Let us start with a few snapshots. Exhibit one – Levada Center opinion poll conducted in January 2011 showed NATO being described as an adversary by 23 percent Russians (Chechen rebels came first on that list with 43 percent, followed by USA with 28 percent).
Exhibit two – on any given week you can expect Russian newspaper running stories which in their titles speak about “demise of NATO”, “criminal bombings of civilians by Allied planes” or “NATO rejecting Russian proposals” and so on.
Exhibit three – this time from my own experience in Russia. At the end of a long TV programme in which I discussed the problem of international terrorism with other invited guests I was informed by the anchor that results of the phone-in to the studio were so unfriendly to the organisation I represent that he preferred not to read them on air.
Well, let’s be honest: this is not a very uplifting picture. Behind these snapshots there are a number of rather persistent stereotypes about NATO. Here are a few of them.
The first dwells on a myth of historic inequality. As NATO was essentially a counterbalance to the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War period once the latter was dissolved, why is the Alliance still around? Interestingly this view is not just associated with an older generation, one can easily hear such sentiments among Russian public figures and commentators who have a rather scant memory of 1960s or even 1980s.
The second stereotype concentrates more on what NATO purportedly does or aims to do vis-à-vis Russia. The key ingredients of this viewpoint focus on charges that NATO’s military infrastructure is encircling the Russian Federation, on perceived Rusophobia of many Allies and new ones in particular, and on suspicion that every single initiative of NATO in regions close to Russia (e.g. Eastern Europe or Central Asia) reflects a wish to thwart Russian interests there.
The third criticism centres on NATO’s current military operations or missions such as those in Afghanistan or Libya. NATO actions are seen as unlawful, ineffective, a threat to international peace – or all of the above.
It is not unusual for example to see demonstrators outside the NATO Information Office in Moscow carrying placards which talk of Allies as “criminal fascists killing innocent Libyans” or simply demand that “NATO get out of Afghanistan”.
These myths – for myths they are – refuse to go away. They make their way into public discourse in Russia and confront many NATO or Allied officials entering into a debate with representatives of Russian public opinion. They are certainly not helpful and make the job of building mutual trust more difficult.
So, is there a reason to feel despondent and pessimistic when faced with such a problem of perception of NATO? There is clearly a case to be disappointed with cases of one-sided and unfair presentation of the Alliance by many Russians. But my overall answer is a categorical no. Here are the reasons for remaining a resolute optimist.
The opinion polls may be accurate but the same or other polls show clearly that the residue of animosity is subsiding by double digits.
On top of that the positive view of all Allied countries individually is becoming more widespread (for example in the poll by Levada quoted above, 60 percent of Russians confirmed a positive perception of the USA).
And while some TV viewers may indeed be tempted so say a few uncomplimentary words about the Alliance, one does not encounter in Russia any sense of animosity or disrespect. On the contrary, when discussing NATO with Russian officials, experts, parliamentarians or just ordinary members of the public, I have only met people who may disagree with you but who are very keen to strive towards a mutual understanding. In other words I find that each debate helps to chip away at the edifices of stereotypes.
I believe that this is explained by the fact (backed up by opinion polls) that many Russians simply do not know that much about the Alliance of today and sometimes even less about NATO-Russia cooperation. Thus, as more information becomes available, there is hope that perception will evolve too.
And there are visible signs that interest in filling in these gaps is picking up.
The same newspapers which use rather negative headlines for their stories about NATO devote a lot of space to details of NRC (NATO-Russia Council) cooperation and print very sophisticated analysis of Allied policies and actions. Each newsworthy project conducted jointly by NATO and Russia gets a very good coverage.
This was the case with a first ever live counter-terrorist exercise being part of the Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI) held this year. All TV channels in Russia showed pictures of Russian fighter planes escorting a Polish transport plane, and later performing a similar job with their Turkish counterparts. Russian viewers also saw reportages from a successful demonstration of Russian and Allied naval skills during the Bold Monarch submarine rescue demonstration off the coast of Spain.
This is very important from the point of view of the general public which is becoming more aware of the real consequences of historic conclusions of the Lisbon Summit last year when President Medvedev and Allied leaders decided to set off on the path towards strategic partnership. As the cooperative agenda gets more and more crowded with each passing month, the opportunities to notice the benefits of new partnership will grow too.
Partnership projects connected with a shared task of stabilising Afghanistan (transit agreements, helicopter support to Afghan authorities, joint training of counter-narcotics experts from the region and so on) are seen as good stories. So is the common Russian-Allied effort to develop technologies able to detect improvised explosive devices and other ways of pooling expertise to fight terrorism. Cooperation in such areas as counter-piracy, civil emergency planning or facing up to such security challenges as WMD proliferation are appreciated by Russian public opinion.
Moreover, the high tempo of political dialogue – foreign and defence ministers’ meetings, invitation for all NRC ambassadors to a meeting with President Medvedev in Sochi, as well as growing pace of inter-parliamentary exchanges – all contribute a lot to changing the public mood related to engagement with NATO. This visible political desire to move constructively forward shows to ordinary Russians (and people in the Allied countries) that their leaders are ready to work towards a strategic partnership, a modern relationship befitting our times.
Is this enough to do away with the stereotypes and unfair perceptions of NATO? Can one convince our Russian partners that NATO is definitely an instrument for international peace, stability and it seeks friendship with Russia? Not straight away of course. More dialogue, more down to earth debates and more concrete joint work are needed to register a satisfactory and durable change. However, each partnership project brings us closer to that goal.
I am convinced that in the end the best guarantees of success in this endeavour are the Russian people themselves. For they display a unique ability to judge others both with their heart and with their brain.
Russian sincerity and friendliness is something which inhabitants of Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kazan take pride in. NATO is and will continue to be an honest and solid partner for Russia – and I am sure that this will be recognised in Russia.
As for the brain – it is not a coincidence that Russian chess players and mathematicians are held in such high esteem all over the world. And if one examines closely the logic of NATO-Russia cooperation, it is certainly not a risky gambit but an iron-clad equation of mutual interest.
Robert Pszczel is Director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone. First published in NATO Review.
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