The relationship between Russia and NATO is in dire need of radical rethinking. In the past two decades, the evolving security environment has provided opportunities for NATO and Russia to establish new levels of cooperation but diverging perceptions continue to cause the relationship to stagnate.
For the better part of the last decade, Western analysts and decision makers shaping the NATO-Russia relationship have relentlessly drawn on stereotypes of Russia to explain their inability to engage with Moscow. For their part, meanwhile, Russian analysts and decision makers have referred to their inability to promote Russian interests in the framework of the post-Cold War European security architecture. Thus much of NATO-Russia relations continues to be a remnant of the Cold War, and these ties to the past regularly suppress creative thinking.
Referring to stereotypes comforts those who believe that only time – if that — will permit cooperation with Russia, and that only patience will ultimately prevail, as if we were contending just with an issue of generational change. However, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, this approach is not only outdated but of little use to explain the limits of today’s NATO-Russia relations.
The problem with stereotypes is that they pretend to explain everything but, more often than not, explain nothing. For instance, stereotypes may explain how 32% of Russians polled still perceive NATO as an enemy in 2011. Yet, how does one explain the fact that, at the same time, 39% say that they desire cooperation with NATO on issues of general security?
Stereotypes certainly could not have explained the 2002 vision developed by then President Vladimir Putin and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, which led to the creation of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) and a few years of serious cooperation in a decade that was otherwise marked by a lack of trust and progress. The success of this vision was rooted in a smart political analysis which offered Russia an equal voice around the NATO table, restoring some pride to a country that lost the Cold War and was thus breaking away from the past.
Russians were clearly dealt a significant psychological shock with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first post-Soviet generation to come of age did so at time when Russia was experiencing unprecedented declines in economic, military, and social power. Moscow’s sphere of influence contracted dramatically, and the stability and security of millions of people were undermined by inflation, corruption, and a dramatic loss of national prestige. The disillusionment, frustration, and loss of identity in the 1990s skewed Russian perceptions of NATO, as a prominent symbol of Western primacy. There can be little doubt that Russians’ pride – or assaults on that pride – has played a more decisive role in their seemingly lukewarm embrace of the West than have stereotypes.
Moreover, stereotypes are of little use in explaining the anti-Western sentiments among Russian youth. Polls clearly show that both the lack of support for NATO-Russia cooperation and the negative reactions toward NATO’s role and policies are just as preeminent — if not more important – within young generations in Russia as among older generations. In the midst of the frustration of the 1990s, Russia also suffered the collapse of its national ideology.
To fill the void, the government has turned to a renewed and redefined concept of Russian nationalism. Nowadays, Russian textbooks and teacher manuals downplay Stalin-era repression and praise Putin’s role in “restoring Russia’s sovereignty” in a US-dominated international order. In higher education, Russian scholarship increasingly points to Russia’s leading international role and celebrates Russia’s unique cultural-religious heritage. Russian youths are thus encouraged to value elements of their national history that, in turn, generates increasing levels of uneasiness in the West and points to Russia’s possible return to an assertive role abroad.
It is time to “retire” stereotypes as a poor explanation for the lack of progress in NATO-Russia relations, and start paying attention to explanations rooted in Russian self-perception and the pride of Russian citizens. Certainly, understanding the Russian mentality is fundamental to devising smart policies. The complexity of Russian self-perception may actually assist policy-makers in explaining and making best use of some positive trends. Exposing the flaws of stereotypes in explaining the lack of progress in NATO-Russia relations over the past twenty years points toward the value of a different approach to engaging with Russia. It is not simply an issue of waiting for the next generation. One should also caution against expecting very much out of increased information sharing on NATO’s role and policies and additional public diplomacy efforts on NATO-Russia cooperation. It is perhaps less an issue of “debunking myths” about NATO in Russia, than an issue of reaching out to Russia by first understanding the impact of Russian self-perception.
Isabelle Francois is a distinguished visiting research fellow and Brett Swaney is at the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at National Defense University. A previous version of this essay was published at the INSS Dynamic Dialogue blog.