NATO and Russia held their highest level talks in nearly two years on April 20 in a bid to ease tensions and renew regular contacts.
It was the first meeting of the Russia-NATO Council (RNC), established in 2002, ever since the Alliance cut off all ties with Moscow over Ukraine in early 2014. With RNC activities suspended, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on several occasions in recent years.
Tensions have flared in the past week, involving the US military and Russian planes in the Baltic Sea. Russian warplanes flew over an US missile destroyer close to the Baltic Fleet home base in what the US called a «simulated attack». In another incident a US spy plane was intercepted by a fighter in the vicinity of Russia’s border. The US never explained the reason for coming so close to Russia’s coast.
Moscow blames NATO for increasing the risk of conflict by provocatively increasing the military presence in Eastern Europe.
According to Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, «Policy and military planning of NATO that base on deterrence of Russia are incompatible with any plans to create confidence-building measures». He believes that the dialogue on strengthening trust is impossible without reduction of NATO’s presence at Russia’s borders.
With the next NATO summit in Warsaw just three months away, an increasingly militarized line dividing Russia and the Alliance is in place, running along the eastern frontier of the Baltic States, Poland’s border along the Bug River boundary, and farther south along the frontier of the Black Sea NATO members. Russia regards the eastern European reinforcements as US-led aggression, an attempt to encircle it like it was in the days of Cold War.
All cooperation projects, including Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism, have been suspended.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out that it was NATO’s idea to freeze the relations and now the Alliance «judged it necessary to contact us again».
«But, and we have made them understand this clearly, we cannot act as if it is ‘business as usual’», Lavrov said after talks with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault in Moscow.
The Russia-NATO talks, which ran more than 90 minutes over schedule, also focused on implementing the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine and the situation in Afghanistan.
The parties failed to bridge the differences. No decisions were announced by the end of the meeting.
«NATO and Russia have profound and persistent differences», Stoltenberg said. «Today’s meeting did not change that».
He added that, despite the existing differences, it was important to keep channels of communication open.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the meeting was not expected to be simple and harmonious. «But given the large number of difficult issues, this dialogue has a value in itself and should be continued», he said in a statement.
Nobody expected the event to be a diplomatic breakthrough. It was clear from the start there would be no definite results and no documents signed. The meeting itself, convened upon NATO’s initiative, testifies to the fact that the Alliance openly admitted the failure of its policy to isolate Russia or tackle any major international problem without it.
The fact that the event happened at all marks a significant climb-down – and not by Russia. The particular initiative, the drastic change of policy that revived the Russia-NATO Council, came from the Alliance itself. NATO cut off the channels of communications and the organization initiated the process to mend the fences. It has taken place because NATO has decided that putting the dialogue back on track meets its interests.
To this extent, the event represents not only a serious diplomatic victory for Russia, but also a victory for realism.
This conclusion is confirmed by the Russia-US cybersecurity meeting to take place on April 21. Upon the US initiative, the two powers renew talks on a global security issue.
With serious difference set aside, the West and Russia are back in business with each other.