NATO-Russia Relations: Overcoming Agony

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Akop A. Gabrielyan – the founder and the leader of the “Consensus” youth NGO, expert in the policy of the post-soviet states.

If anything, the central tenet of the Hippocratic oath: first do no harm – Primum non nocere – is the first motto to be applied to today’s dialogue between Russia and NATO, a military and political organization. The dialogue essentially boiling down to interaction between Russia and the United States, the alliance’s leader, has offered fewer grounds for optimism over the years. Noticeably worse relations, whose downward spiraling trend is too serious a phenomenon to be even referred to as “the Cold War”[1], are degenerating into an agony. This is testified by some experts predicting an unavoidable military conflict[2] and a real deterioration in the situation amid the Ukraine and Syria conflicts that Russia and NATO (the US) treat differently. For instance, Moscow officially suspended a deal with the US to prevent mid-air collisions over Syria in response to America’s attitude towards April’s deadly chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province[3].

For all the high-stakes drama and the seeming stalemate, neither Russia nor US-led NATO, however, is going to give free rein to emotions to embrace open confrontation. A rational multifaceted approach occasionally demonstrated by the two sides can help deal with the agony. It is based on the following principles:

The military and political partnership between Russia and NATO entails the country’s multi-level dialogue with individual member-states, as well as the whole bloc. In the former case, the patterns of interaction vary markedly, from geopolitical rivalry (between Russia and the USA) and long-running tensions (e.g. Russia and Estonia, Russia and Poland) to fellow-feeling of varying intensity (e.g. Russia and Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic) and political and ideological rapprochement (Russia and Hungary, Russia and Greece, and Russia and Turkey). In the latter case, paradoxically as it may seem, one should expect certain transformations in the NATO mechanism to be potentially initiated by the Trump administration. The American President has repeatedly voiced discontent over his country’s disproportionately large commitment to NATO and suggested rethinking relations with Russia[4]. Should Trump and NATO allies tackle the “first-impression” effect, one may fully expect the 28-nation alliance to adopt a common position on Russia. Under NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the stance can be more hard-headed than before.

Despite the logjam in relations, Russia and the United States proceed with particular strategic arrangements, above all, the ones of global importance. For all the criticism the Obama and Medvedev administrations are subjected to, they inked and ratified the 2011 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, the New START Treaty. In contrast to short-term narrow tactics, the long-standing consistent approach to nuclear arms reduction has emerged as a major aspect of long-term search for common ground. Given the ongoing political dialogue between Russia and NATO at the highest diplomatic level, the fact that the two sides will manage to re-establish close contacts within three working groups[5] makes the case for optimism. The resumed negotiations between the two countries’ general staffs testify to it as well[6].

Both US and Russian leadership are far from being a war party. They are predominantly guided by the need to safeguard their economic interests rather than by merely political goals. It is apparent even against the background of the manifested military and political discontent. The recent data supplied by the US Treasury shows that Russia unchangingly invests in T-bonds treasury. By late 2016 its share had increased to $96.6 billion, the unprecedentedly big annual increase. It occurred amid the ongoing geopolitical clashes between the two parties[7]. Moreover, Russia has stepped up its economic cooperation with some NATO member-states despite the sanctions regime and its regular extension. It raises hope that the geopolitical ambitions will not prevail over, if not gives way to the parties’ sound economic thinking.

Both Russia and the alliance’s member-states still remember about the red line, which contributes to sober assessment of the situation and makes the parties less unyielding and better disposed to seek compromise.  First, they can clearly understand the detrimental, catastrophic consequences of a zero-sum game. Despite different interpretations of the events and mutual criticism, the parties adhere to the fundamental postulate that chaos in the Middle East and other regions must be avoided by all means. Approaches to peace settlement differ, but peace remains the ultimate goal of both states. Moscow and Washington realize that given the volatility and the charged situation, further hostilities incur vast expenses. They are also inefficient and unpredictable, which would become apparent in the medium and long term. When considered from this perspective, it paves the way for effectively responding to such global challenges as terrorism. The internally-split anti-terror coalition and its fading resolve to address the challenge are the red line which is not to be crossed. Otherwise, it would negatively affect everyone. Following the more frequent terror attacks in the world’s largest cities, it is difficult to imagine a threat which could unite the irreconcilable geopolitical actors better. Second, the military presence of the Russian forces and NATO troops, including US soldiers, across the globe makes a full-scale war between the two – figuratively speaking the transition from agony to clinical death – highly unlikely. Should anything of the kind happen, it would be the deadliest, fastest and most destructive war in history. Against this background, it is highly unlikely that the parties would allow any further escalation of tensions to happen. Moreover, Russia and NATO have a lot to think about, including the existing unpredictable – which implies extremely dangerous – totalitarian political regimes in some states. It also makes the escalation most improbable.

The listed principles, the cornerstone of the rational approach to avert stronger antagonism, are central to the efforts to tackle the existing agony and help Russia and NATO find the way out. I believe that we could effectively dispel pessimism about the future bilateral relations if we apply these principles more frequently. It would allow averting the worst-case scenario.

[1] Peskov nazval otnosheniya s SSHA «dazhe khuzhe, chem vo vremena kholodnoy voyny». Politika. RBK. [ Peskov said the U.S.-Russia relationship had sunk to the level of a “new Cold War” or “maybe even worse.” Politics. RBC.] 31.03.2017. (Online source) <>

[2] Backing Into World War III. Robert Kagan. Foreign Policy. 06.02.2017. (Online source) <>

[3] The Russian Foreign Ministry statement on the US military action in Syria on April 7, 2017. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Section: United States of America (USA). (Online source) <>

[4] NATO countries are spending more on defense but Trump can’t claim credit. Ivana Kottasova. CNN. (Online source) <>; As Trump re-evaluates NATO, NATO must rethink Russia. Deutsche Welle. News. Top Stories. (Online source) <>

[5] The list involves the Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI), the Working Group on Logistics (LOG), and the Missile Defence Working Group (MD).

[6] Genshtab Rossii i NATO vpervyye za tri goda proveli peregovory [The General Staff of Russia and NATO held their first negotiations in three years]. RIA-Novosti / Russia Today. Section: Security. (Online source) <>

[7] Major Foreign Holders of Treasure Securities (in billions of dollars). Department of the Treasury/Federal Reserve Board March 15, 2017. (Online source) <>

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