Despite their persisting differences, Russia and NATO look set to turn a page in Lisbon and move on to end the division of Europe into hostile East and West.
Russia will mount its most determined effort so far to improve relations with its Cold War enemy, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, when President Dmitry Medvedev travels to Lisbon on Friday to attend the Alliance's summit for the first time.
Government leaders and heads of state of the 28 member-countries, including United States President Barack Obama, will meet in the Portuguese capital on November 19-20 to adopt NATO's new strategic concept for the 21st century and try to extend the nearly two-year-long reset between Russia and the U.S. to the entire transatlantic bloc.
This is not the first time Russia is attempting to recast its relations with NATO and end mutual antagonism. In 1997, Moscow and Brussels signed a NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, and the 2002 Rome Declaration for the establishment of a NATO-Russia Council to discuss each other's concerns and cooperation.
However, NATO continued to treat Russia as a threat, if no longer an outright enemy. It granted membership to not only former Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union but also the ex-Soviet Baltic states, breaking its promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that it would not expand beyond the Cold War borders. It again breached its word to President Boris Yeltsin that it would desist from deploying military forces on the territory of its new members. NATO endorsed President George W. Bush's plan to set up missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic that could target Russian strategic arsenals. America's European allies joined Washington in sponsoring “colour revolutions” in the former Soviet Union under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy. Russia saw these policies as aimed at isolating, encircling and weakening it.
Relations between Russia and NATO dipped to a Cold War low in 2008 when the Russian army gave a thrashing to Georgia, a NATO hopeful, after it attacked Russian peacekeepers in North Ossetia. NATO condemned the “aggression” and, under pressure from the Bush administration, froze contacts and exchanges with Russia.
The reset in Russian-American relations launched by President Obama last year opened the way for a patch-up between Russia and NATO. Shortly after Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, NATO resumed political dialogue with Russia and military-to-military cooperation in counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics and maritime piracy. Russia responded, stepping up its assistance to NATO in Afghanistan and allowing transit of supplies for the Alliance forces through its territory. Last month, Russia and the U.S. carried out their first joint operation in Afghanistan to destroy several narcotics laboratories.
“The time has come for a fresh start for NATO-Russia relations,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this month following his meeting with Mr. Medvedev in the Kremlin. He called for a strategic partnership with Russia and invited it to build joint missile defences in Europe.
The real game-changer in Russia-NATO relations has been the Alliance's deepening quagmire in Afghanistan. NATO badly needs Russian help for a face-saving endgame. In Lisbon, Russia and NATO are expected to sign agreements for increased Russian assistance to the U.S.-led NATO force that will include supply of gunship and transport helicopters, training of Afghan pilots and mechanics, and expansion of the overland transit arrangement to allow the so-called reverse transit of non-lethal armour and other equipment from Afghanistan. Russia will reiterate its commitment to renovate infrastructure and industrial projects it built in Afghanistan in Soviet times. Moscow said it would just stop short of sending troops to Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that under “no circumstances” would Russian soldiers return there.
Moscow, of course, is extending a helping hand to NATO because it has a vital stake in stopping the flow of Afghan narcotics into Russia and eliminating a terrorist threat from Afghanistan to Central Asia. For all that, it has driven a hard bargain with NATO, skilfully exploiting fissures within the alliance between “core members” such as France and Germany, which favour greater involvement of Russia in NATO affairs, and the East Europeans, who still view Russia with hostility. In return for Russian assistance, Brussels has agreed to accommodate some of Moscow's security concerns.
NATO has put on the back burner its plans to grant membership to Ukraine and Georgia and has given the green signal for Russia's purchase of western arms: the path-breaking deal to sell Russia French Mistral amphibious assault ships is expected to be clinched shortly. NATO's new Strategic Concept to be unveiled in Lisbon will neither name Russia a potential challenge nor contain “any unpleasant surprises” for Moscow, according to Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin. The two sides are expected to present a joint review of common security challenges in the 21st century such as terrorism, piracy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and natural and man-made disasters, and agree to enhance cooperation in these areas. Brussels has further accepted the Moscow proposal to launch an open dialogue in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council on ways of providing peace and stability in Europe.
At the same time, Russia and NATO remain wide apart on key strategic issues. Russia is firmly opposed to NATO extending its global reach over the head of the United Nations as the Alliance seeks to reposition itself for new challenges. “It's not a global Alliance but it is a global actor,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said defining NATO's new role under the new Strategic Concept. “We can't agree with the concept of global policeman,” Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin retorted. Russia is particularly worried over NATO's decision to declare the Arctic Ocean a zone of its responsibility. Russia's military doctrine, approved in February, says one of the “main external threats” comes from plans to assign NATO a “global role that will be played in violation of international law” and the Alliance's expansion east of Russia's borders. The new NATO doctrine is expected to reaffirm the policy of open doors.
The U.S. has rejected Mr. Medvedev's initiative to sign a treaty for a new transatlantic security architecture that would give Russia a voice on issues such as NATO expansion and military intervention. “We believe that the best way to achieve this [security] is by reinforcing the pillars that have supported European security for decades, not by negotiating new treaties, as Russia has suggested,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a pre-summit meeting of the Russia-NATO Council.
NATO's invitation to Russia to participate in a pan-European missile defence that will be given top priority in Lisbon has not allayed Moscow's concerns. Mr. Lavrov said Russia could take part “if it's cooperation on an equal basis.” Moscow insists that the two sides first make a joint assessment of potential missile threats, decide what is needed to counter these threats and then proceed to jointly build the defences. However, Ambassador Daalder made it clear that the U.S. would go ahead with deploying the missile shield in Europe, irrespective of whether or when Russia joins in.
“We would like to cooperate with Russia but cannot make such cooperation a condition for us to develop missile defence when we see a threat,” he told Russia's Interfax news agency ahead of the summit.
In an Op-Ed piece he contributed to the International Herald Tribune this week, Mr. Daalder said the U.S. would build missile defences in Europe in accordance with the Phased Adaptive Approach plan approved by President Obama. Under Phase 3, the U.S. will by 2020 deploy dozens of long-range missile interceptors that will have the capacity to shoot down Russian strategic missiles.
Russia has nevertheless agreed to undertake jointly with NATO a six-month analysis of possible cooperation areas. It has floated the idea of setting up a “missile-defence pool” in Europe, which appears to resonate with Mr. Rasmussen's proposal of linking the anti-missile systems of NATO and Russia through early warning and other data exchange arrangements.
Moscow and Brussels remain lock-horned on conventional military balance in Europe. Three years ago, Russia suspended its compliance with the 1999 amended Conventional Forces in Europe treaty over the refusal of NATO members to ratify the pact and in protest against the U.S. military build-up near the Russian borders. The deadlock deepened after Russia deployed its forces in Abkhazia and North Ossetia, which Moscow has recognised as independent states but NATO continues to regard as part of Georgia.
However, despite the persisting differences, Russia and NATO look set to turn a page in Lisbon and move on to end the division of Europe into hostile East and West. According to Mr. Lavrov's cautious expectation, the summit could mark the end of the “post-Cold War period” in Russia-NATO relations.