Russia and NATO balancing on the brink of military conflict has been a hot topic ever since 2014 when the bilateral ties were frozen as a result of the events in Ukraine. Heightened tensions, arms control erosion and a plethora of divisive issues negatively affect the bilateral relationship, with misunderstanding and frustration hindering any attempts to turn the tide.
War preparations are on the way. Last year, NATO rejected Russia’s initiatives to ease tensions in Europe. Some moves of NATO members aimed at boosting first strike capability go almost unnoticed by media, for instance, the acquisition by Poland of air-to-surface long-range cruise missiles. The US-initiated B-61-12 life extension program (LEP) puts into question the prospects for arms control in Europe.
Incidents caused by dangerous maneuvering and provocative exercises have become frequent. Last year, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s Foreign Minister, accused the alliance of «warmongering» against Russia. He spoke out against NATO military exercises in Poland and the Baltic States, describing them as «saber-rattling». «The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation with loud saber-rattling and warmongering», the foreign minister told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. «Anyone who thinks a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is wrong», he noted.
The Vienna Document is the only security mechanism in place to control military activities in Europe at present, but it’s certainly not enough to curb the rising tensions. OSCE’s Treaty on Open Skies, too, is limited in application. Over twenty years of cooperation have never translated into the type of strategic relationship that NATO and Russia had hoped for.
Two major Russia-US arms control treaties are jeopardized. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) has recently become a bone of contention with mutual accusations of non-compliance. The New START Treaty has been recently decried by the United States administration. The entire system of arms control and non-proliferation is eroding right in front of our eyes with dim prospects for stemming the process. Russia and the US have not had meaningful negotiations on this issue for almost three years, much like it was in the days of the Cold War when there were no contacts to discuss it in the period from 1983 to 1985.
The meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) convened last year.
But while it’s all doom and gloom today. There are some signs the situation may take a turn for the better.
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», Andrei Kelin, the Foreign Ministry’s head of the Department of European Cooperation. The emphasis on the need to restore the previous relationship made the statement acquire special importance.
The Russian Defense Ministry reported on March 3 that NATO Military Committee General Petr Pavel held a phone conversation with Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov – the first high-level official Russia-NATO contact since 2014. The sides discussed the prospects of restoring military contacts and working out steps to decrease tensions in Europe.
On February 28, General Sir Gordon Kenneth Messenger, UK’s Vice Chief of the Defence Staff met General Alexander Zhuravlev, Deputy Chief of Russia's General Staff.
Russia has invited NATO to take part in the Moscow Security Conference scheduled to take place on April 26-27, 2017, reaffirming its persistent pursuit of open dialogue.
«Despite suspended cooperation in the military sphere, invitations to the forum have been sent to all member countries of the North Atlantic alliance and the European Union, as well as to the NATO leadership», said Deputy Defense Minister Aleksander Fomin. The conference is an annual event held since 2011 to provide a unique opportunity for international defense officials and organizations, as well as non-governmental experts and journalists to address key security issues.
Over 700 guests, including around 500 representatives of foreign countries, are expected to attend the event, including defense chiefs and delegations from 84 countries, over 130 foreign security experts and the heads of nine international organizations. The agenda comprises: «Global Security: Challenges of the 21st Century», «European Security: Prospects and Trends», «Asia-Pacific Region: A Balance of Interests or Military Confrontation?» and «Defense Ministries’ Interaction: Regional Aspects». Four workshops will focus on the struggle against terrorism and radicalism in the Middle East, information space security, the problems of anti-missile defense and the provision of security in Central Asia. The conference will be highlighted by more than 200 Russian and foreign journalists.
The Moscow security conference is the first important international event to offer an opportunity to discuss the proposal recently put forward by Germany. Last August, Mr. Steinmeier, then foreign chief who was elected German president last month, put forward a security initiative to start discussions on a European arms control treaty to include regional caps on armaments, transparency measures, rules covering new military technology such as drones, and the ability to control arms even in disputed territories.
The proposal calls for taking into account new military capabilities, such as drones. It puts focus on reliable system of verification and inclusion of regions «whose territorial status is controversial». The minister suggested that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could be the forum for talks. In late 2016, the idea to start talks on a new security agreement received support of 15 European nations, including France and Italy.
It should be noted here that the initiative to relaunch the negotiation process does not belong to the West. In March 2015, Russia expressed its readiness for negotiations concerning a new treaty regarding the control of conventional weapons in Europe. And Moscow has never rejected further talk on Conventional Arms Control in Europe (CACE).
The security arrangements should take into consideration new realities. Any agreement on arms control arms control treaty should be expanded to new or emerging technologies, comprising long range conventional precision guided weapons, armed unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), offensive cyber capabilities, robots, and the weapons based on new physical principles. In the past it was a mistake to exclude naval forces from the process. This time sea-based weapons and carrier-based aircraft should become part of the arms control agenda.
The confidence-building and security measures (CBSMs) contained in the Vienna Document should be expanded to prevent dangerous military activities and excessive build-up of conventional arms. The Russia’s recent shift from nuclear to highly capable conventional forces is a factor to facilitate progress in the field of arms control.
The Russia-NATO dialogue should eventually feed into a broader conversation on the European security order. That’s what the OSCE was created for. Evidently, it has not done much so far. Its role and contribution could be enlarged to address the key issue – the creation of new security architecture.
Obviously Russia and NATO have plenty of possibilities for cooperation.
There are examples when Russia and NATO effectively cooperated. The parties 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. The document remains the formal basis for NATO-Russia relations. It states that the parties do not see each other as adversaries, and are 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». Against all the odds, the document is still in force.
The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established in 2002. This is a forum to enable Russia and NATO to discuss a mutually agreed security agenda.
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. Russia took part in three NATO-led search-and-rescue exercises in 2005, 2008 and 2011.
Russia, NATO and the EU task forces operated jointly to fight piracy off the Somalia’s coast. Russia also supported the NATO’s maritime counter-piracy operation in the Mediterranean Sea (Operation Active Endeavour).
Afghanistan is the place where real cooperation could start right now. Russia allowed land transit though its territory of non-military freight from NATO and non-NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) contributors to the operation in Afghanistan. In 2010, NATO bought 31 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to refurbish them for the Afghan army.
Syria provides 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.
With few overlapping interests and totally divergent worldviews, Russia and NATO need time to narrow the gap. The NRC could be turned into a confrontation management body to focus on arms control, dangerous military activities, the common fight against terrorism, the Middle East and North Africa, especially Libya.
Today, the European continent is facing significant internal as well as external challenges. Security is paramount. The time is right to launch a meaningful and comprehensive discussion on the continental security order. Respect for each other’s views and interests is a prerequisite for success.
With arms control and non-proliferation in doldrums, the tensions over Ukraine, the standoff between Russia and NATO and the failure to cooperate efficiently in Syria, the Russia-organized conference is an opportunity to make the world a better place and it should not be missed.