NATO at Newport: Back to the Future II

by Dr ELLEN HALLAMS, Dr TRACEY GERMAN, and Dr  PAAL HILDE

On October 24th 2014 the Defence Studies Department (DSD) marked the launch of its Regional Security Research Centre with a NATO roundtable held at the Defence Academy. The event also marked the start of a new partnership between DSD and the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) in Oslo. Led by Dr Tracey German and Dr Ellen Hallams from DSD and Associate Professor Paal Hilde, Associate Professor Johannes Ro, and Professors Magnus Petersson and Johannes Ro from IFS, together with Professor Mark Webber from the University of Birmingham and Dr Martin Smith from RMA Sandhurst. The event aimed to bring together academic colleagues, military staff, and students to reflect on the NATO Summit held in Newport, Wales, September 22-24. The analysis in this post picks up that of the previous post, concentrating here on NATO enlargement and NATO-Russian relations.

NATO Enlargement and Russia

There have been significant changes in wider Russian foreign and security policy over the past decade, as the country has recovered from the chaos of the Yeltsin years and developed a more coherent, coordinated policy, perceived by many to be more assertive. Vladimir Putin has presided over Russia’s return to the international stage as a strong st ate capable of exerting global influence that, according to Putin, is once again a country that others ‘pay attention to’ and that can ‘stand up for itself’. Russia is opposed to the predominance of US power and Western liberal values within the international system and has consistently emphasised the importance of a multipolar world. Criticism of the predominance of US power and anti-Western sentiment now dominate Russia’s foreign policy discourse and Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated further over the past year as events in Ukraine have unfolded. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a speech at the UN in September 2014 to call on the US to ‘abandon claims to eternal uniqueness’ and criticise the US and the EU for ‘expanding the geopolitical area under their control without taking into account the balance of legitimate interests of all the people of Europe’, before condemning NATO enlargement. Lavrov’s speech reflected a strong (and widespread) sense of grievance at perceived Western hostility, inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow. There is anger at what is seen as the West’s rejection of partnership with Russia, as well as its destabilisation of the international system.

Since 2008 a number of documents defining Russia’s strategic direction have been published, including the 2008 Foreign Policy Concept, the 2009 National Security Strategy, and the 2010 Military Doctrine. There are common themes running through these three key policy documents. All three emphasise the importance of a multipolar world, reflecting Moscow’s unhappiness with US dominance of the international system, which it feels is destabilising. Another common theme is a rejection of NATO enlargement and in November 2013 Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu specified three principal military threats facing Russia: international Islamist terrorism, the withdrawal of Western coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and continued NATO enlargement on Russia’s borders. Russia has been angered by the West’s perceived failure to respond to its security concerns, particularly NATO enlargement eastwards, and has been seeking to reassert its authority across the former Soviet space in order to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’. The Russian political narrative remains dominated by talk of ‘competition’ and the need to be ‘competitive’ with the West, which is thought to be encroaching into an area that had previously been Moscow’s exclusive zone of ‘privileged interest’. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in October 2014 that any further NATO enlargement in the Balkans would be considered by Russia to be a provocation.

Where does this leave the future of NATO enlargement? The alliance’s open door policy appears to be undermining its security, as well as the security of aspirant states such as Georgia. Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008 revealed NATO’s limits of influence within Russia’s ‘zone of privileged interest’, as well as its lack of internal unity vis-à-vis relations with Moscow and future engagement with the area. There is a body of opinion that believes the ‘least worst’ option would be for the alliance to step back from its open door policy and recognise, for the sake of stability across the wider Euro-Atlantic area, that some states remain within Russia’s historic sphere of influence. However, this option, whilst the most pragmatic, fails to take into account the fact that the aspirant states are themselves making an autonomous foreign policy choice to turn away from Moscow, towards the West. It also overlooks the fact that Article X itself provides NATO with sufficient justification for rejecting aspirants, with its statement that membership remains open to other European countries that are ready and willing to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and whose membership contributes to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. Clearly, in the current climate, a country such as Georgia acceding to NATO will further undermine security across the Euro-Atlantic space.

The NATO-Russia Council – What Future?

There is a lack of unity and cohesion within NATO with regards to the alliance’s relations with Russia, a weakness Moscow is well aware of. The wide range of debates within NATO about Russia were reflected in the summit declaration, which focused on whether Russia was a potential threat to the alliance or merely an errant partner. Member-states on the eastern periphery view Russia as a pressing threat, prompting their calls for reassurance measures from NATO. This contrasts with the prevailing view of Western member-states, including Germany and the UK, who have tended to view Russia as an ‘errant partner’, a challenging neighbour who can be brought back into the fold. The summit declaration made it clear that, whilst NATO considers Russian action in Ukraine to be unacceptable and a violation of international law, political channels of communication would remain open and there was still an aspiration for a strategic partnership. The impact of the Ukrainian crisis on NATO-Russia relations is arguably less than that of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, which led to the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), and the alliance’s intervention in Serbia in 1999, which saw Russia suspend the Permanent Joint Council and the Russia-NATO Founding Act in protest at the NATO operation.

What does the future hold for relations between Russia and NATO? History suggests that the NRC will be reactivated at some point in the future as both parties recognise the need for some kind of minimal relationship. But two questions remain: will the revived NATO-Russia relationship be appropriate for the new security environment, post-Ukraine? And will it be internally sustainable, in terms of maintaining NATO cohesion? Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming years and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means. This will have implications both for individual member-states, particularly those adjacent to Russia, and for the alliance overall. The Russian political narrative will remain dominated by anti-Western sentiment as Moscow is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area. This will lead to continued tension between Russia and NATO, over the latter’s attempts to strengthen relationships with countries such as Georgia.

We would like to thank all the participants who made the roundtable a success and contributed to a wide-ranging debate. For further information on the Regional Security Research Centre visit http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/dsd/research/researchgroups/rsrc/index.aspx.

Image: Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, 23 October 2013, NATO Headquarters, Brussels. Courtesy of NATO.

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