The Future of Relations


According to NATO’s Strategic Concept approved in Lisbon in November 2010, promoting international security through cooperation is key to ensuring that the alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security and shared values. To understand what this means, and in particular how this addresses the issue of NATO partnerships, we must briefly consider NATO’s recent history.

During the Cold War, NATO had a core purpose: defending Europe against Soviet divisions. With each passing year of the post-Cold War era, the threat environment changed. With no clear threat in the east, NATO enlargement into Central Europe became a goal in and of itself. And with each new NATO member state came a new national interest in defining that threat environment, while the unifying nature of a consensus threat environment further weakened.

There were three major developments prior to 2010 that changed how different alliance members formulate their threat perception.

  • First, 9/11 brought the reality of the threat represented by militant Islamists. The attack marked the first time NATO invoked Article 5, which provides for collective self-defense.
  • Second, NATO’s enlargement to the Baltic states combined with the pro-Western Georgian and Ukrainian color revolutions jarred Moscow into a resurgence that has altered the threat environment for Central Europe. Russia saw the NATO expansion to the Baltic states as revealing the alliance’s designs on Ukraine and Georgia, and it found this unacceptable
  • Third, Europe’s severe economic crisis has made Germany’s emergence as the political leader of Europe plain to all, and it has become possible to offer NATO a new role in Europe. In fact, the very weakening of the European Union because of its crisis makes NATO more crucial than at any time since the Cold War, crucial as a political stabilizing agent within Europe itself. Especially for Central Europe, NATO serves as a seal of approval for the region’s former communist states struggling to obtain foreign investment. NATO is also relevant concerning Germany: As long as NATO exists and Germany is a member, playing a substantial political if not military role, then the chances of Germany pivoting toward an alliance with Russia in future years decrease.

The problem NATO had in 2010, and to some extent still has today, is that different member states view different threats through different prisms of national interest. Russian tanks concern only roughly a third of member states — the Intermarium states — while the rest of the alliance is split between Atlanticists looking to strengthen the alliance to face new threats and non-European theaters of operations and the so-called “Old Europe” that looks to commit as few soldiers and resources as possible toward either set of goals in the next 10 years. This is most probably the reason why the new strategic concept elaborated in 2010 sounds to be more related to diplomacy and less related to military — which is not necessarily a bad thing.

One of the partnerships that have caught public attention since 2010 was the NATO-Russia relation. Russia has worked aggressively during the last decade to restore its former power at home and in the region after its post-Soviet slumber. Today, Russia is starting to look toward developing its own set of alliance structures, such as the economically based Customs Union, in order to counter the eastward push by the West.

Russia seemed to be the winner of the Lisbon Summit, since it received a clear invitation to participate in the NATO Ballistic Missile Defense system. At the time, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski summed up the Central European position best when before the Lisbon summit he said that Warsaw is happy to see improved NATO-Russia relations but not at the cost of Central Europe’s security. Central Europe wants to be reassured, but Berlin and Paris do not want to give Central Europe anything but token reassurances due to their relationship with Moscow.

This is where the issue of ballistic missile defense comes in to be discussed within the NATO members. The United States wants a NATO-wide ballistic missile defense system to spread costs of the system and to make it less upsetting to Moscow. Germany wants a NATO-wide ballistic missile defense if it involves Russia. The Central Europeans are skeptical of a ballistic missile defense system that involves Russia and prefer pursuing bilateral air defense deals with the United States on the side.

Meanwhile, returning to present day, this past year we had Russia organizing a ballistic missile defense conference in Moscow on May 3-4, 2012, in response to the cancellation of the Russia-NATO Summit due to the disagreements between Washington and Moscow. Russia designed the conference to present its position to the rest of NATO and to other global partners. Russia has used U.S. intransigence to shape the discussion inside NATO for the past few years. Moscow wants to create the impression that the United States is backing Russia into a corner and leaving Moscow no choice but to counter. The day before the conference in Moscow, Russia said it would respond if the United States moved forward with its ballistic missile defense plans. Russia has already activated the S-400 air defense system in Kaliningrad, and there are reports Russia could deploy Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems. Moscow is considering other means to counter U.S. Ballistic missile defense plans, but further moves will carry major risks. Most recently, on Dec. 14 of last year, Itar-Tass quoted Russia rocket forces commander Gen. Sergei Karakayev saying that “believe that the missile defense in Europe is aimed against Russia (as) there are simply no other states in Europe that have (missiles) against which the deployed missile defense systems could be potentially used”.

The tensions continue between Russia and the U.S. and NATO. No one wants a new arms race (and Russia could not afford one), particularly with so many new military players in the world, such as China. Moreover, Russia cannot afford strong defense moves that alienate the large European players, such as Germany, a key Russian economic partner. Russia instead is looking at the situation as a long-term game in which it must protect its national interests while avoiding a major break with the United States and NATO.