Much has been said recently about Russia and NATO balancing on the brink of military conflict against the background of arms control erosion and heightened tensions. There is a plethora of divisive issues to negatively affect the bilateral relationship. Broken promises and moments of frustration are very much vivid in memory.
NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in 2014. The alliance-initiated attempts to “reopen” the lines of communication by convening official meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) have been fruitless. And Russia’s readiness to protect its national interests has been made absolutely clear.
Despite that, reality showed there was a need to communicate. Burning security problems could not be solved without Russia and NATO coordinating their activities. The rejection of Russia’s proposals to discuss the measures to mitigate tensions did not enhance the alliance’s security. Some NATO members resisted the pressure and continued to maintain partner-like relationships with Russia against all the odds. Gradually, the realization of the need to restore the broken dialogue .
On its part, Russia has always supported the idea of maintaining contacts on equal terms. There are many ongoing changes inside the alliance and in the world, especially in the Middle East, that dictate the need to set the divisive issues aside and restart the discussions on acute security issues of mutual interest.
On January 4, the Russian Foreign Ministry spoke out in favor of restoring relations with NATO. “We need to build normal relations with NATO and renew what we had before”, stated Andrei Kelin, the Foreign Ministry’s head of the Department of European Cooperation. The emphasis on the need to restore the previous relationship makes this statement especially important.
The top official explained that Russia did not consider the alliance as an anachronism and realized that many countries benefitted from being NATO members because it allowed them to reduce defense expenditure.
Indeed, a look at the history of Russia-NATO relationship shows it has not been all doom and gloom since the beginning more than a quarter of century ago. There have been convincing examples of fruitful cooperation and achievements-something almost completely forgotten or seldom mentioned nowadays.
In 1994 Russia joined the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) to spur the relationship. The Russian Federation and NATO joined together to conduct the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia (SFOR) and Kosovo.
In 1997, Russia and NATO signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, a road map for would-be NATO-Russia cooperation. The document, which remains the formal basis for NATO-Russia relations, stated that the parties did not see each other as adversaries, and were ready to join together in an effort to build “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security″. Despite the deterioration of relations, the Act is still in force.
The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established in 2002 to replace the Permanent Joint Council (PJC), a forum in the bilateral “NATO+1” format created by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Under the NRC, Russia and NATO member states meet as equals to discuss a mutually agreed security agenda. The new “at 29” format enabled Russia to be part of the discussions within the alliance from the beginning, which was not possible under the previous “NATO+1” arrangement. The purpose was to maintain continuous dialogue to identify emerging problems and agree on common measures to prevent the negative developments, including the conduct of joint military operations.
To promote practical cooperation the parties assigned teams of experts to work on glossaries and Russian-English-French dictionary of military terminology. The mission was complicated enough but those were the days to remember. It was a rare chance to meet interesting people and to learn from each other. We all knew it was important and spared no effort to do the work as best as possible. Life goes on, new terms appear, and there is always the need to introduce changes and corrections. This work is never done.
The exchange of civilian and military personnel was extensive enough. Joint military exercises became routine. For instance, after the Kursk submarine accident, Russia and NATO signed an agreement on submarine crew rescue operations, allowing Russia to participate in three NATO-led search-and-rescue exercises in 2005, 2008 and 2011.
The joint activities of NATO and Russian naval task forces fighting piracy off the Somalia’s coast were a good example of what the parties could do together. Russia also supported NATO’s maritime counter-piracy operation in the Mediterranean Sea (Operation Active Endeavour).
Afghanistan is another good example of security cooperation between Russia and NATO. Moscow allowed land transit though its territory of non-military freight from NATO and non-NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) contributors in accordance with In 2012 the Russian Government adopted a decree to extend ISAF transit options to include rail, road and air transport.
Russia sold military equipment and ammunition to support the NATO operations in Afghanistan. For instance, in 2010 NATO bought 31 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to refurbish them for the Afghan army. It was the first time Russia was invited by US defence firms to become a subcontractor on the delivery of Russian-made ammunition for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Another example – joint planning of the first NRC joint maritime mission (2013) for the secure elimination of Syrian chemical weapons on the US vessel “Cape Ray” in support of the OPCW-UN joint mission, which was suspended early 2014 after the decision of several NATO member states.
Russia and NATO have few overlapping interests and totally divergent worldviews. This is a fact. It takes time and effort to narrow the gap. Therefore, they need venues for dialogue to avoid the worst and address the issues of mutual interest. The parties could start with turning the NRC into a confrontation-management body. Forget fault finding and finger pointing, start talking shop instead. Clearly defining its agenda would be a step into the right direction. Arms control, dangerous military activities, the common fight against terrorism, the Middle East and North Africa, you name it.
This is the time when the constantly changing security environment is calling for urgent measures to be taken. The statement made by Mr. Kelin is more than timely. Its importance can hardly be underestimated. This is an opportunity to make the world a better place and it should not be missed.