NATO allies should construct a new relationship with Russia, so that mutual challenges and threats faced by both sides can be addressed more effectively. By keeping Russia as an auxiliary partner in the international security environment, Western powers expend tireless effort competing with the Russians on issues ranging from North Korea and Iran, to missile defense and NATO expansion.

Today, the U.S. and its European allies find themselves at a crossroads with Russia. This is not constructive. Instead NATO allies should be the first to propose a new relationship in which Russia is no longer a competing “adversary” but another strategic ally.

Why Keep the Russians In?

NATO and Russia are closer today than they have ever been, both literally and figuratively.  Literally, NATO’s enlargement process has placed the edge of Europe right on Russia’s border and figuratively, NATO and Russia share more common concerns on international security issues than ever before – on terrorism, cyber, energy and nuclear security.  Cooperative steps have been taken on an ad hoc basis, such as cooperation in the Global War on Terror, joint military exercises, and the continued nuclear talks with Iran and North Korea.  However, this ad hoc or situational engagement is not sufficient to ensure that the greater NATO-Russia relationship is realized.  Though the mechanisms are in place for cooperation, such as the NATO-Russia Council, there continues to be a disconnect between the old adversaries.

A closer NATO-Russia partnership will bolster European security in a number of ways.  First, though Russia’s military is still in a rebuilding phase, there is no question that it remains one of the world’s preeminent military powers, and would greatly improve NATO’s combined military strength.   Moreover, by fostering a closer relationship with Russia, arguments against the U.S. missile defense system and NATO engagement with Ukraine and Georgia will change, as Russia will now have an active voice as a partner, and no longer as an outsider.  Finally, having Russia as a cooperative partner with NATO will improve energy security, an interest to the Europeans who greatly rely on Russia’s natural gas reserves, increase coordination when addressing international security concerns such as those with Iran and North Korea, and will improve cooperation on new security initiatives in space and on cyber security.  It is to this end that NATO should seek a closer relationship with Russia.

How to Keep the Russians In?

Though the end result is ensuring the security of Europe, the means to this end are through diplomacy.  To first solve this problem, NATO must renew its Strategic Concept and issue new guidance on its strategic posture towards Russia.  Within this new Strategic Concept, NATO members must clearly state their intentions with regards to its expansion and to Russia, providing the first step of understanding NATO’s relationship with Russia.

NATO should then introduce a new type of member status for Russia, where it either becomes, or can at times temporarily act as, a NATO member.  This will establish a precedent of transparency and assure the Russians that NATO is willing to take the first step.  Russia then has a mechanism to voice its concerns over issues involving its former sphere of influence through NATO.  Making Russia a closer ally with NATO will be difficult and a politically charged decision, however, NATO needs to reconsider the usefulness of forums such as the NATO-Russia Council.
NATO and Russia should subsequently continue to cooperate through responding to international security issues.  Having Russia as an ally with the Alliance will ensure that Europe is secure, from both the East and West. 

Finally, if NATO actively purses a policy of diplomatic and military engagement with Russia and Russia balks at these efforts, at least there will be an understanding that it is not in Russia’s interests to join the West through cooperation.  However, this is highly unlikely.  Russia has repeatedly called for international cooperation on a number of issues through the UN and OSCE.  As a member of these organizations, it can utilize its membership and provide active input on international security concerns.  There are a number of issues that NATO and Russia will not initially agree on; however, to find agreement will require cooperation and not the continued issuance of statements from both NATO allies and Russia which perpetuates a “cool” relationship that benefits neither the West or Russia.

As the international security environment continues to change, NATO must constantly find ways to adapt its resources and overall strategy.  It must now consider how it can alter its policies to accomplish its strategic vision.   

David Capezza is a consultant to The Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC.