NATO-Russia dialogue and the future of the NATO-Russia Council
The NATO-Russia Council has not met for two years, since the annexation of Crimea, but both sides need to discuss their differences to understand each other better
Ever since the annexation of Crimea NATO has been debating the nature of its future relationship with Russia, which is undergoing its deepest crisis since the end of the Cold War. In April 2014, NATO’s foreign ministers decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia. The idea that Russia could one day be NATO’s partner has been shattered. Moscow’s military assertiveness and unpredictability has reshaped the whole debate on European security. The NATO-Russia Council was frozen for almost two years and even though it has now reconvened, its future function and utility is still a matter of debate among the allies.
Since the NATO secretary general spoke at the 2016 Munich Security Forum, “defence and dialogue” has begun to emerge as the Alliance’s dual-track response to the present situation. In principle, the suggestion that a strong NATO could contribute to a more constructive relationship with Russia was spelled out relatively early on, since Jens Stoltenberg assumed his position as NATO secretary general in the fall of 2014. Stoltenberg has maintained that NATO’s enhanced forward position in the eastern member states should be combined with strong political and military channels of communication with Russia. This has, in effect, become the Alliance’s common and official position.
Dual-track policies, dual paradigms
It is an approach that makes sense. While a common position is crystallising, NATO member states still have different priorities – some are focused on deterrence, while others are inclined to prioritise dialogue. Combining a focus on dialogue and deterrence in has thus become a means of achieving consensus within the Alliance. But the two strands also reinforce each other in ways that go way beyond NATO’s internal dynamics, and may indeed represent the optimal way of dealing with current-day Russia.
One needs to keep in mind that Russia and NATO view the current situation in drastically different terms. NATO correctly views Russia as an agressor. Russia has annexed another country’s territory – unheard of in Europe since 1945. The Kremlin is fuelling the war in eastern Ukraine and seems bent on dangerous escalation across the board, expressed through agressive military snap exercises, nuclear signalling and renewed assertiveness in the “high north”.
But NATO members find it hard to comprehend that Russia may also view the West as an agressor. Russia sees the world in terms of “spheres of influence” and is dismissive of the potential of small states – or even their right – to make their own decisions. Russia therefore has a different starting point: it thinks that it “had” Ukraine, until the West fomented a revolution that “took it away.” In Moscow’s eyes, the West is an expansionist power that, after swallowing Central Europe and the Baltic States, is now reaching out for Ukraine and may well see regime change in Moscow as its end goal.
One NATO official expressed this difference by stating that “For NATO, the arrangement of the last 25 years represents the face of the future. For Russia, it is an aberration that needs to be put in brackets.” These paradigmatically different world views – that make each side see the other as the agressor with potentially far-reaching aims – are dangerous. And this creates the need for a combined approach that employs deterrence and dialogue.
Why deterrence? It is likely that Russia, for the time being, does not in fact have carefully considered strategic designs on NATO’s territory. In Moscow’s mind, Poland or even the Baltic States are not in the same category with Ukraine. They are NATO countries, and sit in the US “sphere of influence”. But they are also the Alliance’s “soft underbelly” – a place where Moscow may be tempted to play aggressively if it feels the need to raise the stakes and escalate. This need could arise from entirely different theatres that have nothing to do with Poland or the Baltic States.
It is useful to keep in mind that Russia probably did not intend to recognise the independene of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – but at one point it found itself in a situation where it felt compelled to. Likewise, Russia probably did not intend to annex Crimea – until, in the course of a few turbulent weeks, it did exactly that. So Russia’s current lack of intent to invade NATO member states is a positive thing and probably sincere, but needs to be reinforced by NATO deterrence to make sure it lasts. NATO needs to create a situation where Russia sees that nothing at all can possibly be gained by any sort of infringement on its members’ territory.
And why dialogue? Dialogue is needed to communicate what NATO is doing and why, and to hear Russia’s views. Despite the best wishes of some NATO countries it is unclear if dialogue can really resolve the above described clash between different paradigms – but it certainly can make that clash more manageable and less dangerous. Building more stability and predictability into the NATO-Russia relationship is mutually beneficial. It is important that proximity and confusion do not lead to accidents that could spiral out of control, especially in areas where Allied and Russian militaries come into close contact, such as in the Baltic States, the Black Sea or in Syria. It would be useful and necessary for NATO and Russia to de-conflict their movements and increase transparency when it comes to military exercises.
The mixed track record of the NATO-Russia Council
The NATO-Russia Council, in its current incarnation, was set up in 2002 with the intention of taking the relationship to a qualitatively new level. The dialogue was not supposed to simply be between Russia and NATO, as previously, but among all 20 states: 19 then-NATO members and Russia. With NATO’s subsequent expansions the number around the table rose to 29. The idea behind the arrangement was to address Russia’s complaints that in the previous version of the Council it was always confronted with pre-agreed NATO positions, effectively presented with fait accompli that left no room for real debate.
However, the conversation among the 29 never materialised as intended. In retrospect, it is quite evident that both sides had unrealistic expectations. The Allies hoped that the more they talked to the Russians, through the NATO-Russia Council or associated meetings and working groups, the better the understanding between all parties would be. For Moscow, the central idea of the new arrangement in Europe in 1990s was the idea of an east-west convergence. Russia wanted to come on board not just as a rule-taker, but also as a rule-maker. It aspired to be an “equal partner” of NATO as opposed to a “junior partner”. The Russian interpretation of “equality” was that both Moscow and Brussels were ready to make reciprocal concessions and compromises in the most important areas of their cooperation. 
Effectively, Russia was hoping to become a decision-maker in NATO, with de facto veto rights. Such a vision is politely, but quite clearly spelled out by President Vladimir Putin in his speech at Rice University in Houston in late 2001:
“We are prepared to expand our cooperation with NATO. And we are prepared to go as far as the Northern Alliance itself is prepared – taking into account, of course, the national interest of the Russian Federation. […] If we want someone in the international community to effectively and consistently comply with a decision that has been taken, that participant should have an opportunity to take part in the deliberation of the decision and be responsible and feel responsible for its implementation. And if we succeed in finding a mechanism that will enable to involve Russia in the decision-making, then I think we would be able to believe that we have achieved a qualitative change in the relationship between Russia and the Northern Alliance.”
Being part of any organisation’s decision-making process without being a member is always a lot to ask. Moscow would probably never have acquired the sort of say in NATO that it wished for. Still, had Russia’s overall paradigmatic and philosophical vision of international relations and security been closer to the West’s, the NRC could have become an important coordinating mechanism – an all-member decision-making and discussion forum that would have brought Moscow as close to NATO as possible, without formalising its membership.
As it happened, Moscow’s vision was quite different, and Putin’s gradual domestic consolidation of power and his creation of an authoritarian system made the difference even more evident. While on practical matters compromises and overlapping interests could indeed be found and were found, a compromise (as envisioned first by Gorbachev) on such a paradigmatic and philosophical level was never possible in principle. Indeed, it would have been like looking for a compromise between a square and a circle. Both parties have entirely different and irreconcilable world views, each with an internal coherence that simply does not lend itself to a meaningful merger.
This was also the reason why the conversation among the 29 never really materialised. NATO member states were not supposed to discuss in advance any matters that were destined for discussion among the 29 – but for that reason many sensitive issues never made it to NRC, because the member states who felt exposed on certain issues vetoed those topics. For Moscow, even though NATO had promised to make the NRC into an all-member format, in practice Russia still ended up being confronted with united NATO positions. As a result, the NATO-Russia Council was effectively reduced to an attempt to overcome deep existential differences by never really tackling them. Instead it circumvented the deep problems and focused on “secondary” issues where commonalities could more easily be found.
Even so, the list of “secondary” agenda items is impressive and not without importance. Positive examples of NATO-Russia cooperation include confidence-building measures, such as joint training and exercises for civil emergency planning and cooperation. Believing that a common vocabulary provides an important base for further understanding, glossaries and Russian-English-French dictionary of military terminology was put together. Cooperation also involved practical military-technical aspects, such as the Cooperative Airspace Initiative that was aimed at working out a joint solution to the renegade problem enabling reciprocal exchange of air traffic data and early notification of either side in the event of suspicious air activities. This facilitated air traffic transparency, predictability and interoperability in airspace management.
After the Kursk submarine accident, NATO and Russia signed an agreement on submarine crew rescue operations, allowing Russia to participate in three NATO-led search-and-rescue exercises in 2005, 2008 and 2011.
But none of these had a spillover effect when it came to the wider Russia-NATO relationship, which despite best efforts continued to deteriorate. After the more or less cordial first years, there was a sharp downturn in cooperation after Ukraine’s Orange revolution in late 2004 – and the trend never changed. Focusing on commonalities didn’t help to solve the broad philosophical differences between Russia and NATO, but may instead have managed to hide them. This is why the annexation of Crimea, and the new aggressive Russia that stood behind the act, came as such a shock for NATO.
From symbolism to practicalities
In retrospect, both NATO and Russia agree that the NRC has been a somewhat mis-conceived endeavour. As one Russian expert put it:
“The NATO-Russia Council was always just a symbol of the new type of relationship: we were not enemies any more, we were friends. It was a palliative given to Russia to make it feel privileged. […] Symbol came first, and then they started to look for the things for the Council to do, and formed working groups. The agenda was artificial, invented […] and we always had differences in basic questions. So it is logical that once the previous relationship ceased to exist, the symbol of it became the first victim. Had there been some truly useful agenda – comparable to, say, the P5+1 format for Iran negotiations – then, maybe, NATO would not have frozen the NRC so easily.”
The idea that the NRC symbolically represented shared values between Russia and NATO, and a cooperative relationship between the two, has also influenced the post-Crimea discussions at NATO. For a long time the alliance was mired in debates on whether to reconvene the NRC or not, with some member states holding the view that restarting meetings would amount to resurrecting the symbol of good relations and therefore would have the effect of legitimising Russia’s misdeeds.
In reality, NATO should strip NRC from its useless symbolic status and finally give it tasks that it can actually accomplish, instead of tasks that are impossible by nature. We should acknowledge that Russia and NATO have few overlapping interests and totally divergent worldviews that are likely to manifest in antagonistic positions and can lead to dangerous situations. Therefore, we should make the NATO-Russia Council into a much-needed confrontation-management body.
In doing that one needs to be careful and avoid investing the NRC with tasks that are too complicated for it. For example, the philosophical, paradigmatic differences between Russia and the West need to be discussed. While they cannot be quickly overcome, they can and should be rationalised. However, the NRC is hardly a suitable place for that sort of discussion. Nor can it meaningfully address the questions of the European security order that Russia would very much like to make part of its agenda with the West.
It is also unclear what can be achieved by discussing Ukraine. NATO’s aspiration to do bring Ukraine to the table is understandable – after all, Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine has transformed the relationship, leaving it in its current state. Still, it would be naive to hope that the NRC can contribute to resolution of the Donbas problem or Crimea.
However, the NRC could contribute a lot to making the current NATO-Russia stand-off less dangerous. It should become a venue where NATO and Russia can communicate their intentions, posture and expectations of each other.
The NRC could become a means of avoiding accidental clashes – the likelihood of which remains high, even though tensions are currently past thir peak and rumbling at a consistent level. It is positive that Russia is considering switching on transponders at flights over the Baltic Sea region; and the NRC has made air safety measures in the Baltic Sea area the topic of its next meeting in July. To improve safety, some Russian experts have also suggested dusting off the Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas, which was signed by the US and USSR in May 1972.
Some Russians interviewed for this paper pointed out that planes and maritime vessels operate under national flags, and, argued that in theory they would be best dealt with via bilateral agreements – which would leave NATO aside. This is not entirely the case, because bringing in NATO as an institution still makes sense when it concerns a joint NATO air or maritime activity. Baltic air policing missions, for example, are subordinate to NATO’s chain of command. Also, from the point of view of NATO member states, the goal of the NRC is to get Russia talk to the allies collectively. All 28 NATO members around the table carry an equal weight with no division old or new, east or south.
Russia and Turkey’s recent clash over Syria could also illustrate the need for NATO’s involvement. Apparently, Moscow, having coordinated its actions with the US. had hoped that the US would give all necessary instructions to its NATO ally Turkey. The US – for obvious reasons – did not see it the same way. After shooting down a Russian plane, Turkey invoked NATO’s Article 4, but the ability to reach out to Russia was impeded by the dysfunctionality of NATO-Russia link. Lack of timely communication then further magnified the conflict.
In general, Russia’s engagement in Syria has also brought wider issues of operational compatibility onto the agenda – something the NRC used to address in the past, and that some Russians now deem the only piece of the old arrangement that is worth saving. A recent report by the Deep Cuts Commission suggests the creation of a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link to the US joint chiefs of staff, the Russian general staff, and SHAPE. This might be something worth considering.
Both Russian and Western experts have also suggested confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) at border areas are useful agenda items for the NRC. This could include rules concerning military exercises, however this might result in some overlap with the role of the OSCE, raising the question whether the NRC should hijack some of the OSCE’s agenda. It would probably be better for Russia and NATO to instead empower the OSCE to reinvigorate the Vienna document and other existing measures. A new conventional arms control regime for Europe – probably more realistic than a resurrection of Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe – might also be reasonable, although fraught with political difficulties for the foreseeable future.
The underlying question, of course, remains to what extent Russia is interested in the revival of the NRC. At some levels Moscow has indicated that it is not particularly interested, because it has other smaller formats for most strategic issues – the quintet for Middle East, Geneva process for Syria and the Normandy format for discussing Ukraine. Since the intervention in Syria, Russia and the US have re-established their direct contact, so there is no need to discuss security in the NRC.
One needs to also ask to what extent Moscow would see the proposed NRC agenda as being in its interest. It is no secret that Moscow compensates its strategic weaknesses vis-a-vis NATO by being an avid risk-taker. An aura of unpredictability serves Moscow well. Russians also complain that the confidence-building measures suggested by the West are not “aimed at prevention of a new structural military-political conftrontation (but their) main emphasis is on making such a confrontation ‘safer’.” “Prevention” of confrontation would probably imply a geopolitical deal between NATO and Russia, or at least a conversation about the European Security order. Therefore it’s not unimaginable that Russia will rebuff confidence building measures and try to behave dangerously in order to blackmail the West into the sort of conversation that the West does not want to have.
As such, some creativity may be needed to make Russia interested in predictability. However, this is not impossible. As put by one Russian expert: “The Kremlin wants to walk up to the red line, but not cross it. At the same time, they do not always know where the red line is.” A reinvigorated NATO-Russia Council could become instrumental in setting out the red lines for Moscow in no uncertain terms.
Kadri Liik is a senior policy fellow of ECFR.
Merle Maigre is a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US and Security policy adviser for the President of Estonia. She has also worked for the NATO Secretary General’s private office policy planning unit. The opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the official positions of the Republic of Estonia.
 Fabrice Pothier at ECFR seminar in Paris, 30 June 2016.
 Andrey Kortunov, “How not to talk with Russia”, the European Council on Foreign Relations, 1 April 2016, available at https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_not_to_talk_with_russia_6053
 Vladimir Putin, “Speech and Answers to Questions at Rice University”, Kremlin.ru, 14 November 2001, available at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/21400
 “Relations with Russia”. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 18 May 2016, available at http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_50090.htm
 Interview in Moscow in June 2016.
 For more elaboration, see the following article: Thomas Frear, „Cleared for Takeoff: Dangerous Brinkmanship and the Case for the Cooperative Airspace Initiative“, 20 June 2016, available at http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/cleared-for-takeoff-dangerous-brinkmanship-and-the-case-for-the-cooperative-airspace-initiative_3812.html
 “NATO-Russia Council to discuss air safety on July 13: RIA cites Russian Defence Ministry”, Reuters, 2 July 2016, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nato-meeting-idUSKCN0ZI0GO
 “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas”, 25 May 1972, available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sov008.asp
 “Recommendations of the Third Report of the Deep Cuts Commission, June 2016”, deepcuts.org, June 2016, available at http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/Recommendations_of_the_Third_Report_English.pdf
 Sergei Karaganov, “Letter of diagreement”, in Back to Diplomacy: Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, OSCE, 3 December 2015, p. 18, available at http://www.osce.org/networks/205846?download=true
 Interview in Moscow in June
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.