Andrew Monaghan
Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
If the NATO−Russia Council has not been suspended, despite last week’s meeting, there continues to be only a barely detectable pulse in this consultative body.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talks to the media prior to a meeting of the North Atlantic Council. Photo by Getty Images.NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talks to the media prior to a meeting of the North Atlantic Council. Photo by Getty Images.

The NATO−Russia Council (NRC) meeting last week provided an important bellwether in the run up to NATO’s Warsaw summit in early July. Dialogue is important, but the disagreements are deep and Russia’s continuing military transformation will pose increasing challenges to the Euro-Atlantic structure.

The NRC meeting, the body’s first in two years and months in preparation, focused on three main questions – Ukraine and Minsk II, transparency and risk, and Afghanistan. Officials suggested that it was a ‘frank, serious and good meeting’ during which both sides could ‘exchange views, listen to each other and contribute to talking’.

But it is no surprise that after the meeting both sides emphasised their disagreements, particularly on the first two themes, and over who was to blame for the deterioration in Euro-Atlantic security and what to do about it.

Two broad points stand out as NATO’s Warsaw summit looms. First, while maintaining a mechanism for dialogue is important, not least as a measure to manage escalation avoidance, this meeting does not appear to be one of a series. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General stated that the meeting did not mean returning to ‘business as usual’, and although he emphasised that the NRC was ‘not suspended’, a schedule for the next meeting was not agreed.

Indeed, an active and meaningful dialogue will be difficult to reignite: the NATO−Russia relationship was stagnating well before the NRC meetings ceased in 2014 as the two sides found it increasingly difficult to build a shared agenda. Though there are interests that are common to both parties, each side defines their causes, and approaches and preferred solutions to them differently. This appears to have been confirmed – again – at last week’s meeting.

At the same time, Russian officials have often stated that the NRC returned some years ago to a ‘NATO +1’ body in which Moscow is simply informed about NATO’s decisions, or in which NATO criticises Russian aggression. Announcements after last week’s meeting suggested that NATO emphasised that its fundamental principles – including every state’s right to a choice of security arrangements and the rules governing military activities – must be observed and respected. This may be interpreted in Moscow as another example of NATO continuing to see the NRC as a mechanism in which Russia is simply informed of NATO’s view. If so, it may well decide – as it appears to have done with the G8 – that the NRC is no longer an effective mechanism, and continue to seek alternative mechanisms and methods for advancing its interests, particularly in bilateral relationships.

The second area of concern brought into focus by the NRC meeting is that the tension in the Euro-Atlantic area appears likely to continue to increase through the summer. At Warsaw, the alliance will endorse and confirm a number of measures that will step hard on the long-term, chronic tensions in NATO-Russia relations. These include NATO enlargement, the ballistic missile defence project, the Readiness Action Plan and other measures to improve collective defence, such as some form of pre-positioning of military equipment in eastern and central Europe and substantial military exercizing in the region, enhanced partnership measures with non-NATO members and a reiteration of the nuclear component of NATO’s deterrence posture.

Given that, even individually, each of these issues is a contentious aspect of the NATO−Russia relationship, taken together, it should not be a surprise if the Russian leadership makes its disagreement with NATO explicit. Indeed, some Russian observers suggest that Moscow’s responses are likely to become increasingly emphatic until the West takes notice of its disagreement.

So what might be expected from Moscow? While some in the West point to Russia’s economic problems and question the sustainability of Russia’s current course, a tangible change in direction from Moscow is unlikely. Indeed, the intention to create a ‘battle ready, modern and efficient army and navy’ was reiterated by both Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin in March.

More demonstrations of this will ensue, such as the development of the 1st Guards tank army, reactivated in February this year, as part of a new rapid reaction force that will be supplemented with two new armoured divisions in the western and central military districts in 2016, and perhaps with further reminders from the leadership that Russia is a nuclear capable state.

This year’s Russian military exercises are designed to develop military cooperation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization: in March, Russian strategic aviation and air assault forces were integrated into an exercise with Tajikistan on the Tajik-Afghanistan border, and the Kavkaz-2016 exercise will include Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Exercises will also test and demonstrate Russia’s increasing military capability, both in terms of its technology and its ability to project power. Official sources have announced the intention to deploy Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the eastern Mediterranean in the autumn and to run test launches of ballistic missiles from Borei-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines.

The NATO-Russia dialogue remains stilted and limited. But the foundations on which it rests are being overtaken by Russia’s ongoing military transformation. This is already altering the architecture in practical terms from the high north to the Mediterranean.  There is no going ‘back to business as usual’, since the terms of business are being changed by Moscow.

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