A Russia-NATO alignment


If the prognostications of many foreign policy pundits are to be believed, the NATO summit in Lisbon, set to open a week from today, could be a watershed moment for the Atlantic alliance, something which will set the West on a path of monumental geopolitical realignment.

NATO’s primary mission is not expected to change much. The Alliance’s main charge will be, as it always has been, the mission of collective defense as cemented in Article 5 of the NATO Charter. However, operationally, the new strategic concept that will be introduced and almost certainly ratified will reorient the alliance’s focus from traditional threats to more contemporary challenges like terrorism, rogue states, cyber warfare, and the like. In short, expect more Operation Atalanta-type deployments (anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa) and fewer Afghanistan-type wars, to say nothing of pure territorial defense, in the future.

Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who chaired the “group of experts” responsible for the new strategic concept, also made sure that the new NATO focus would stress international cooperation.

Cooperation with the Chinese and Indian navies in anti-piracy operations has been stressed as an exemplar of a newly-postured NATO. Congruently, the new strategic concept also calls for great specialization of member states’ armed forces and pushes for a wide ballistic missile defense umbrella.

“The new US phased, adaptive approach to ballistic missile defense provides an opportunity for the development of an effective NATO-wide strategy that would add to the defense of populations as well as forces,” says the new concept. “[The US systems] are not directed against Russia, nor would they threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent [… and …] allow for concrete security cooperation with Russia.” [1]

This last piece is important, because the Lisbon summit is expected to kick-off a alliance-wide reset program with Moscow, where Russia will not only find forgiveness for its violation of international norms in 2008, but will be invited to join in NATO programs like the BMD program.

The rationale is fairly sound; by including Russia in this program, it dispels the notion that the system is intended to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent. But this is only the beginning of a larger push to cooperate with Russia that also includes information-sharing, increased technology transfer, and greater military-to-military cooperation. Not only have the frozen relations from 2008 been undone, but they are being thoroughly reversed in Russia’s favor, which has yet to abide by its own ceasefire obligations.

“No doubt Moscow will use its token assistance in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to solidify its position in Georgia, a country whose westward integration both the European Union and NATO have made a priority.”

More to the point, Russia has finally more or less succeeded at integrating its interest-driven strategic vision with the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, something which has been a goal of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for quite some time. And although his earlier, more radical approaches were rebuffed by NATO brass, this new arrangement with NATO delivers to Russia much of the same benefits but without the direct undermining of NATO as a coherent institution.

NATO and most Western states have had reconciliation with Russia on their minds for quite some time, but the time is seen as particularly ripe now to let bygones be bygones. Despite previous opposition to the US ‘reset’ policy among domestic critics and certain allies abroad, a consensus seems to have settled in the US foreign policy community that the reset, despite its rotten symbolism, has achieved real gains. Pointing to Russia’s warming views on BMD, the brokered deal on the START successor treaty, and — most significantly — its decision to halt the sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to Iran has won Moscow fresh affection from Western policymakers.

And Russia’s recent incursions into Afghanistan, new overflight agreements, allowing the Manas airbase in [its newest client] Kyrgyzstan to remain open, and decision to return troops to Afghanistan in a training and advisory role have compelled NATO to not only take the reset process seriously, but move it to the next level.
Just as importantly to Russia, this slate of new agreements means that what opposition Russia faced only some months ago on procuring Western arms (like the French Mistral amphibious assault ship, which is widely expected to win a Russian tender) is likely to collapse underneath the weight of the newfound chumminess between the West and modernizing Russia. Meanwhile, the issue of Georgian accession into NATO is considered a sufficiently far-off prospect (at best), that it’s seen as no impediment to the newly-kindled relations. [2]However, James Kirchick, a contributing editor to The New Republic, a center-left American opinion magazine, writes in Foreign Policy that despite the seeming significance of new Russian significance, the actual assistance itself is “paltry.”

“No doubt Moscow will use its token assistance in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to solidify its position in Georgia, a country whose westward integration both the European Union and NATO have made a priority,” says Kirchick, who also points out that Moscow’s increased involvement in alliance affairs will only undermine international norms and Western interests.

“According to a draft Russia-NATO cooperation agreement that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov submitted to Rasmussen last December, the Russians are insisting that NATO cap the number of forces deployed in Soviet bloc countries (Russia’s so-called ”privileged sphere of interest”) at 3,000 and that it station no more than 24 aircraft in those countries for more than 42 days a year. “ This is a demand which he calls “unprecedented” because of its brazenness in dictating terms. [3]

Either way, it’s clear that NATO-Russian relations are set to reach a new milestone in the months ahead, barring some unforeseen diplomatic catastrophe. The question, then, is how an aspiring alliance member like Georgia, whose NATO bid appears to have been cast off on the backburner indefinitely, should proceed.

Georgia’s political leadership has made integration into Euro-Atlantic structures the centerpiece of their foreign policy modernization and reform program since taking power in 2003, and to have these goals so wholly broken by geopolitical trends mostly outside of their control will be a major blow. Not only is NATO unlikely to accept Georgian membership in the foreseeable future, which to Tbilisi is certainly bad enough news, but NATO intends to turn Tbilisi’s foe into a pillar of its 21st century strategy.

Obviously, the bad news will demand adjustments to Georgia’s foreign policy. In the short to medium term, Tbilisi is likely to continue its NATO-oriented approach and hope that some kind of diplomatic long-ball might be enough to bring it closer to the West. [4] At the same time, Georgia’s priorities will begin to lean far more heavily on bilateral relations — with the US, firstly, but also with other rising and independent-minded powers like China, India, Iran, and Turkey. Turkey, in particular, will almost certainly see its stock in Tbilisi rise considerably, as Georgia’s foreign policy establishment swallows the hard reality that Western interests are fixed elsewhere. And though Turkey is a NATO member and maintains serviceable relations with Moscow, Ankara’s present record indicates that its own priorities are the re-growth of Turkish influence in the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, and not in succumbing to Euro-Atlantic fads. Tbilisi, sensing its increasingly vulnerable position, is likely to be keen on affiliating with Ankara’s pole rather than find itself as an internationally isolated, NATO wannabe.

How this will affect Georgia’s democratization process and economic development is anyone’s guess, but at the very least, it could signal an era of more creative politicking and diplomacy in Georgia now that the NATO door is effectively shut. Whether or not that will serve Western interests, however, remains to be seen.


[1] http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4628976
[2] http://www.economist.com/node/17460712?story_id=17460712&fsrc=rss
[3] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/11/10/the_russians_return?page=full
[4] See: http://www.evolutsia.net/tbilisis-kosovo-solution/

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *