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NATO Caught Between Russia and the World

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis inspecting the guard of honor during his visit to Belgrade, Serbia, Feb. 12, 2010. Public opinion is strongly against NATO membership, mostly due to NATO's 1999 bombing campaign. Darko Vojinovic

Russia’s new military doctrine starts with a list of “military dangers” that includes NATO’s attempt to bring its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders and to add new members.

In contrast to the 2000 military doctrine, which referred vaguely to “the expansion of military blocs and unions to the detriment of Russia’s security,” the 2010 doctrine was more specific. On the other hand, in 2000, NATO expansion was seen as an unequivocal threat, whereas in the 2010 doctrine the alliance is no longer described as a “threat” but as a “danger” that “under certain conditions” could lead to the “appearance of a military threat.”

Nonetheless, the reaction from the West was clear: Russia clings to its NATO-phobia and has no interest in “resetting” relations with the West. It would have seemed that the alliance had done everything possible to convince Moscow of its benevolent intentions. The alliance has stopped courting Georgia and Ukraine — at least for the time being. The crisis over the Russia-Georgia war has passed, and NATO-Russian relations have been fully restored, including close cooperation in Afghanistan. What’s more, NATO makes every effort to consider Russia’s opinion when developing its strategic doctrines. A group of 12 NATO dignitaries, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, visited Moscow last week to help boost NATO-Russian relations. So what’s the problem?

Moscow is concerned that NATO will transform itself into a global force operating outside its traditional theater, assuming the right to act at its own discretion. Those fears are linked to ambitions the alliance held several years ago, at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries. But that period has ended. It became clear almost immediately that NATO would be unable to become a “global gendarme,” and there is no longer any talk of that happening.

Optimists such as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speak of NATO playing the role of an international security “think tank.” According to that model, the alliance would coordinate its activities with other international organizations and regional alliances, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to accomplish its goals. Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who proposed this model last year, acknowledged that the United States cannot rely on its European allies alone to address problems in distant locations around the globe.

Skeptics don’t believe that NATO will ever be able to form an alliance with the CSTO, SCO or other rival alliances. They think that NATO will most likely return to its roots — as a regional organization with the primary goal of guaranteeing the security of its member states in the European-Atlantic region. The bolder analysts claim that the war in Afghanistan — the first full-fledged NATO military campaign outside the alliance’s zone of operations — will also be its last. Now, the argument goes, the alliance will focus on its responsibility to uphold Article 5 of its charter, which obliges all NATO members to defend against an outside attack on another member. This is the most important feature of NATO membership for Central European and Baltic member states. After all, they joined the alliance above all to protect themselves from Russia.

Expanding NATO’s zone of operations beyond Europe would take the focus off Russia. But if NATO does, in fact, return to its “roots” as a strictly European-Atlantic alliance, it would effectively mean that it will return to its previous foundation — one largely based on defending against “the Russian threat.” It would be interesting to ask how President Dmitry Medvedev’s earlier proposal for a pan-European security pact would be received in such a situation. On one hand, a return by NATO to its “regional status” would mean that the alliance positions itself as the main European security organization, excluding the need for any other. On the other hand, countries such as Ukraine that are left on the sidelines would require some other form of security guarantee, and that leads back to Medvedev’s proposal.

Neither does NATO fully see Russia as it really is. Many recent Western publications suggest that the United States and other leading countries made a mistake in not appreciating how important it is for Russia to have prestige and a global status in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That blunder should be corrected by demonstrating the readiness of the West to listen to Russia and to offer it more or less equal partnership. This may have been one of the reasons why the NATO dignitaries visited Moscow and the renewed discussion of the desirability of inviting Russia into NATO. Perhaps this is how Washington imagines that it will compensate for the offenses that it committed in the 1990s and 2000s, and at the same time bring Russia into the U.S.-centered system of collective security.

Had those ideas been tried seven or eight years ago, we might have had an interesting dialogue. The Kremlin really has been obsessed with prestige and status, and Vladimir Putin spent much of his presidency knocking on various doors. But now that proposal is hanging in limbo because the overall international framework has changed. The West is having obvious trouble convincing the world that it is still the predominant global leader, particularly against the backdrop of the rise of China and other Asian states and the multiplying number of regional conflicts. And now the invitation to cooperate looks more like a desire to foist some of the burden on Russia that the United States and NATO cannot bear alone — whether it pertains to operations in Afghanistan or the need to contain China’s growing influence. The argument that Russia also has a stake in maintaining stability in Afghanistan and finding a counterweight to China’s rapid rise does not completely hold water. Yes, Russia is concerned about those issues, but at this point it is not at all clear that the United States and NATO would be the optimal partners for accomplishing those goals.

NATO will present a new strategic concept at its November summit. The document will probably be a compromise between the “globalists” who refuse to reject a global mission for NATO and the “regionalists,” the benign, defensive “union of democracies.” Whatever decision is reached, it will be only temporary. It is worth noting that the changes in the world that had such a large influence on NATO began almost immediately after the alliance adopted its last strategic concept in 1999. For that matter, the same can be said of Russia’s military doctrine.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

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