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A Brief History of Russia’s relations with NATO

Su-27 Pilot vs NATO F-16s

Russia’s relations with NATO are going through their most critical phase since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the root of these difficulties, there are two interconnected reasons, the first being the Russian Federation’s return to the international scene in a big way due to the growing need for energy, especially gas, and the increase in its price, and the undoubted popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has given the country newfound political stability. The second reason that has made relations with Russia problematic is the inability of Europeans and Americans to define a common strategy towards Moscow, a strategy only unified with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. If in fact on the one hand in recent years the United States has approached the relationship with Russia as an opportunity to cooperate on issues related to nuclear proliferation, terrorism and the tendency to expand its influence in the Euro-Asian space through the promotion of the integration of the former Soviet republics into the Euro-Atlantic community, such as the creation of military bases in Bulgaria and Romania and the installation of parts of the anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which have contributed to convincing Moscow that the US wants to use NATO for an expansionist design to the detriment of Russian interests.

On the other hand, the European NATO members, who have always been heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, have handled and dealt with the issue in a divided manner.

Great Britain, some Nordic countries and former USSR satellite countries, albeit with different nuances, have implemented an intransigent policy.

France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other Western European states, on the other hand, considered it vital for energy, trade and economic reasons to maintain a relationship of dialogue and cooperation with Russia.

These divisions undoubtedly benefited Russia and forced Europeans and Americans to make internal compromises to deal with the situations Moscow was undertaking on several fronts. These divisions, however, have often turned into unity when the Russian attack has been aggressive, just look at the Georgian affair, the missile shield issue or the current war in Ukraine.

Relations between the Atlantic Alliance and the Kremlin, in spite of the efforts made in the past to achieve a stable relationship of dialogue and cooperation, are now going through a critical phase that could be prolonged over time to the point of definitively jeopardizing the chances of a resumption of cooperation.

Chronology of Events

From 1991 onwards, the first formal relations between the Atlantic Alliance and Russia were established, in particular from December 1991 when the North Atlantic Cooperation Council – NACC – was set up with the aim of developing a dialogue between the former Cold War adversaries.

The NACC, a multilateral forum for political dialogue, included all allied countries and those of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), soon to be joined by Albania and Georgia.

A few years later, in January 1994, Russia joined the Partnership for Peace (PFP), the program was aimed to establish trust between NATO, the European states that had not joined the Atlantic Alliance and Russia, and thus had the cooperative purpose of strengthening mutual relations and stimulating cooperation in the field of security.

This also led to participation in the 1996 NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia Herzegovina, Sfor – Stabilisation Force.

The following year was a particularly important one for mutual relations, because in 1997 the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security was approved.

This act prepared the ground for a more stable formal relationship between the Alliance and Russia by also establishing a permanent Joint Council, the Permanent Joint Council – PJC.

The PJC had to be a consultative body and, in all possible cases, a forum to launch joint initiatives on security issues. Unfortunately, however, the Council did not live up to expectations due to the persistent mutual distrust between the two sides and this hampered its functioning.

With the NATO bombings in Yugoslavia, which were not authorized by the UN Security Council, Russia decided to suspend its participation in the PJC in 1999, but despite this decision, it decided to participate in any way in the NATO-led ‘peacekeeping’ mission KFOR at the end of the conflict. Russia’s cooperation with the PJC resumed the following year.

A milestone in history in many respects was certainly 11 September 2001, with the attacks on the Word Trade Center and the threat of international terrorism.Terrorism certainly played a crucial role in strengthening ties between Russia and NATO. In fact, in the months that followed, intelligence information was shared and Russia granted NATO access to its airspace during the campaign in Afghanistan.

A key summit in this regard took place in 2002 at Pratica di Mare where the NATO-Russia Council – NRC was established to replace the old Joint Council.

What was established was a body for both cooperation and consultation on security issues, in particular the fight against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, military cooperation, crisis management and arms control. The aim was to devise and launch joint initiatives.

Over the years, the NRC has produced a number of relevant joint initiatives, including a counter-terrorism action plan, such as Operation Active Endeavour (2004-2006) to patrol the Mediterranean Sea, and multinational disaster response exercises.

Meanwhile, in 2004, there was the great European enlargement with the entry of seven former Warsaw Pact countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia, six years after the annexation of Poland and Hungary of March 1999, causing Moscow’s irritation about what had happened but it cashed in and did not protest.

However, cracks began to appear at the NATO summit in Bucharest in March 2008, just a month after the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo on 17 February 2008 opposed by Moscow. At this summit, the foundations were also laid for the enlargement in NATO of three more countries Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. The latter country will not pass due to the Greek veto on the name and will have to wait until March 2020 and add ‘North’.

At this summit there was also the proposal to grant Georgia and Ukraine membership in the Atlantic Alliance, the Membership Action Plan (MAP), which Moscow declared unacceptable.

The candidature of Ukraine and Georgia was strongly supported by the Bush administration and some Eastern European countries such as Poland. During this summit, the NATO Secretary General at the time, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, stated several times that accession would not be a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ this would happen.

The NATO member states, more precisely France, Italy and Germany, had strong misgivings about welcoming the two former USSR states. The fears were that this entry could lead to the Alliance’s direct involvement in unresolved conflicts, such as those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and thus cause a further serious deterioration in relations with Russia.

For Moscow, the entry of Georgia and Ukraine has repeatedly been declared a direct threat to its national security. Ukraine in fact has deep historical, political and economic ties with Russia and hosted the Russian fleet in the Black Sea in the port of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

Georgia, on the other hand, was and is in a crucial strategic position, as it is at the nerve centre of the Caucasus energy routes. The Kremlin’s concerns had already been consolidated in 2003 and 2004 after the ‘coloured revolutions’, i.e. “the Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003 and “the Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, which had brought strongly pro-Western and in the case of the Georgian president at the time, Mikheil Saak’ashvili, strongly anti-Russian groups into government.

The rift in the tense NATO-Russia relationship in 2008 was patched up during the new Barack Obama administration, which was also favoured by the simultaneous handover in the Kremlin between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, more of a cover than a reality as everyone knows that Putin remains the undisputed leader in Russia.

In the meantime, however, the new US administration is moving to replace the missile defence programme wanted by Bush with the far less invasive European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).

The Russian response to this move was lukewarm and Moscow wished to re-discuss the entire European security architecture and start a negotiation aimed at recovering an exclusive zone of influence but NATO did not agree and the proposal fell on deaf ears.

2008 is also a crucial year for what happened in August with Russia’s brief invasion of Georgia. Following this brief invasion, the North Atlantic Council condemned Russia for recognizing the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO Secretary at the time, stated that the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had violated numerous UN Security Council resolutions, including resolutions passed by Russia.

For its part, Russia insisted that the recognition had been taken on the basis of the situation on the ground and was in line with the UN Charta, in particular the Helsinki Final Act – CSCE of 1975.

The recent conflict in Georgia thus caused a serious crisis in NATO-Russia relations, as well as the interruption of the Council’s work, and in an extraordinary summit, the North Atlantic, NATO’s main decision-making body, decided to suspend meetings with Russian representatives in the NATO-Russia Council indefinitely.

Russia criticized the decision but refrained from taking any retaliatory measures.

Russian policy changed decisively in 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned to take the reins of the presidency, who was and is for a more muscular and less assertive policy, no longer willing to make concessions. During his presidency he decided, for example, to block the UN Security Council on Syria, unlike in the spring of 2011 when Russia did not listen to the sirens of Muammar Gaddafi and abstained on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, effectively giving the green light to the Alliance’s Operation Unified Protector that would bring down the Libyan Colonel’s regime.  Putin later in 2015 decided to discard cooperation with the US, which US and Russian foreign ministers John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are laboriously negotiating, to intervene militarily in support of Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, however, the most important issue was the Ukraine issue exacerbated in March 2014 following Russia’s move to annex Crimea and foment separatism in the Donbass.

It should be noted that during the Obama administration, in the years leading up to 2014, the US and NATO had greatly watered down the candidacies of Georgia and Ukraine.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, the new pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was initially aiming for an association agreement with the European Union, to which a no from Moscow made the Ukrainian government change its mind. What happened next in the country was the country’s revolt against the new president for the positions he had taken and the subsequent decision to flee.

From 2014 with the Russian invasion in Crimea, NATO immediately raised its anti-Russian guard and the watchword of all summits such as Cardiff, Warsaw, Brussels, London and Brussels was deterrence. Deterrence became the watchword of all subsequent summits and at the same time military measures on the eastern front, in particular with the Enhanced Forward Presence.

Furthermore, on 1 April 2014, NATO decided to suspend all practical civil and military cooperation with Russia, but the NRC was not suspended.

In that same year, a report was published showing that close military clashes between Russia and the West, especially NATO, had jumped to Cold War levels, plus or minus 40 dangerous incidents in just eight months.

Furthermore, the US alleged that Russia had violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and that the Kremlin had 1,643 nuclear warheads ready for launch (an increase from 1,537 in 2011), one more than the US, thus surpassing the US for the first time since 2000; the deployed capacity of both countries violated the 2010 New START treaty that set a limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads.

For his part, Putin decided to endorse a militarist political doctrine that blamed NATO for moving too far east in its sphere of influence and judged it as the main nuclear threat.

The two-year period 2014-2015 was indeed ‘hot’, there was a very tense general climate that really felt like being back in the Cold War.

In June 2015, Ashton Carter, US Secretary of Defence at the time, declared during a trip to Estonia that the US would deploy heavy weapons, including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery, in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.

The move was described by President Putin as Washington’s most aggressive act since the Cold War and a return by the US and its allies to the patterns of the same war.

Tensions between the two ‘blocs’ increased with the shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkey (a NATO member since 1952) on 24 November 2015 as it allegedly violated Turkish airspace during a mission in northwest Syria. Russian officials denied that the plane had entered Turkish airspace and shortly after the incident, NATO decided to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the issue and decided to support Turkey as a member country and its territorial integrity.

Another reason for tension came after the NATO summit held in Warsaw in July 2016 when a plan was approved to move four battalions totaling 3,000-4,000 soldiers on a rotational basis by early 2017 to the Baltic states and eastern Poland, then also to increase air and sea patrols to reassure allies who were once part of the Soviet bloc especially due to concerns over Russia’s efforts to further strengthen a military deployment in the Black Sea region. The summit reaffirmed the decision to suspend all practical civil and military cooperation with Russia, while maintaining an open political dialogue.

In the same year, NATO leaders had also agreed to strengthen support for Ukraine led by former President Poroshenko and approved a comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine aimed at “helping to make Ukraine’s defence and security institutions more effective, efficient and accountable” as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated in July 2016.

In 2017, the NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels at the end of which the parties informed each other about various military exercises they were planning, but not only that, they also exchanged ideas and views on crucial issues such as Afghanistan and Ukraine.

This meeting, it was thought, would finally be a positive turning point in relations between the two “blocs”, but the years that followed until 2021 were marked by persistent and mutual accusations of fostering a bellicose climate and not favouring political and military cooperation.

The spring of 2021 was certainly a pivotal time in NATO-Russia relations, as in April of that year, Russia deployed troops to its western borders for combat training exercises following Operation Defender-Europe 21.

The latter can undoubtedly be described as one of the largest NATO-led military exercises in Europe for decades and included simultaneous operations in more than 30 training areas between Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria for a duration of four months.

In the same year, the Russian president declared that further NATO expansion into Ukraine, such as the deployment of any long-range missiles capable of hitting Russian cities or missile defense systems similar to those in Romania and Poland, would be a “red line”.

The anticipation of last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine can be seen in Russia’s demand for an end to all military activity in Eastern Europe and never allowing Ukraine to become a member, while also stating that it wanted a legal guarantee to stop further eastward expansion and to veto Ukraine’s NATO membership, despite its sovereignty.

For its part, NATO stated that it would be open to dialogue and consider these proposals, but certain demands were deemed unacceptable.

In January 2022, the NATO-Russia Council met at NATO headquarters in Brussels, with two main issues on the table:

  • Russia’s military build-up near the border with Ukraine
  • Russia’s demands for security guarantees in Europe

The month after the Council during a UN Security Council meeting convened to discuss the crisis and chaired by Russia at the time, Putin decided to order the Russian military to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, provoking the largest conventional military aggression against a European state since World War II, sparking one of the tensest moments between NATO and Russia ever.

This has put and is still actively putting the NATO Response Force on high alert by deploying troops in various former USSR countries.

Russia for its part has also threatened Finland and Sweden, both non-NATO countries wishing to become NATO members.

June 2022, Madrid, held an important OTAN summit at the end of which the Founding Act was declared abrogated in its entirety due to Russia and its invasion of a sovereign country, Ukraine.

With the war in Ukraine, NATO-Russia cooperation can be said to be at an end, vanished.  Who knows when circumstances will allow the two “blocs” to talk to each other again, especially about a future security architecture. The issue in question must necessarily be addressed with Russia at the table, but when this happens, Moscow will be sitting with a heavy handicap, geostrategically, in terms of resources and international trust.

By Michele Brunori

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