermined the discourse of cooperation between NATO and the US on one side and Russia on the other. The tension between the two parties have since grown proportionately to the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis creating heated scholarly debate on the nature and current state of Western-Russian relations. This brief suggests that the discourses of these academic and media debates, which are generated by Western and Russian officials, scholars and journalists, exacerbate the tension between the two sides.

For this reason, this brief will firstly outline the main categories of the “West-Russia” discourse, proposing that the analysis of this relationship should be based on particular political actors, such as NATO, the EU or specific states, instead of using the abstract category of “the West”. The article will then focus on the problems of NATO – Russia relations in order to understand the potential for cooperation between the sides. In addition to being highly topical in light of developments over the past year, focusing on NATO and Russia as the actors of analysis also serves to shed light on how the two actors have increasingly played the role of a “significant other” for each other. In this context, the piece will discuss the role of the Ukrainian crisis in “re-energising” NATO and reshaping the format of NATO – Russia relations into a competition.

The West vs. Russia: terminology traps

The understanding of Russia’s relationship with NATO, the EU and the US has become rather challenging for followers of public and scholarly debates in the last year. There has been a proliferation of the number of academic materials focusing on the relationship between Russia and “the West”, which is described as a “conflict”, “tension”, “confrontation”, “alienation” and “crisis”.[1] In its February recommendations to the US and NATO regarding military assistance to Ukraine, the Brookings Institution claimed: “Russia’s actions in and against Ukraine pose the greatest threat to European security in more than 30 years. The West has the capacity to stop Russia. The question is whether it has the will”.[2] “The West”, as a term, is also used in political statements and transmitted by the media to the wider public. In light of the ongoing debate concerning supply of weaponry from the US to Ukraine, NATO’s General Philip M. Breedlove stated that “…the West should consider all of our tools in reply. Could it be destabilising? The answer is yes. Also, inaction could be destabilising”.[3]

The reference to the category of “the West” raises several problematic questions. On the one hand, the term is a convenient generalisation tool that encompasses all the Euro-Atlantic political actors, such as NATO, the EU and the states of the region. On the other hand, in the field of policy-making “the West” is not a measureable political actor that makes decisions and takes responsibility for the consequences.  Additionally, conceptualising “the West” as a single political unit contributes to a bipolar vision of current events, which is largely based on a Cold War mindset.

Historical analogies in political analysis are an efficient way to understand and highlight the importance and possible consequences of certain events or processes.[4] However, in the case of Russia and various Euro-Atlantic political actors, it is crucial to remember that a bipolar approach cannot replace a viable framework of relations between the sides. A tendency to shape policy-making on assumptions of an ongoing, or possibly re-started, Cold War indicates that the existing framework is too limited and needs to be revised. Most importantly, polarising the debate might escalate existing tensions between the sides by limiting their relationship to conflict interaction. In February, the UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon expressed his concern about Russia’s military presence in the Baltic region and Vladimir Putin’s actions that were aimed at ‘testing NATO’: “He flew two Russian bombers down the English Channel two weeks ago. We had to scramble jets very quickly to see them off. It’s the first time since the height of the Cold War, it’s the first time that’s happened.”[5]

Additionally, the category of “the West” is associated with a broader philosophical and cultural debate on the West – East divide. Within this debate, there is a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern social norms, political and economic organisation, which lays the ground for the fact that West and East have historically perceived each other as “significant others”. In this context, a key problem lies in defining the criteria and borders between the West and East, as well as explaining the place of Russia within this approach.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of the “West-Russia” divide, the political debates should be more measureable and focus on specific actors. It is important to highlight the recent transformation in the vision of Russia as a challenger of the Euro-Atlantic region, but also as an adversary of NATO and the US. However, the emerging tendency within the Western academic and media environment to “demonise” Russia by exaggerating its political and military influence in the world could foster further escalation of tension between Russia, NATO and the US.[6]

NATO vs. Russia: a game of double think

Within the security system that emerged after the end of the Cold War, NATO and Russia aimed at overcoming the adversary political positioning and discourse by establishing a framework for cooperation.[7] In 1997 NATO and Russia signed a bilateral founding act on cooperation, which integrated Russia into the Euro-Atlantic security system on the basis of ‘mutual confidence’ and prevention of nuclear proliferation.[8] The partnership was intensified in 2002 by the establishment of NATO – Russia Council, which was envisaged as a mechanism of further rapprochement on the grounds of common interests and threats.

Throughout the two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s presidents expressed their vision of Russia’s cooperation with NATO on the basis of equal partnership.[9] In his 2001 Berlin speech, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin assessed the efficiency of NATO – Russia security cooperation: “In spite of all the positive achievements of the past decades, we have not yet developed an efficient mechanism for working together. The coordinating agencies set up so far do not offer Russia real opportunities for taking part in drafting and taking decision. Today decisions are often taken, in principle, without our participation, and we are only urged afterwards to support such decisions. After that they talk again about loyalty to NATO. They even say that such decisions cannot be implemented without Russia. Let us ask ourselves: is this normal? Is this true partnership?”[10]

After the end of the Cold War, NATO’s reviewed doctrine also introduced a new political element, which implied a support for democratic development. In practice, this strategic component meant the accession of Central and Eastern European states into the Alliance, as it served as a criterion of their democratic transition.[11] However, apart from providing a testament to their political and economic transformation, Central and Eastern European states also sought to protect themselves from Russia’s potential resurgence, which corresponded to the NATO’s strategy of avoiding the conflict with Russia.[12]

In the Russian perspective, NATO’s rhetoric of trust and equal cooperation contradicted the acts of the Alliance. For instance, the North-Atlantic expansion to the East and South was interpreted by Russia as a breach of the post-Cold War promise not to expand in exchange for the condition that a reunited Germany had been able to stay as the Alliance member.[13] Additionally, the accessions of Central and Eastern European states into the Alliance were understood by Russia as a strategic message: the US was establishing visible assurance in the zone of Russia’s influence. In response, Russia’s message to NATO clearly stated that the further expansion of the Alliance to Georgia and Ukraine would not be tolerated.

The post-Cold War attempts to establish cooperative relations between the North-Atlantic Alliance and Russia can be seen as a strategic game by both sides. NATO’s strategy was to engage Russia in creating a common space of stability and security, which intrinsically implied the prevention of a military conflict with the Russian state. Despite accepting the rules of cooperation, Russia retained the sentiment of being treated as an unequal partner and the suspicion that the core mission of the Alliance was to act against the Russian state. It could therefore be argued that trust has remained a merely declarative principle of NATO – Russia relations in the post-Cold War period.

Ukrainian crisis: an unbridgeable gap?

As the Ukrainian crisis unfolded in spring 2014, NATO put its cooperation with Russia on hold and provided the evidence of the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine.[14] Significantly, the crisis in Ukraine affected the agenda of the NATO Newport Summit in September 2014, and due to its complexity and topicality, pressed the Alliance for a flexible and rather cautious response.

On the one hand, NATO assessed Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “the challenge to Euro-Atlantic security” and opted for providing political and civilian support to Ukraine.[15]  On the other hand, the Alliance adopted a range of measures in order to reaffirm its defence capabilities, primarily to the Alliance’s Eastern members. Such measures included increased NATO surveillance in the airspace over Poland and Romania, intensified air policing in the Baltic States and maritime patrolling of the Baltic Sea, and multinational land exercises in the Baltic countries.[16]  In general, it can be suggested that NATO addressed the Ukrainian crisis in a way that would prevent further escalation of tension with Russia, but provide reassurance to the Alliance members.

The Alliance also established a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which is capable of neutralising threats in the periphery of NATO and can be deployed in the course of few days.[17] As a response to intensification of military actions in Eastern Ukraine in early 2015, the defence ministers of the Alliance member states in February made a decision to launch a “spearhead” brigade force enumerating 5000 active multinational troops from six NATO members.[18] Additionally, the Alliance established six multinational command and control units in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.[19] Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg evaluated NATO’s capability revision as “the biggest reinforcement” of the Alliance’s collective defence since the Cold War.[20] In March, NATO launched naval training exercises in the Black Sea, while more land training exercises are to take place in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland during the spring.[21] Apart from this, the US armed forces have increased their presence in the Baltic states within the framework of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which was envisaged to demonstrate the US “commitment” to NATO Eastern allies.[22]

It is noteworthy that NATO’s response to the Ukrainian crisis in part reflected the conflict’s dynamics. By the end of 2014, the assessment of Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as “the challenge to Euro-Atlantic security” was transformed into “the threat” to the contemporary international order.[23] At the same time, NATO’s reassurance measures contributed to a spiral of tension between Russia and the Alliance. Firstly, there has been an increase in warplane activity on both sides, followed by mutual accusations in air borders violations.[24] On March 16, Russia launched a military exercise of its Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, which was aimed to test the “readiness against any threats to Russia’s Arctic borders”.[25] Reported as “unexpected”, Russia’s military training was held nationwide and mobilised around 80 000 troops.[26]

It can thus be suggested that both NATO and Russia follow the “action-reaction” tactics, with next to immediate responses to each other’s public statements and military actions. The actions and public discourses on the two sides imply that NATO and Russia increasingly perceive each other as a threat, which urges both of them to react. This would furthermore suggest that neither actor have a clear concept of their bilateral relations or a common framework, by means of which a bilateral dialogue can be facilitated.

Lessons learned

The experience of NATO-Russia relations can rightly be described as ‘one step forward and two steps back’: from the attempts to anchor a bilateral cooperation in the past to reactionary tactics at present. The Ukrainian crisis has made the hidden but persistent problems in NATO-Russia relations abundantly clear.

The crisis has been assessed as an ‘exam’ for NATO, because it tests all the three pillars of the Alliance: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. The reassurance measures implemented after the crisis reaffirmed the collective defence principle, both to NATO’s members and to external actors. At the same time, the Ukrainian crisis tested the crisis-management pillar of the Alliance, particularly its criteria for selecting crisis-management instruments. NATO’s consensual decision to opt for diplomatic and political instruments, as well as the measures supporting Ukraine’s defence capabilities, raised questions concerning the line between NATO’s political and military crisis management tools. It can be suggested that the Alliance has not clearly communicated to the world the purpose of its crisis management activity, resulting in unreasonable expectations among politicians and experts, controversial interpretations of NATO’s decisions, and comparisons of the Ukrainian conflict to other regional conflicts, such as Kosovo in 1999, that were managed through the military instruments of the Alliance. Finally, the Ukrainian crisis tested NATO’s third pillar of cooperative security. The shared perception of potential threats brought the historically neutral Nordic states closer to the Alliance and provided the basis for deepening their bilateral cooperation, particularly in the Baltic Sea region.[27]

Being aware of Russia’s high sensitivity to NATO’s potential expansion to the East, the Alliance has reaffirmed Georgia’s potential membership, which was decided at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, but has stopped short of offering a Membership Action Plan. While NATO has deepened its cooperation with Ukraine, the bilateral relations between the two sides remain within the existing partnership framework without a visible perspective of Ukraine’s membership in the nearest future.

Importantly, the pillar of cooperative security has turned out to be inefficient in regards Russia, as the Ukrainian crisis undermined a rather unstable and unreliable NATO – Russia partnership. Throughout the post-Cold War period, the prevailing method of dealing with Russia was prevention through cooperation; however, the absence of deep anchors in NATO – Russia relations have prevented a deepening of the partnership. Potential anchors of NATO-Russia cooperation in the future is the subject of much scholarly debate, not the least given events over the past year. Some experts believe that such anchors can be provided by common threats, for instance the militant extremist Islamic State, or joint cooperation mission in Afghanistan.[28] Alternatively, certain scholars are pessimistic about the possibility of a solid NATO – Russia cooperation in the nearest future, highlighting the inability of both sides to agree on mutual concessions in the area of their strategic interests.[29]

Having a complex relationship background, as well as increasingly conflicting visions of reality, the most feasible approach to a future NATO – Russia dialogue could be pragmatism. The sides could firstly agree to conduct bilateral negotiations at the level of officials and experts, in order to elaborate a common document on specific spheres of cooperation. If there is sufficient political will within NATO and Russia to hold such talks, the parties should be ready to commit themselves to abandoning the adversary public rhetoric and military competition. However, the key prerequisite for any future move towards a more co-operative relationship – that both sides are genuinely interested in bringing the current tension to an end – appear increasingly remote.

[1] Carnegie Moscow Centre, December 30, 2015 [Link]

[2] Brookings Institution, February 2015 [Link]

[3] Deutsche Welle, March 22, 2015, [Link]

[4] Carnegie Moscow Centre, March 7, 2015 [Link]

[5] The Independent, February 19, 2015 [Link]

[6] The Guardian, March 4, 2015 [Link]

[7] Carnegie Moscow Centre, July 2014 [Link]

[8] Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, May 27, 1997 [Link]

[9] Carnegie Moscow Centre, July 2014 [Link]

[10] V. Putin’s Speech in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, September 25, 2001 [Link]

[11] Rumer E., July 8, 2014 [Link]

[12] Lisbon Strategic Concept 2010 [Link]; Rumer E., July 8, 2014 [Link]

[13] Ibid.

[14] BBC, November 12, 2014 [Link]

[15] Wales Summit Declaration 2014 [Link]

[16] NATO Allied Command Operation [Link]

[17] Wales Summit Declaration 2014 [Link]

[18] Meeting of NATO Defence Ministers, February 5, 2015 [Link]

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] NATO Allied Command Operations [Link]

[22] Euronews, March 11, 2015 [Link]

[23] NATO Secretary General’s Annual Report 2014 [Link]

[24] Russia Today, February 20, 2015 [Link]; The Guardian, December 11, 2014 [Link]

[25] Euronews, March 21, 2015 [Link]

[26] BBC, March 20, 2015 [Link]; Pervyi kanal, March 21, 2015 [Link]

[27] Carnegie Europe, October 13, 2014 [Link]

[28] Carnegie Moscow Centre, October 14, 2014 [Link]

[29] Carnegie Moscow Centre, November 4, 2014 [Link]

About Ielizaveta Rekhtman

Ielizaveta is a Junior Fellow at the HSC within the Policy Unit. Her research interests mainly include democratic transition and political regime dynamics in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as various matters of political psychology.