NATO, established as a collective defence organization to protect the Western value system from the Soviet threat in 1949, has experienced significant transition after the end of the Cold War. The search for the new world order opened NATO for new members and new challenges. The active involvement of earlier enemies demonstrated openness and a sign to change old confrontational relations into partnerships for peace in the future. Most of the Soviet bloc nations were happily ready to accept the intensive cooperation and eager to gain membership in NATO - mainly because of the image of the Organisation as the collective defence against the Eastern threat. The only reluctant partner has been Russia.
As Eastern and Central European nations have a lingering image of Russia as the Eastern threat, Russia has maintained a strong image of NATO as one of the American tools to besiege Russia. However, some progress was made in the early 2000s and the NATO-Russian Council was launched, becoming the stage for defining common interests and constructing mutual trust.
The honeymoon period of NATO-Russian cooperation soon began to fade when reality started to intervene more and more into the nice rhetoric. It culminated in August 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. On the one side, Russia realised that the NATO-Russia Council did not let them dictate its interest towards NATO and strengthened the earlier Russian perception of American domination in the Organization. It was also supported by the Bush administration's unilateral policies in Iraq and stubbornness in regard to NATO enlargement into the "Russian backyard."
At the same time Putin's administration in Russia aimed at strengthening the Russian international position that was also supported by the advantageous economic situation in Russia that enabled Russia to construct the understanding that the US and NATO treat Russia unfairly and they want to close the circle that surrounds Russia. This further increased Russian distrust.
On the other side, NATO as the defence shield against Russia is still popular in the countries that are in the close neighbourhood of Russia and feel the threat from their ever-stronger neighbour. This feeling has been increased by the Russian display of military muscle and declarations that those territories belong to the Russian geostrategic sphere and therefore Russia cannot tolerate enlargement of any military organisations in "its backyard." Therefore, their eagerness to move out of the Russian sphere of influence and become members of NATO grows, hoping that one day Russia accepts this changed reality. It also corresponds to the NATO policies to become an opened security organisation for the whole of Europe based on mutual trust.
However, the NATO involvement policy has reached a dead end due to conflicting perceptions of the world order. On the one hand, Russia has maintained the Cold War perception that by definition the West confronts Russia. Therefore, the Russian point of view expressed in the new Russian National Security Strategy is that there cannot be any common values and interests and NATO-Russian relations should only be based on mutual respect, which means that NATO should take into account Russian interests in the North-Atlantic region. From the point of view of NATO it would mean to step back from the principle of protecting shared values. In addition, the Russian reluctance to see NATO as a partner and not as the main enemy is also difficult to understand because NATO has opened its doors to Russia. However, the understanding of the "strategic partnership" for NATO and Russia differ a lot.
To conclude, Russia is not able to become the strategic partner for NATO as long as the current Russian establishment continues to propogate that NATO is the main enemy and there is no change from the Russian side to understand that confrontation in Europe is over and this continent operates based on different principles. However, I'm sceptical that today's Russian government is able to make this change. Thus, NATO should try to consider Russian interests in some extent but only until the moment when NATO can maintain its values commonly shared by its members.
Heiko Pääbo is a lecturer and research fellow at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Prosper Thuysbaert: NATO Alone Cannot Tackle Global Instability
- Janusz Bugajski: Pragmatic Russians Seek to Exert Influence
- Jeffrey Mankoff: Limited Strategic Partnership with Russia is Possible