The relationship between Russia and NATO will forever be defined by encouraging steps forward hampered by regular setbacks. But soon, other regional factors may become even more important.
During the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon last November I was standing in the main press theatre waiting for Dmitry Medvedev to appear in front of the journalists. A member of the Russian delegation showed up there and told me: The president told NATO leaders: “We are prepared to go as far as you are prepared to go”. It felt as if spring was in the air for Moscow and the Alliance.
It feels more like autumn only a few months later.
Anti-NATO rhetoric is on the rise in Russia’s state-controlled media, missile defence talks going nowhere and now, after it was announced that the US are conducting “exploratory conversations” with the Taleban, even cooperation in Afghanistan may be under the cloud. The Kremlin might well conclude that, after Barack Obama’s hasty withdrawal announcement, everyone’s for himself and start looking for its own channels of communication with the Afghan insurgents.
Attitudes to NATO in the Russian political class remains ambiguous
Ever since the signing of the Russia-NATO Founding Act in Paris in 1997, the relationship shows the same predictable pattern - each attempt at rapprochement usually ends with a crisis (1999 conflict over Kosovo and 2008 war in Georgia are prime examples), followed by a period of cooling off and then a new upswing – only to be followed by another crisis.
The situation in relations between the alliance and Russia is characterised by a lot of practical activities, which are designed to compensate for one crucial thing missing – lack of political trust between the two sides.
Banal as this pronouncement has become, it is true. No amount of search and rescue exercises, seminars and civil emergency training can disguise the fact that the political and military leadership in Russia still views NATO as a competitor at best, adversary at worst, while the alliance leaders seem to be more and more indifferent to Russia’s sensitivities – because they consider them to be a product of outmoded twentieth century thinking. Despite protestations to the contrary, a large amount of “Russia fatigue” has evidently accumulated in the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Attitudes to NATO in the Russian political class remains ambiguous: the Alliance is grudgingly respected as the most successful military and political alliance in history. However, in the same breath Russian media and politicians rejoice in NATO setbacks, like the protracted Libyan air war or Afghanistan pullout, as supposed proof that its power is on the vane.
But NATO’s main role remains domestic – it serves as a universal symbol of Western arrogance, American domination and a constant reminder of the USSR’s defeat in the “Cold war”. Its successful expansion adds insult to injury, reminding the Russians of the pitiful end of the Warsaw Pact.
The Russians’ frustrations with 20 years of inconclusive reforms, painful new identity searches and a “victim complex” find their best expression in the “respect and hate” attitude towards NATO. If one imagines for a moment Russia’s political class admitting that NATO is not an enemy anymore, there will be no way of avoiding unpleasant questions. For example, what is Russia’s real weight in global affairs? Does it have means of projecting military power abroad on a consistent basis? Does Russia have allies and what values bond her with them?
Dealing with Tehran (or North Korea) gives Moscow an opportunity to confirm its status as an independent player
So the loss of “Lisbon momentum” should not surprise anyone: as elections to the State Duma and then the Russian presidency approach, anti-NATO feelings will be stoked by all the main players. It is a safe bet with general public, and it helps the political class avoid those uncomfortable questions.
The same goes for missile defence: a barrage of proposals by Moscow, rejected by the Alliance, is designed to avoid serious disagreements over threat perception. This is truly the main stumbling block, because it forces partners to designate enemies and friends. There is no way that today’s Russian government will ever admit that Iran (or, for that matter, North Korea) is a threat.
Why not? Firstly, Russia doesn’t have a sense of acute danger emanating from Iran, nor from organisations like Hezbollah or Hamas. Secondly, dealing with Tehran (or North Korea) gives Moscow an opportunity (albeit a limited one) to distinguish its position from that of Washington, and by doing so, confirm its status as an independent player. Thirdly, it is part of a wider strategy of proving Moscow’s standing with other partners in the informal BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China) group. These countries, very different and sometimes incompatible in many respects, feel solidly united by an inferiority complex vis-à-vis America and the West, as well as a burning desire to challenge it.
Although this state of affairs looks as if it could go on indefinitely, in fact there are several factors that in the medium term may force Moscow to make hard choices regarding national security.
First among them is an increasingly troubling demographic trend. Rapidly ageing population and an abnormal mortality rate (especially, among males) gradually leads the pensions' system towards collapse and makes conscription an increasingly untenable proposition. Russian armed forces are undergoing painful and somewhat chaotic reforms - with a still uncertain outcome. The Russian navy’s much-debated decision to acquire “Mistral” helicopter carriers from France is but a symptom of a larger malaise – chronic shortage of modern weaponry, which the nation’s military industry is still – or yet – unable to reduce.
There is also the rise of China, which has lots of cash, treats Russia increasingly like a junior partner, elbows her out of Central Asia and robustly competes with her in the international arms markets – frequently selling back-engineered and updated versions of Russia’s own military hardware. Widespread corruption hampers governance and eats away at the army moral.
Externally, having the world’s largest military force - three million Chinese officers and men - sitting on your eastern border, provides for an uncomfortable geopolitical neighbourhood. This in turn links to the demographic conundrum. With constant and steady population outflow from Siberia and the Far East towards the European part of the country, maintaining security beyond the Urals starts to look like a problem. With a possible return of the Taleban to power in Afghanistan, and a real perspective of the Iranian influence spreading in the region, Russia’s southern neighbourhood might well soon be on fire too. Its nominal allies there, Central Asia’s often authoritarian rulers, have largely eliminated all sensible opposition there and prepared the ground for the radical Islamists to take over.
In these circumstances, Russia’s political leaders will soon have to make a hard security choice. They can accommodate China, in fact becoming its junior partner, and hope that the Chinese will also effectively police Central Asia. They could adopt a more cooperative approach vis-à-vis NATO and seek out new security options with the Trans-Atlantic community. It will not be easy, but at least Russia would be dealing with partners it knows well. Finally, Russia could try to withstand external pressures on its own – a serious gamble bearing in mind the socio-economic and political problems it faces.
These choices are difficult, and even more so because, unfortunately for Russia, they will have to be made very soon.
Konstantin Eggert, MBE, was the Russian editor-in-chief of the BBC Russian Service Moscow bureau and remains active as a journalist and political analyst on Russian issues.