Putin’s Return and NATO-Russia Relations: Back to the Future

Shocking no one, Vladimir Putin will return to the Russian presidency following Sunday’s election. While it remains to be seen how the people who already took to the streets after the Duma elections respond to his return to the Kremlin, there is little doubt that Russia is entering uncharted waters of domestic uncertainty and possible domestic turmoil.

With the major media and Russia watchers having their eyes fixated on the Russian street, the future direction of Russian foreign policy has been given only modest attention. This is partly because it is widely assumed that Putin, as a primary architect of the contemporary Russian foreign policy, is not likely radically change his country’s conduct in world affairs, not least because the regime will very likely find itself preoccupied with domestic difficulties. However, this is rather short-sighted in that it tends to ignore the not-so-insignificant risks of ruptures between the West and Russia. With Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the risk is that he might find himself more susceptible to pursuing a more hard-line foreign policy as a way to increase his support at home. Unlike his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin has deliberately cultivated his image as a strong leader ready to defend Russia’s national interests. Putin is no stranger to portraying Russia as a besieged fortress and insinuating that the West conspires to weaken Russia.

As a result, the ailing NATO-Russia relations are most likely to become the first major flashpoint in the renewed diplomatic hostility between Putin’s Russia and the West. Following the war in Georgia, NATO and Russia embarked on an intricate balancing act of fence mending. When NATO convened its high-profile summit in Lisbon back in November 2010, it went out of its way to pursue a robust engagement with Russia. This happened on the back of President Obama’s Reset policy and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s push for realignment in relations with Russia. To demonstrate its determination to put past differences behind, the Alliance invited Russia to participate in its planned missile defense in Europe, thereby attempting to singlehandedly neutralize one of the thorniest issues in NATO-Russia relations.

The NATO-Russia rapprochement reached its apex at the time of the NATO Lisbon Summit when both sides declared their readiness to build a joint missile defense in Europe. Although hailed as a major game changer, the joint missile defense has been fraught with the overblown expectations on both sides. There was little denying of the fact that both NATO and Russia could not agree on the practical side of such cooperation.

The post-Lisbon rapprochement was in large measure possible thanks to the decision by Obama administration to scrap the US initial plans to deploy missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland. Yet, fast forward to the present time, the Russian leadership in general and Putin in particular begin to voice their discontent over NATO plans to deploy more sophisticated missile defense systems in Poland and Romania. Similarly, Russia maintains that any missile defense shield in Europe should be built as a joint venture between NATO and Russia, whereas the Alliance insists on having two separate systems that would exchange information.

Given the irreconcilable differences, practically no common ground exists between the two sides. Even the most optimistic proponents of cooperation admit that there will be no agreement on European missile defense by the time of the NATO Summit in Chicago in May.

Despite this bone of contention, NATO and Russia have been able to cooperate effectively on Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan has served as a showcase of practical cooperation. with Russia granting transition routes for the allies to supply their troops and providing equipment to the Afghan security forces. From Russia’s point of view, this has been no act of charity. as Moscow charges NATO relatively sizable sums of money for transit rights and does not have to deal with the threat of militant extremists in Central Asia on its own as long as the Western troops remain on the ground. But this is not likely to last for long especially as NATO is winding down its military presence in Central Asia with the deadline for the complete troop pullout set for 2014.

Granted that the NATO-Russia Council, a main meeting point for NATO and Russia officials, has resumed its work in the wake of the Georgian War and a number of high-profile meetings and seminars have been held, the risk is that in the absence of substantive raison d’être for practical cooperation, such as Afghanistan, the Council will degenerate to a mere talking shop.

However, although NATO leaders might find Putin’s Russia more difficult to deal with, it would be premature to jump to quick conclusions. Putin should not be seen as necessarily anti-Western. After all, during his first term in office he oversaw a major realignment in Russia’s relations with the US and NATO, while pursuing close ties with several European countries.

More worrying is that Putin is said to have grown more wary of the West as he believes the West didn’t live up to its part of the deal in return for Russia’s assistance in the war against terrorism and more recently in Afghanistan. With respect to missile defense, Putin buys into a widely held assumption by Russian hardliners that NATO wants to gain a strategic leverage over Moscow. Given his distrust of the West and tendency to play hardball politics, Putin may prove less predictable and more prone to erratic outbursts. Although Russia, restrained by its limited foreign policy capabilities, will be unable to cause major problems for NATO, it might find a way to make life difficult for the Alliance. A less cooperative or openly antagonistic Russia might throw occasional diplomatic tantrums and perform customary sabre rattling in the form of threatening military deployments on its borders with NATO. Consequently, the Alliance risks being drawn into protracted diplomatic tussles with Moscow, which will sap into its political resolve and vital resources needed elsewhere.

Jakub Kulhanek is head of the East European Program at the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic. He has published extensively on post-Soviet affairs, among other things, in the Harvard International Review, Problems of Post-Communism, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) journal, the Moscow Times and on the US Atlantic Council, EU observer and Foreign Policy Magazine websites.

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