In the wake of the Paris attacks and the destruction of a Russian plane by a bomb in Sinai, Russia had been once more calling for a new level of engagement with Western partners over operations in Syria. Even an ‘anti-terrorism coalition’ appeared to gain traction after the terrorist attacks in Paris. But Russian attacks on Western-backed opposition groups in Syria and continuing violation of Turkish airspace narrowed the window of opportunity for engagement between NATO member states and Russia in Syria, and Tuesday’s incident – where Turkey shot down a Russian bomber − fundamentally challenged this option. NATO allies and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were quick to call for ‘calm and de-escalation’ of the situation. But they face a problem: in the absence of a strategy, NATO lacks a mechanism—a form of transparent process for crisis resolution—between member states and partner nations when and if a dispute or disagreement arises.
NATO has three essential core tasks—collective defence (Article 5), crisis management and cooperative security; it does not prioritize one task over the other. Whereas collective defence applies to member states like Turkey, cooperative security involves engagement with partner nations, such as Russia, to assure Euro-Atlantic security. NATO’s role, in this sense, goes beyond protecting a member’s state’s sovereignty. This aspiration to provide enduring cooperation and cooperative security beyond members lies behind the now-obsolete NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, signed in 1997.
NATO’s balance between these tasks and its role vis-à-vis partner states is ill-defined, and among the core issues the Alliance must consider at or before its next summit in Warsaw in July 2016. These discussions must include prioritizing and grouping partner nations—Russia and Sweden, for instance, are clearly not partners in equal terms – and clarifying the role of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). The NRC is a venue for political dialogue that includes consultation, cooperation and joint action, but does not have a crisis resolution mechanism. From 2014 onwards, the NRC has not functioned, yet it is the only venue where NATO and Russia could have discussions regarding the future of Syria, focusing on ISIS as a major threat both to the Alliance and to the partner nations. Neither Russia nor the Alliance will benefit from escalation; thus, both sides should bear in mind that a troubling partnership is better than an adversarial relationship.
This is even more important because NATO member states do not have a cohesive strategy regarding Syria’s future. For some countries, like Germany, the efforts lie on refugee relief policies, while for others, such as France, the focus is the military fight against ISIS. Russia is clearly testing NATO’s response mechanisms through hybrid warfare techniques. Yet, NATO also does not have a coherent policy regarding Russia’s assertiveness in Ukraine, involvement in Syria and its annexation of Crimea. NATO officials are in general agreement that there can be ‘no grand bargain with Russia’ as long as it continues to violate international treaties and norms. Russian aggression and assertiveness is a long-term problem for the Alliance to tackle. So far, though, NATO benefits from ‘avoid[ing] that situations, incidents and accidents spiral out of control’, as the NATO secretary general noted in his speech after the extraordinary North Atlantic Council meeting. Solidarity among allies and protecting Turkish territorial integrity is a clear role for NATO, but the Alliance’s response mechanism in crisis situations should not be exhausted and undermined with small-scale, bilateral disagreements and disputes.
NATO could move to incorporate a crisis resolution mechanism, in specified non-escalatory terms and processes, between member states and partner states, where NATO member states and Russia meet together as equals in case of a crisis. This could re-establish a communication channel between NATO and Russia in particular, especially when the NRC is not functioning. If such a mechanism were in existence today, Turkey could have taken the issue to NATO’s crisis management system and pointed out its concerns over airspace violations, rather than shooting down the Russian bomber. This could have enabled the Alliance and Russia to participate in a dialogue that has been silent for more than a year. Instead, this incident demonstrates the delicate strategy of balancing deterrence policies with engagement between a member state and a rather troubling partner nation.
When Syria’s future is discussed, as it will be, at the Warsaw summit, Russia will be an unavoidable part of the discussion. But until there is a way to de-escalate these small-scale incidents, it will be increasingly difficult for Russia and NATO to determine whether they do in fact have any scope for cooperation, or at the least collaboration, on shared challenges and threats.
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