Russia-NATO Council prepares to resume cooperation

When NATO foreign affairs ministers meet in Brussels on December 2-3, they will approve a decision to “unfreeze” relations with Moscow. Such meetings haven’t been held since August, when the South Ossetia conflict began.

When NATO foreign affairs ministers meet in Brussels on December 2-3, they will approve a decision to “unfreeze” relations with Moscow. According to a diplomatic source in Brussels, the foreign ministers will announce that top-level Russia-NATO Council meetings are to be resumed. Such meetings haven’t been held since August, when the South Ossetia conflict began. Meanwhile, Washington has been unable to secure sufficient support from other NATO members for the idea of granting Membership Action Plan (MAP) status to Ukraine and Georgia; so it is trying to save face by declaring that integration into NATO is possible even without MAP status.

“It won’t be business as usual!” That’s what NATO diplomats have been saying for the past few months in their comments on Russia-NATO relations. But “a new way of doing business” is entirely possible. Judging by the signals coming from NATO in the past few days, the Russia-NATO Council will resume work in full, very soon.

“We do not regard Russia as an enemy. But we cannot fail to respond to some of its actions,” said a NATO representative, referring to Moscow’s military operation in the Caucasus. “Differences remain, but we have to move forward.” According to this diplomat, the situation in Russia-NATO relations after the war in the Caucasus is in some respects even more complicated than the situation following NATO’s air-strikes on Serbia in 1999. Russia-NATO contacts were essentially frozen in 1999 as well – but as our source points out, contacts back then were not as extensive as they have become in recent years.

According to the NATO representative, the Russia-NATO Council has “laid a good foundation” for relations, and this is objectively prompting the two sides to unfreeze their dialogue. “It would be strange if the ministers don’t make this decision at the December 2-3 meeting,” said the diplomat.

NATO will soon feel the winds of change: this has become clear since the successful Russia-EU summit in Nice (where it was confirmed that Russia has complied with the Medvedev-Sarkozy Plan) and the resumption of Russian-American meetings in early November. Thus, the thaw in relations with Moscow initiated by the outgoing Bush Administration should also extend to organizations in which Washington has the deciding vote.

Russia has taken note of the latest signals coming from Brussels, including NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s recent call for revising relations with Moscow.

As Foreign Ministry officials point out, “no one has gained” from the decision to suspend Russia-NATO Council high-level meetings and curtail many projects. However, as a Russian diplomat source told us: “NATO should be the side to initiate reconciliation, since restricting cooperation wasn’t Moscow’s idea. NATO needs Russia more than Russia needs NATO these days – primarily because of Afghanistan, where the situation continues to deteriorate.”

Be that as it may, Moscow and NATO won’t find it easy to “do business in a new way” – given their ongoing differences, which include the situation in the Caucasus (neither side has changed its position significantly) and NATO’s plans for further rapprochement with Ukraine and Georgia.

The latest addition to this list of problems is Moscow’s announcement about deciding to deploy Iskander missile systems in the Kaliningrad region in response to the deployment of US missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. And although Russia’s representatives continue to stress that the Iskanders won’t be deployed until the US bases are installed in Poland and the Czech Republic, and that Russia won’t go ahead with its plans if the Americans reconsider their decision, NATO is still expressing serious concern. For example, Scheffer stated recently that NATO will make every effort to prevent missiles from being installed in Russia’s westernmost region. All the key Western nations have criticized Russia’s decision.

The topic of the Iskanders and Russia’s policy in the “near abroad” will be raised at the Brussels meeting on December 2-3, according to a NATO diplomat source. The event will include meetings of the NATO-Georgia and NATO-Ukraine commissions, where the extent to which these countries are ready for closer relations with NATO will be considered.

The USA continues to insist on integrating Tbilisi and Kiev into NATO. But Washington has decided to change its tactics, after failing to convince a number of its European allies of the need to grant MAP status to Georgia and Ukraine in December. When NATO defense ministers met in Tallinn recently, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “there are various pathways to membership.” Gates said: “Some countries have not gone through MAP at all, and others are still going through it. This is a question of the application procedure. In a sense, the application was already signed and sealed in Bucharest.” He meant that at the Bucharest summit in April, NATO said it would be prepared to admit Ukraine and Georgia at some time in the future. Gates added that it would be a mistake for Russia to interpret a lack of MAP approval in December as a victory – given the decisions made in Bucharest.

US Ambassador in Ukraine William Taylor expanded on this idea yesterday. According to Taylor, Washington will try to persude its NATO partners to give Kiev a chance to skip the MAP stage.

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s permanent envoy at NATO, commented on Washington’s latest statements as follows: “A decision to grant NATO membership without MAP status would look highly irregular, from NATO’s own point of view. MAP is a strict rule these days. WE have put this question directly to high-ranking NATO officials, and they deny any such prospect. On the other hand, international officials won’t be making this decision. It will be made by top-level politicians. So I can allow for the possibility of the United States – the Bush Administration, at least – demanding a ‘great leap forward’ for Ukraine and Georgia: that is, full membership without MAP.”

Rogozin said: “The serious people working in Washington, Brussels, and other capitals realize that altering Ukraine’s status would completely destabilize the situation in Ukraine itself, possibly even leading to a collapse of Ukrainian statehood.”

Clearly, the decision regarding NATO’s rapprochement with Ukraine and Georgia will be made after President-elect Barack Obama takes office. At present, it looks like Washington is trying to avoid any acute disagreements at the Brussels meeting, similar to the arguments at the Bucharest summit. Countries such as Germany and France have been opposed from the outset to the idea of expanding NATO rapidly by admitting Russia’s unstable neighbors. The situation has only grown more complicated since the Bucharest summit: Georgia has completely lost part of its territory, and the political crisis in Ukraine has intensified. Most Ukrainian citizens are opposed to joining NATO.