NATO, Russia Revive Dialogue

12 March 2009

Foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, have recently agreed to resume ties with Russia that were suspended in August as a result of Moscow's five-day war with Georgia.

The NATO/Russia Council was created in 2002 as a forum for dialogue and cooperation between the former Cold War enemies. It provides a forum for the 26 NATO member countries and Russia to address issues where they agree - such as combating terrorism and curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons - and areas where they disagree - such as NATO expansion and missile defense.

Last August, NATO suspended its cooperation with Russia following its five-day war with Georgia. At that time, NATO condemned Moscow's military action as "disproportionate" and said it cannot continue "business as usual" with Russia. It also rejected Moscow's recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

But at a recent meeting in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers agreed to reestablish normal relations with Moscow and resume the work of the NATO/Russia Council.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced the decision.

"Russia is an important player," he said. "Russia is a global player. And that means that not talking to them is not an option."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending her first NATO meeting, echoed that view.

"While the Alliance won't agree and indeed need not agree on every issue relating to Russia, we can and do agree that we must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest," she said. "We also agree we must find ways to manage our differences with Russia where they persist and stand firm where our principles or our vital interests are at stake."

Many experts, including Jason Lyall from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, question whether anything has changed in seven months to warrant NATO's about face.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (r) with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting in Geneva, 06 Mar 2009
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (r) with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting in Geneva, 06 Mar 2009
"Absolutely nothing has changed," he said. "In fact, Russia has continued to transgress against the peace plan which was supposed to have stopped the war. Russia has dug itself in, basically, into Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has now fortified military bases in those locations. And so it has done very, very little to justify the U-turn in relations. I think it is more a recognition on NATO's part that it is much better to have Russia inside the fold than it is to have Russia outside the fold."

Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University says that despite the alliance's decision to resume relations with Russia, NATO countries are still divided over the issue.

"Allies in NATO, the key allies - in particular Germany and France - are very keen to pursue a much better relationship with Russia," he said. "And so the idea of a kind of longer lasting sort of punishment post-Georgia was just simply not likely. There are divisions within NATO on that that have become public. Some of the Eastern European countries are not as happy with this new overture toward Russia, but that's understandable given their historical perspective. But at the end of the day, we need to move forward."

Jason Lyall says NATO inevitably will continue to have intense internal debates on how close the alliance's relationship should be with Russia.

"Right now, it has been decided in favor of the people who want to have a close dialogue with Russia," he said. "I think the sporadic interruption of oil supplies, energy supplies to Europe, has tipped the balance toward the fact that they would rather have Russia in a dialogue than Russia outside a dialogue."

Many analysts say another contributing factor to NATO's turnaround on Russia is the fact that the Obama administration has vowed to establish a positive relationship with Moscow.

Experts say Russia and NATO have many issues to discuss - from arms control, missile defense and European security to NATO expansion, Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Robert Hunter, who served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, says it is now up to the Russians to work with the alliance.

"And we'll see whether they are prepared to take a cooperative stance within the NATO/Russia Council or whether it'll just be some of the stonewalling we saw even before the war between Russia and Georgia last year," he said. "To go back to what President [Ronald] Reagan once said, 'Trust, but verify.' I would put it the other way around. Right now, we need to have Russia show that it's not going to repeat in any way, shape or form what it did in Georgia and then trust will be built again."

A NATO spokeswoman said the NATO/Russia Council will meet next month, soon after the alliance's summit meeting in early April.