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The NATO-Russia Partnership: A Marriage of Convenience or a Troubled Relationship?

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | November 2006

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Four years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Russia Council came into being, it represents a picture in ambivalence and incomplete realization of partnership. This monograph focuses on the Russian side of this growing estrangement. It finds the Russian roots of this ambivalence in the increasingly visible manifestations of an autocratic and neo-imperial Russian state and foreign and defense policy. These strong trends in Russian policy inhibit the formation of a genuine security partnership that can provide for Eurasian security in the face of multiple contemporary threats.

It is debatable whether Russia really wants a comprehensive partnership with NATO. Its military-political elite still views NATO and the United States in adversarial terms, even though its leadership speaks positively about the value of this partnership. Recent U.S. military initiatives like missile defense or the wars in Kosovo and Iraq are leading Russia to entertain thoughts of withdrawing from many of the existing European arms control treaties. Another cause of estrangement is to be found in that, as Russia regenerates its autocratic imperial model of state building, it aspires to the goal of a free hand in creating an exclusive Eurasian security bloc from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This effort is incompatible, not only with the democratic choice of many of those peoples, but also with European security as a whole. We can see this, for example, in Moscow's refusal to evacuate the Trans-Dniestrian territory it effectively has annexed from Moldova and its demands for a 20-year base there. Another example is Russia's attempt to block Ukrainian and Georgian efforts to join NATO at some point. Thus the tendency to demand a free hand in creating a kind of exclusive bloc in Eurasia, buttressed by an approach to security which still remains mired in zero-sum categories, precludes Russia's effective integration with NATO and the maximum benefit that could accrue to it from partnership with NATO.

Russia's ambition to form an exclusive military-economic bloc with its Commonwealth of Independent States neighbors also inhibits it from fully using the possibilities for partnership with NATO in the economic sphere as it relates to defense industrial cooperation. Although NATO is actively pursuing Russian participation in many projects, Russian officials and firms either cannot or will not make the best use of such opportunities. These problems similarly appear in regard to military operations and exercises.

Even though numerous exercises involving NATO and Russian forces take place, the atmosphere remains one of mistrust. Plans for a joint theater missile defense remain just that—plans. Russian military and political leaders express growing concern about Washington's desire to build missile defense bases in Eastern Europe. They dislike the possibilities often discussed in the United States of using nuclear weapons as warfighting weapons, or of using nonnuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, or of space-based weapons. Leading Russian military men have trouble understanding how it is that NATO still functions, and they are reluctant to participate in NATO peace operations either in Afghanistan or potentially in Iraq. Indeed, Russia is creating its own peacekeeping brigade for such operations. On the one hand, this brigade is supposed to be interoperable with NATO. On the other, it may be earmarked for use in and around Russia's borders. In either case, it is highly unlikely that Russia will acquiesce to its own forces being placed under NATO command and control.

If one adds to this geopolitical mistrust and rivalry for influence in and around the former borders of the Soviet Union the absence of either a strong economic basis for East-West cooperation or popular support for it, it becomes clear that the opportunities for partnership are limited intrinsically. Even naval operations to counter terrorism and proliferation on the high seas have now become an issue because NATO wants to conduct exercises in the Black Sea, and Russia is resolutely opposed to any exercise there. Although the naval dimension has been the most productive one for NATO-Russian joint exercises, this dimension of partnership also now is coming under increasing strain and mistrust.

Accordingly, we may observe that, in the ambivalent partnership between NATO and Russia, the inhibiting factors consist of both the so-called values gap and the continuing geopolitical rivalry that never fully went away. Russia's demands for a sphere of influence based upon its autocratic form of rule are intrinsic challenges to the Eurasian security order, not just because the success of that project is predicated upon freezing instability in Moldova and the Caucasus. Rather, the real problem is that Russia has neither the resources nor the capacity to formulate adequate and enduring solutions to regional security issues, and its desires are resisted by key players in Ukraine and Georgia. Russia's attempts to impose its preferences, absent genuine democratization, mean that it necessarily will add to the security burdens of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eurasia in general, leaving those areas vulnerable to a series of potential threats that Europe and the United States ultimately cannot permit to flourish. As long as the political will to maximize the benefits of partnership—enhanced security, democracy, and prosperity for all of Eurasia— is lacking, this ambivalence will remain and, with it, enduring stresses and tensions between East and West.


Ambivalence, if not tension, remains the key operating word in the Russo-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) relationship. For example, on November 1, 2005, General Yuri Baluevsky, Chief of Staff of Russia's armed forces, said that conflict with NATO is now impossible and that the two sides should cooperate to solve their common problems.1 One month later, Baluevsky further observed: "as the chief of the General Staff, I do not see a potential enemy as a specific country. We have long since stopped preparing for large-scale nuclear or conventional wars."2 However, on November 7, 2005, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that he saw no areas where Russo-NATO cooperation was possible.

Cooperating with Iraq is out of the question. Cooperating in Afghanistan is out of the question too, for historical reasons although we provide military assistance to the country. . . . The progress that we have reached seemed impossible five years ago. At the same time, I do not think our military potentials can be united.3

Ivanov was not just speaking for himself but instead clearly represented a composite view. Thus Lieutenant General Alexander Voronin wrote in the General Staff's journal, Voyennaya Mysl' (Military Thought), that,

The question arises: Can Russia participate in a joint operation with NATO countries outside Europe? The answer is yes and no. Today, it is not easy to identify a geographic area beyond Europe where Russian and NATO interests and priorities would coincide to such a degree as to make it possible to talk not only about the possibility of conducting peacekeeping operations but also interaction between rapid response forces in the foreseeable future.4

Voronin's strictures against cooperation applied specifically in a discussion of the possibilities of interoperability between Russian and NATO forces. Yet 6 months earlier, in June 2005, Ivanov, clearly with President Vladimir Putin's support, successfully called upon NATO to increase programs for interoperability of NATO and Russian forces . 5 Since then, Baluevsky and Ivanov have confirmed that interoperability will refer exclusively to peacekeeping forces and antiterrorist operations, nothing else.6 In February 2006, for example, the Russian media reported on Moscow's efforts to seek a Russian air base in Belarus, ostensibly against the threat of a NATO air offensive.7 Ivanov's most recent remarks on interoperability show clearly that not only will Russia not be able to cooperate fully with NATO in a crisis, but also that he and his colleagues regard the NATO insistence on democratizing civil-military affairs as destabilizing, if not worse.8

Such contradictions are typical. Earlier in 2005 Putin hailed Russia's partnership with NATO as having justified its correctness and as forging a new relationship between the two sides. Yet he also indicated Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement and said that Russia could not join NATO because doing so would threaten its sovereignty and restrict Russia's freedom of action.9 Again, on October 31, 2005, Putin stated, ". . . we do not perceive NATO as a hostile organization and develop cooperation with it." Indeed, Putin called for greater activity to enhance the operational compatibility between Russian and NATO forces, yet Ivanov's November 2005 statement seems to repudiate that cooperation, also undoubtedly with Putin's authority.10

This ambivalence undercuts any NATO effort or opportunity to respond to Russian proposals for an agenda of cooperation. For example, Ivanov in 2004 said that Russia and NATO could collaborate on exchanging technologies to help secure nuclear facilities.11 Similarly, Russia's Foreign Ministry stated in April 2005 that Russia wanted greater cooperation with NATO, even though some elements of NATO policies (i.e., continuing enlargement and the so-called fabrication of reasons not to bring the Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE]) Treaty into force) concerned Moscow. Specifically, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko called for,

A more advanced level of partnership with the alliance, through closer cooperation in reacting to the threats and challenges of general security [terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration, human trafficking], the development of military technological cooperation, and joint participation in handling the aftermath of manmade and natural disasters.12

Yakovenko also said that Russia wanted more effort put into creating,

The optimal mechanism for exchanging intelligence information, into developing cooperation in the fight against terror by developing technology jointly and into holding joint exercises and training of subdivisions countering terrorism [i.e., probably special forces— author].13

While Moscow has pushed this agenda, in fact its cooperation with NATO evidently has slowed, and there is no sign of major improvement in these areas.14 Indeed, as seen from more recent developments, tension with NATO, and East-West tension in general, seems to be growing, especially over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Recognizing this, some Russian commentors state that this cooperation has been "virtual" rather than actual, and that, increasingly, Russian interests either are ignored by NATO or are at risk due to this unequal cooperation.15 In light of the current rhetorical and political clashes between Moscow and the West, i.e., not just Washington, clearly the ambivalence might evolve into an end of the previous efforts to build a strategic partnership between East and West.16 Under those conditions, every issue on the current Eurasian security agenda will immediately become much harder to resolve, such as the current crisis over Iranian nuclearization suggests. Thus Russian ties to NATO are not only important by themselves, but also as a barometer of the broader Eurasian security agenda.


1.Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty Newsline, November 1, 2005.

2. Cited in Mark Smith, "A Russian Chronology: October-December 2005," Camberley, Surrey: Conflict Studies Research Centre, 2006, p. 13.

3. "Russia Will Not Cooperate With NATO—Defense Minister," www.mosnews.com, November 7, 2005.

4. Lieutenant General A. I. Voronin, "Russia-NATO Strategic Partnership: Problems, Prospects," Military Thought (English language version of Voyennaya Mysl'), No. 4, 2005, p. 23.

5. Moscow, ITAR-TASS, in English, June 9, 2005, Foreign Broadcast Information Service Central Eurasia (henceforth FBIS SOV), June 9, 2005.

6. "Russia, NATO Agree on Military Cooperation," www. mosnews.com, November 16, 2005; Alexander Golts, "Russia's Waltz With NATO," Moscow Times, February 14, 2006.

7. Alexander Babakin and Viktor Myasnikov, "The Creation of an Anti-Warsaw Bloc: The Generals Have Set Their Sights on yet Another Base," Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 1, 2006, FBIS SO V, March 1, 2006.Golts.

8. Interfax Russia & CIS Presidential Bulletin Report for January 28, 2005; Interfax Russia & CIS Diplomatic Panorama for January 31, 2005; Smith, p. 32; www.president.ruFebruary 22, 2005., February 22, 2005, FBIS SOV,

9. Ibid.

10.Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Global Security Newswire, August 4, 2004.

11.Moscow, RIA Novosti, in Russian, April 19, 2005, FBIS SO V, April 19, 2005.


13. Sergei Ivanov, "Maturing Partnership," NATO Review, Winter, 2005, www.nato.int/docu/review/2005/issue4/english/special, htm.

14. "Russia and NATO: No Longer Enemies But Not Yet Partners. Moscow and the Alliance Do Have Military Cooperation Possibilities. True. They Are Not Being Materialized Fully As Yet." Moscow, Oborona i Bezopasnost' Kolonka Analitika, in Russian, June 14, 2005, FBIS SOV, June 19, 2005.

15.Catherine Belton, "Relations With U.S. Lowest in 20 Years," Moscow Times, May 19, 2006; Michael McFaul, "The End of the Partnership," Kommersant, May 11, 2006.