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NATO and Russia perform an intricate dance

The posturing NATO complains about works well for Russia.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) meets Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov during the 45th Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Feb. 8, 2009. Ivanov said on Sunday that a U.S. offer "to press the reset button" in ties between NATO and Russia was very positive. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — Perhaps nothing has evoked modern-day threats of a “new Cold War” like the testy relations between Moscow and NATO, the alliance set up in 1949 to counter threats from the Soviet Union and, after 1955, its Warsaw Pact satellites.

Just this week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced plans to rapidly modernize his country’s armed forces, including its nuclear capabilities. The announcement came less than two weeks after NATO resumed high-level talks with Russia put on hold last summer during the war in Georgia.

Medvedev attributed the modernization announcement in part to “attempts to expand the military infrastructure of NATO near the borders of our country.”

Indeed, since the Cold War ended 20 years ago, NATO has crept ever deeper into former Warsaw Pact territory. Certainly none of those involved in founding either military bloc could have imagined that the USSR would fall in 1991. Since then, relations between the military alliance and Moscow have grown ever closer:

• In 1991, Russia established formal relations with NATO.
• In 1994, Russia joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace,” which further tailored the bilateral cooperation.
• The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was created in 2002. The relationship has since included joint military exercises, interoperability standards, non-proliferation and many other areas of cooperation.

So why does Moscow so often still behave as if its relationship with NATO is a zero-sum game? Perhaps because it works so well.

The fight over expansion of the U.S. missile shield is a perfect example. For years Russia has bitterly opposed U.S. plans to put a radar station in the Czech Republic and missiles in Poland in order to expand the range of its missile-defense program. The Bush administration said the program was aimed at counteracting possible attacks from Iran or North Korea. But those statements failed to quell Russian vitriol, which culminated in overt Kremlin speculation that Russia might train its own missiles on the Czechs and the Poles.

NATO endorsed the U.S. missile-defense plans at its Bucharest Summit last April, but it also reminded Russia of a feasibility study launched in 2003 to determine whether elements of Russia’s own defense program could be linked with those of alliance members, including the American system. In fact, NATO says it’s already spent more than 3 million euros researching missile-defense interoperability with Russia.

Still, Moscow insists the U.S. expansion is aimed at Russia. Kadri Liik, director of the International Center for Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia, gives a wry laugh. “They know – they know” it’s not against them, she says, “but they quite shamelessly exploit it.”