NATO and Russia perform an intricate dance

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.”

Now the Obama administration, following up on a campaign promise to review the missile defense plans, has signaled to Russia that it might be willing to curtail the program as a tradeoff for more cooperation on curbing Iran’s nuclear pursuits.

A particularly harsh critic of Moscow, Liik would like to see international organizations like NATO and the European Union stop what she calls the “pretense” that Russia meets the thresholds for formal cooperation. Instead, she suggests, create forums to discuss matters that everyone agrees must be discussed between the two sides.

For example, Liik said, the EU put on hold its negotiations for a new partnership accord because of the Georgia conflict, but resumed them quickly despite ongoing questions about Russia’s commitment to the peace accord it signed with Georgia. In a paper for the Robert Schuman Foundation in Paris, Finnish Institute of International Affairs scholar Arkady Moshes attributed the quick resumption of “business as usual” to increased self-confidence on Moscow’s part and a lack of self-confidence on Europe’s side.

Liik would agree with that. “We confuse places where we can punish Russia and places where we can’t,” she says. “It puts us in a ridiculous position.”

Liik isn’t surprised, however, that Russia doesn’t fully subscribe to the efforts of the NATO-Russia Council, which she says has not lived up to its potential. “The West itself should’ve invested much more into the NATO-Russia Council,” she says, “and not into pleasing Russia but into making this organization work to achieve our goals vis-a-vis Russia.”

This is not an isolated view. At the March 5 NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, for example, Lithuania was determined until the very last minute to hold out against the U.S.-led desire to resume high-level dialogue with Moscow. Poland was similarly disinclined to resume the dialogue. But these countries were ultimately overpowered by the forcefulness of the views of the U.S., Germany, Britain and others that there are simply too many matters of mutual interest to keep relations suspended.

Whether NATO capitulated to Russia too easily or not, the Kremlin was not entirely pleased. Moscow was not happy with the fact that the resumption of NATO-Russia Council talks would not happen until after NATO’s 60th anniversary summit — to which it was not invited.

More on NATO:

On its 60th anniversary, NATO faces its biggest test

The Czech Republic celebrates 10 years in NATO

France to "rejoin" NATO