NATO Must Recognize Russia’s New Role

Following its actions in Georgia, which gained the attention of many observers in the West, Russia has continued efforts to assert its influence in the region by, most recently, exploring possible solutions to the frozen conflict between Moldova and the separatist region of Trans-Dniester.

  At face value, this further engagement in the region can be viewed as a resurgence of Russian influence, of which many in the West are weary.  More importantly, however, it illustrates the lack of Western engagement in the region, especially, that of NATO. 

As Russia continues its talks with the Moldovan government suggesting a 1+2 format (which would include Russia, Chisinau, and Tiraspol), the West continues to delay the continuation of the initial 5+2 talks (which included Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, U.S., and EU plus representatives from Chisinau and Tiraspol).  Since its breakaway from Moldova in 1992, the Russians have continued to pursue their goal of reunifying the region while the West, following the Istanbul talks in 1999, has failed to seriously engage the situation.  This has given the Russians an open venue in which to directly engage the Moldovan government, without Western input on an overall outcome. 

With the Global War on Terror, continued U.S. operations in Iraq, and NATO involvement in Afghanistan plus a number of operations throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East, it is perhaps no surprise the West has not fully been focused on the inner-politics and security of Eastern Europe.  The lack of Western focus on the region, though, has allowed Russia to reassert its power in the region without opposition. 

Though NATO is clearly stretched, both diplomatically and militarily, it is absolutely necessary that it not only continue to build its relationship with Eastern Europe and specifically, in this instance, with Moldova (which is in the Partnership for Peace program) but also with Russia.  How can one expect, for example, the Russians to stand by and wait for the West to continue the 5+2 talks? 

Throughout the 1990s, NATO expanded its strategic framework to include out-of-area operations, Alliance enlargement (mainly eastward towards Russia), and further support for disaster relief and peacekeeping missions.  While it did engage the Russians through the Partnership for Peace program and NATO-Russia Council (NRC), it has not adapted to the fact that Russia is no longer an emerging power.  In fact, today, economically, politically and militarily, Russia is fully engaged as a major actor  in the international community.  NATO must respond to this through increased diplomatic engagement with the Russian government, integration of Russian military and support for NATO operations, and a deepening of NATO relations in the region.

 At Rome in 2002 NATO and Russia agreed to a multifaceted cooperative approach to “intensify efforts in the struggle against terrorism, crisis management, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms control and confidence building measures, theater missile defense, search and rescue at sea, military-to-military cooperation and defense reform, and civil emergencies, as well as in other areas.”  NATO and Russian defense forces have taken a cooperative approach through training exercises, with the Russians participating most recently in submarine search-and-rescue exercises in the North Sea and disaster response training in Finland in June 2008.  Russia has also taken a supportive role in Operation Active Endeavor, by providing maritime patrols to assist in securing portions of the Mediterranean.  However, though these are concrete examples of active engagement, there continues to be a gap in understanding the overall strategic vision of the partnership, as illustrated by Russia’s most recent engagement with Moldova and, of course, Georgia.  Cooperation is essential to securing a NATO-Russia partnership, yet it remains unclear as to what the strategic goals of the partnership are, specifically NATO’s interests in Eastern Europe.  NATO and Russia need to define and understand their individual strategic visions and where their interests are.  In turn, cooperative exercises, such as those discussed in Rome, can serve as venues to further bolster this relationship.
A reform of NATO policy towards Russia can come at no better time.  The U.S. presidential election is likely to bring with it a full reassessment of the American national security agenda. NATO should take the opportunity at its next summit in Strasbourg in April to reassess its overall strategic framework and position towards Russia.  It should focus on ways to approach and engage Russia, which is no longer a recuperating power but rather a key player that is, more than ever, integrated into the globalized political and economic community. 

As NATO continues to address issues of enlargement, continued anti-terrorist operations throughout the region, military support operations in Africa, and a new focus on promoting cyber security, Russia should be viewed as a very useful, intricate contributor to each of these missions.  However, before doing so, NATO must define its interests in the region.  It is necessary that NATO reengage itself in Eastern Europe and, specifically with Russia, or the West will continue to see 5+2 talks transform to 1+2 talks.     

David Capezza is a consultant to The Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC.  Photo by Flicr user josef.stuefer under Creative Commons license.

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