As you are reading these lines, the NATO-sponsored Cooperative Longbow 09 – Cooperative Lancer 09 exercises are underway in Georgia. Although they were announced several months ago, are in their fourth iteration, and will be restricted to training peacekeepers, they have already provoked much controversy. Moscow’s demand that the exercises in a country until recently engaged in a full-fledged military confrontation with Russia caused some participating countries at last minute decided not to send their forces.
Was it really worthwhile to create another squabble with Moscow? The short answer would be probably not. Would it have been more sensible for the Alliance to cancel the exercise in the first place? Here the answer is a resounding no. The cost of cancellation would far outweigh any short-lived thaw in the NATO-Russia relationship. Considering its non-threatening nature, it would have been a mistake for the Alliance to give in to Russia’s unwarranted demands and sever its legitimate cooperation with Georgia and perhaps by extension with Ukraine as well.
It is, however, time to restart NATO relations with Moscow, adopting a more conciliatory approach in Brussels yet one that could not be taken as an unconditional capitulation to the Kremlin’s whims.
Multinational peacekeeping exercises, such as the one in Georgia, should be and are an inherent part of NATO’s post-cold war role. For the Alliance and partner countries, this fosters the development of their respective militaries’ peacekeeping capabilities as well as the ability to operate more effectively as a broader element of much needed international peace-support endeavors. Transatlantic cooperation in peacekeeping, the rule of law, and civilian-military cooperation on the ground in areas of actual or future conflicts are critically important tasks for the Alliance of the 21st century.
Rather than trying to scale down NATO we should intensify cooperation in this field and invite Russia to participate responsibly and actively. During the 1990s Russian troops served with various degree of success along with their NATO counterparts in the Balkans – most recently the deployment as part of the NATO-led multinational mission in Kosovo. Despite the fact that Russia withdrew its last remaining troops by 2003, cooperation has not ceased. Under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council, the primary venue for interaction between Moscow and Brussels, seminars and workshops have been held among representatives from Moscow and NATO allies that could develop fresh ideas on a wide-range of issues related to peacekeeping.
Continued joint peacekeeping endeavors offer a potent opportunity for Moscow and Brussels to forge a mutually-beneficial partnership. Peacekeeping as such is an instrument for settling post-conflict situations and in many ways it is often part of a broader international consensus.
Drawing on the precedent in the Balkans, there is ample room for more cooperation with NATO, Russia and other countries in the region. It is crucial that NATO and Russia are gradually able to move from a theoretical debate to the point where NATO and Russian forces will actually put boots on the ground. Provided that NATO and Russia are able to reach consensus on a location and overall framework of such a peacekeeping mission, leaders in Russia and NATO militaries will need to go the extra mile to improve the interoperability of their combined forces. This will in turn put a premium on the need for intensifying necessary and valuable contacts between NATO and Russia’s militaries so as to make future joint deployments possible, while laying ground for a long term partnership.
Why would the recalcitrant Russian government of today be even remotely interested in such a proposal? First, any peacekeeping mission has to be based on a shared view of responsibility and equality, and Moscow has to be considered and seen as a key partner for NATO. One way of achieving that would be to undertake such a mission under a joint command within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council. To that end, Moscow would share considerable prominence on the international stage. Inter alia, that would help to frame an ongoing conversation and action items that would promote mutual advantage .
Second, Brussels and Moscow should form their joint undertaking within the framework of the United Nations system. More specifically, the UN Security Council should be entrusted with establishing the overall parameters of such a peacekeeping mission. In many ways, Moscow’s permanent seat on the Council represents one of the last vestiges of its superpower status; therefore, willingness to go through UN channels would demonstrate to the Russian leadership that the Alliance respects Moscow’s concerns and interests.
However speculative this proposition might be at the moment, we propose that, for instance, a conflict in Moldova might be best suited for a joint peacekeeping initiative conducted jointly by Russia and NATO member countries. Contentious as it may seem, a firmly delineated set of responsibilities with due recognition for Russia as an important partner would help make this peacekeeping operation more appealing for both sides. Should Moscow decide to opt for a tailored multilateral solution to the frozen conflict in Moldova — perhaps in an attempt to compensate for its heavy-handed tactics in Georgia. Indeed, this might offer an appropriate opportunity for a joint peacekeeping operation. The willingness to work together on concrete actions in places like Moldova might improve the odds of ameliorating the current climate of mutual suspicion and distrust between Russia and NATO.
Donald K. Bandler, an Atlantic Council Board member, served as Special Assistant to President Clinton, and Jakub Kulhanek is a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, a premier Prague based NGO.