James Sherr
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

The NATO summit that convenes in Lisbon is not a celebration. The Alliance is overextended, overburdened and apprehensive. Yet its relationship with Russia is improving.

This is no coincidence. The events of 9/11 took NATO onto the global arena and possibly out of its depth. NATO is now partially dependent on Russian transit corridors for supplying its forces in Afghanistan, and it seeks further Russian support. Moreover, NATO's ambitions in East-Central Europe have been trimmed by Russia itself. By moving from soft Realpolitik to hard Realpolitik in its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia sought to show NATO the limits of its power, and it did. For the foreseeable future, further enlargement is off the table.

The fact that NATO and Russia now seek a firm partnership reflects two additional realities. First, having made its point in Georgia, Russia has not pressed it. It has shifted from hard power to soft power in its neighbourhood - most successfully in Ukraine. Second, allies believe that NATO's failure in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear ambitions, ballistic missile proliferation and the globalisation of piracy would damage Russia's interests almost as much as their own. For these reasons, the NATO-Russia Council which convenes towards the close of the summit tomorrow is likely to 'refresh' relations. But it is unlikely to transform them.

Despite the menu of common interests, Russia remains un-reconciled to NATO's place in Europe and the world. Whereas NATO seeks cooperation, Russia seeks 'equality': joint assessment of threats, joint decision-making and joint action, at least in those areas that concern it. By these means, it also seeks to operate over the heads of what Dmitriy Rogozin, Russia's Ambassador to NATO, recently called Europe's 'new sickly democracies', even where they happen to be NATO members. Moscow remains opposed to NATO's presence in neighbouring countries that fall within its designated 'sphere of privileged interests' and is adamant that its own values are its own business. Its apprehension of Iran is balanced by its pronounced economic stake there and an equal apprehension that the beneficiaries of a humbled Iran are likely to be Israel and the United States. In Afghanistan, it dreads a NATO victory almost as much as a NATO defeat.

On European missile defence, Moscow has stated that it will cooperate on the basis of 'equality' or not at all. This is more difficult than it sounds. Since the Obama administration unveiled a new, phased missile defence programme in autumn 2009, US plans have become steadily conflated with NATO's own. Apart from the enormous technical complexities of folding Russia into this process, most allies are opposed to giving Russia command-and-control over NATO's means of defence.

Were this not all, the apparent withdrawal of Republican support for the New START Treaty on 17 November has thrown an ugly spanner in the works. The treaty's pre-amble recognises, at Russia's insistence, the 'interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms'. Without START, the equation between NATO missile defence and threat returns to Moscow with a vengeance.

This can only weaken those in Russia who want to adopt a different set of priorities. Russia has no strategy for managing China's 'peaceful rise', and it needs one. The north Caucasus is disintegrating, and terrorism inside Russia is growing. Recovery from the financial crisis is turning into stagnation, and 'modernisation' remains only a slogan.

Although NATO's New Strategic Concept will be a studiously balanced document, the balances might fail to satisfy Russia as well as some NATO allies. The latter perceive that European security, which Russia claims a right to co-manage, depends on the 'common values' that Russia rejects. That difference will not disappear at Lisbon. Neither will its importance.