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NATO-Russia Council: From High Hopes To Broken Dreams

  • Charles Recknagel

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) listens to NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg in Kyiv in September 2015. The stripped-down July 13 meeting will be only the council's second since it resumed functioning in April after NATO suspended it in 2014 over Russia's occupation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) listens to NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg in Kyiv in September 2015. The stripped-down July 13 meeting will be only the council's second since it resumed functioning in April after NATO suspended it in 2014 over Russia's occupation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

When the NATO-Russia Council meets in Brussels on July 13, it will be as a shadow of its former self.

As ambassadors gather at NATO headquarters, their agenda will be limited to discussing only political issues because all the council's cooperative programs have been suspended. And where once the talk was about how to work together, now it will be focused on demands and recriminations. NATO is expected to press Russia to implement last year's Minsk accord to restore peace in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow has said it will demand that NATO explain why it is focused on "deterring a nonexistent threat" from Russia.

That is a long way from the NATO-Russia Council's inception in 2002 amid optimism the two sides could together construct a new post-Cold War order. Here is an overview of the council's history and how it slid from cooperation to confrontation.

Auspicious Start

The stripped-down July 13 meeting will be only the council's second since it resumed functioning in April after NATO suspended it in 2014 over Russia's occupation of Crimea. Yet when the NATO-Russia Council was established 14 years ago, there was plenty on the table. Among cooperative projects the two sides launched were exchanging information and training for fighting against piracy, drug trafficking, and terrorism, and carrying out search-and-rescue efforts at sea.

Then-NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson welcomed the creation of the council as "a living contradiction of the forces that divided and weakened a continent for two generations." Russian President Vladimir Putin termed it "a good tool to meet our mutual concerns," adding, "We will be looking for new areas of cooperation."

There was also good reason at the time to believe the partnership would grow. The two sides already had successfully cooperated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Russian troops supported IFOR beginning in 1996. And both sides had engaged -- albeit with some tensions -- in peacekeeping in Kosovo in 1999 despite Moscow's resentment of NATO's bombing of long-standing Russian ally Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis.

Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin condemned the bombing as "open aggression," as Western leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac said the air attacks were launched to defend "peace on our soil, peace in Europe."

More significantly, both sides appeared to share a similar vision for post-Cold War Europe. NATO and Moscow had signed a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security in 1997 that included the promise to refrain from threats or use of force "against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United Nations Charter."

The Georgia Crisis

But if the NATO-Russia Council had a promising start -- including Russia agreeing in April 2008 to support NATO's UN-mandated mission in Afghanistan by facilitating land transit of nonmilitary equipment across Russian territory -- it soon received an unexpected shock. Despite the 1997 agreement not to use force, Russia went to war with Georgia in August 2008 and stationed occupation troops in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. NATO declared there would be "no business as usual" until Moscow pulled its troops out of that Caucasus country and Moscow halted all cooperation with the alliance.

Still, the blow did not prove fatal. By December 2009, the council was meeting again as both NATO and Russian leaders sought to revive their relationship by launching a Joint Review Of 21st-Century Common Security Challenges.

Announcing the restart, the NATO secretary-general at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, struck a cautious note, saying NATO-Russia cooperation was "not a matter of choice, it is a matter of necessity." Moscow envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said Russia wanted to be NATO's "partner," provided the alliance took into account Moscow's "interest."

Downhill Slide

The NATO-Russia relationship appeared to be back on track again in 2010 until NATO members agreed on establishing a missile-defense shield in Europe. Both sides initially focused on how Moscow could be convinced the shield was only against threats from outside Europe, in part by exploring new levels of cooperation.

But NATO's proposals to hold joint missile-defense exercises and establish two joint missile-defense centers with Russia soon ran into Russian demands for legal guarantees that the shield would not threaten its interests. The missile-defense shield became an escalating issue of contention that continues to escalate today.

The NATO-Russian relationship reached its lowest point in 2014 with Russia's occupation and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The action, the first outright land grab in Europe by a major power since the end of the Cold War, prompted NATO to suspend the NATO-Russia Council for a second time, in February 2014.

It was revived solely as a channel for communication only in April. But the question now is whether the NATO-Russia Council can still play enough of a role to be significant now or in the future.

"In many respects, you could argue that there is even more reason for them to be meeting, because they are so far apart," says Ian Davis, a NATO expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. "It is interesting how far things have deteriorated in such quick time, and part of the importance of the NATO-Russia Council is that it continues to provide an opportunity for dialogue during the difficult times."

Davis says the council is needed to ease tensions over stepped-up military exercises by both sides since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Russian warplanes routinely probe NATO air defenses with incursions into NATO airspace over the Baltics and have buzzed NATO ships in the Black Sea, for instance. Meanwhile, Moscow calls NATO's planned deployment of additional multinational forces to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland a "dangerous build-up" close to its borders and that will create new military divisions in response.

But critics argue there is little chance the NATO-Russia Council will ever return to its original role as a partnership because the two sides no longer seem to agree on the original post-Cold War architecture it was founded upon.

Kalev Stoicescu, of the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, says Russia's attitude has become antagonistic toward NATO as Moscow has twice intervened militarily in former Soviet states -- despite the two sides' 1997 accord eschewing the use of force in Europe.

"[Russian leaders] have actually quite plainly stated that they want something different, a new security architecture, that this post-Cold War architecture does not satisfy Russia's interests and that this has all been built at the expense of Russia," he says. "We think that these are the very best principles that could have been achieved, and that they are good for everyone, including Russia."

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