NATO and Russia

From Robert Pszczel, the New Atlanticist:  Exhibit one – the Levada Center opinion poll conducted in January 2011 showed NATO being described as an adversary by 23 percent of Russians (Chechen rebels came first on that list with 43 percent, followed by USA with 28 percent).

Exhibit two – on any given week you can expect Russian newspapers running stories which in their titles speak about “demise of NATO”, “criminal bombings of civilians by Allied planes” or “NATO rejecting Russian proposals” and so on.

Exhibit three – this time from my own experience in Russia. At the end of a long TV programme in which I discussed the problem of international terrorism with other invited guests I was informed by the anchor that results of the phone-in to the studio were so unfriendly to the organisation I represent that he preferred not to read them on air. . . .

And there are visible signs that interest in filling in these gaps is picking up.

The same newspapers which use rather negative headlines for their stories about NATO devote a lot of space to details of NRC (NATO-Russia Council) cooperation and print very sophisticated analyses of Allied policies and actions. Each newsworthy project conducted jointly by NATO and Russia gets very good coverage.

This was the case with a first ever live counter-terrorist exercise being part of the Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI) held this year. All TV channels in Russia showed pictures of Russian fighter planes escorting a Polish transport plane, and later performing a similar job with their Turkish counterparts. Russian viewers also saw reportages from a successful demonstration of Russian and Allied naval skills during the Bold Monarch submarine rescue demonstration off the coast of Spain.

This is very important from the point of view of the general public which is becoming more aware of the real consequences of historic conclusions of the Lisbon Summit last year when President Medvedev and Allied leaders decided to set off on the path towards strategic partnership. As the cooperative agenda gets more and more crowded with each passing month, the opportunities to notice the benefits of new partnership will grow too.

Partnership projects connected with a shared task of stabilising Afghanistan (transit agreements, helicopter support to Afghan authorities, joint training of counter-narcotics experts from the region and so on) are seen as good stories. So is the common Russian-Allied effort to develop technologies able to detect improvised explosive devices and other ways of pooling expertise to fight terrorism. Cooperation in such areas as counter-piracy, civil emergency planning or facing up to such security challenges as WMD proliferation are appreciated by Russian public opinion.

Moreover, the high tempo of political dialogue – foreign and defence ministers’ meetings, invitation for all NRC ambassadors to a meeting with President Medvedev in Sochi, as well as the growing pace of inter-parliamentary exchanges – all contribute a lot to changing the public mood related to engagement with NATO. This visible political desire to move constructively forward shows to ordinary Russians (and people in the Allied countries) that their leaders are ready to work towards a strategic partnership, a modern relationship befitting our times.

Is this enough to do away with the stereotypes and unfair perceptions of NATO? Can one convince our Russian partners that NATO is definitely an instrument for international peace, stability and it seeks friendship with Russia? Not straight away of course. More dialogue, more down to earth debates and more concrete joint work are needed to register a satisfactory and durable change. However, each partnership project brings us closer to that goal.

Robert Pszczel is Director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone. This was originally published at the NATO Review. Photo credit: SCAN.