In March of 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for pushing a “reset” button in US-Russian relations, and since then officials from both countries have been making tentative inroads in that direction. Yet, the thaw in US-Russian relations should not obscure the need for improvement of the overall state of relations between Russia and the West.


Since former Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second term in office, Moscow, awash in petro dollars, has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy in its westward thrust. The end result of this was a sharp deterioration in Moscow’s relations with many Western capitals, which culminated during the August war in Georgia in 2008. Therefore, there is a real need for strong bilateral relations and continued multifaceted engagement with Russia. In order to better coordinate their approach towards Moscow, Western countries should pursue all possible avenues, especially in multilateral forums such as the European Union and NATO.  As for the latter organization, its new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has recently declared that cultivating the Alliance’s relations with Russia is one of his top priorities. Nevertheless, as is no doubt the case with US-Russian relations, Moscow’s rapprochement with NATO still stands on rather shaky grounds.

The fact is that the window of opportunity for the Alliance and Russia to sort out their differences may be slowly but surely closing. Although further NATO enlargement has been put on a back burner, the pledge made by the Alliance leaders at the Bucharest summit last year states that Ukraine and Georgia should eventually be able to obtain membership. In many ways this constitutes a significant fault line in NATO-Russia relations, which are further exacerbated by the potential renewal of tensions on Georgia’s borders and/or in Ukraine’s Crimea.

Similarly, Moscow remains conspicuously silent about US President Obama’s decision to deploy a more dispersed network of mobile interceptors as a substitute for the scrapped third site of the National Missile Defense in Europe. The Russian leadership is quite likely to oppose Washington’s efforts to continue deploying missile defenses in and beyond Europe, which will further affect and complicate relations between Russia and the West.  Furthermore, and perhaps more ominously, as the next presidential election in Russia is slated for 2012, Moscow may be tempted to play a nationalist card and adopt more demanding – or even hostile – policies towards the West in hope of shoring up domestic support.

It seems clear, therefore, that action is needed now. The key goal should be to construct more durable and effective building blocks for NATO-Russia cooperation rather than striving for quick fixes. First and foremost, the leaders of the Alliance should make an unequivocal commitment to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) with an aim to transform it into a genuine pan-European security forum.   Founded in Rome in 2002, the NRC has been hampered by minor as well as major crises of confidence. Accordingly, we should treat the Council as a primary venue for a sustained security dialogue between Russia and NATO. The willingness to discuss even the thorniest issues on the agenda, such as the situation in post-war Georgia or arms control in Europe after the collapse of the CFE Treaty, could become instrumental in recovering lost trust. This might also prove appealing for Russian leaders who have been calling for reform of the European security landscape so Moscow will have a larger voice on security issues in Europe. Regardless of their differences, neither NATO nor Moscow should minimize or walk away from this critically important dialogue.

Second, NATO and Russia should go the extra mile to intensify military-to-military cooperation. One of the apparently forgotten achievements of President Obama’s July visit to Moscow was the signing of a series of military agreements to deepen bilateral exchanges and joint exercises between the two countries. NATO should utilize this blueprint, try to increase cooperation with the Russian armed forces and strengthen their day-to-day military contacts. However low the profile, sustained military cooperation would offer many promising opportunities. Russia and NATO should boost joint peacekeeping combined training and capacities, increase intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism, deploy joint maritime patrols and expand its cooperation in research and development with a focus on effective regional missile defenses in Europe. Although all the above-mentioned areas of cooperation have been pursued to varying degrees of success, they should be pursued more vigorously. This would help instill a sense of cooperation and confidence in the minds of army officers and civilian leaders on both sides.

Finally, Afghanistan presents a momentous security challenge both to the Alliance and Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO, has let it be known that his country would like to play a more active role in the stabilization of Afghanistan. As NATO intensifies its troop buildup in this war-torn country, the NATO countries are looking for new routes to supply its forces fighting the Taliban. Russia has recently allowed for relaxed terms of transporting NATO equipment and hardware across its territory. Although most provisions of these agreements have not yet been fully utilized, they provide fresh impetus for intensified cooperation between Russia and NATO. For Moscow stakes in Afghanistan are high as a spread of violent extremism and drug trade directly threatens not only Russia’s interests in Central Asia but also its domestic stability.

The Alliance should invite Moscow and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-backed regional security organization, to participate more actively in cooperative international efforts such as countering drug-trafficking and returning peace to war-torn Afghanistan.

The bottom line, however, is that Alliance leaders should work closely together and insist that Russia does its part in whatever future joint endeavors that NATO and Russia undertake. Should the current Russian leadership ask to play a more prominent role, so be it, but they need to deliver on their promises. Russia’s leaders have to be reminded in no unclear terms that NATO’s failure in Afghanistan would likely precipitate a dire geopolitical predicament on their country’s southern border.

Accordingly, Moscow should make every possible effort to help the international community in its effort to support and stabilize Afghanistan. In the meantime, the gradual increase and broadening of daily contacts between NATO and Russian officials should be encouraged. Those common efforts will contribute greatly to the establishment of a less tense and more durable relationship.

Donald K. Bandler, a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors, served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton, senior director for Europe in the National Security Council, counselor for the 1999 NATO Summit, and U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus. Jakub Kulhanek is currently with the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University.  This article is based on authors’ Op-Ed in the Moscow Times from October 23, 2009.