Friday, 6 March 2009

NATO-Russia Council to Reopen

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) has decided to resume full relations with Russia. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC), suspended since the Russo-Georgian War last summer, will begin to meet at Ambassadorial level following the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit in April. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced to journalists that:

Ministers reached agreement to formally resume the NATO-Russia Council, including at ministerial level, as soon as possible after the Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl. There was, of course, a lot of discussion on how this forum, how the NRC should be used, and there is strong agreement that the NATO-Russia Council is certainly not a fair-weather body, and that the weather is not yet fair. I'll get to that in a moment. It is, in other words, a forum where you discuss the things you disagree, sometimes fundamentally disagree, and subjects where you can work together.

Where we disagree, and where we go on disagreeing, but what we nevertheless have discussed, of course, is Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Its intention to build military bases there, part of Georgian territory, let's not forget that. Parts of Georgian territory in many United Nations Security Council resolutions. The non-accession of monitors, also a major point for discussion, where Russia is not fulfilling its obligations.

On a different matter, the suspension of the CFE Treaty are areas of particular concern to the allies.

So in other words, if we resume the NATO-Russia Council also in a more formal sense, we will urge Russia to meet fully its commitments, with respect to Georgia, and let me mention, on top of what I already did, withdrawal from the areas Russia has committed to leave. I mentioned already the monitors and Russia's responsibility with regards to security and order. These are issues we should discuss in the NATO-Russia Council, and I know that Russia is willing to have that discussion as well.

There was also an exchange of views on President Medvedev's proposals on a new European security architecture. To the extent details are clear, and I think we might need some more details and some more clarity in this regard, there's certainly a willingness in NATO, and I know there's a willingness in the Russian side as well, to discuss certainly the hard security aspects of the Medvedev proposals in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, although the primary forum for discussing these issues was and is the OSCE. And we have, of course, the Chairman in Office of the OSCE in our midst, the Greek Minister Bakoyannis.

The debate between ministers was apparently ‘robust’, and many of NATO’s newest members were unhappy with a decision to proceed at this point. Lithuania held out to the last against the resumption of business as usual with Russia. This despite the fact that, as the Secretary General had made clear, NATO has many issues which it needs to be able to discuss with Russia. Moreover, the resumption of normal relations is a key part of the Obama administration’s strategy for re-engaging Russia, and there was no possibility that Lithuania would be allowed to stand in the way.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas briefed that he believed it to be :

.. premature to open formal dialogue. I think we have to use this time before the summit and encourage Russia to be more cooperative on all the various questions which are a part of NATO security agenda.

In contrast, the statements from British and German representatives were much more positive.

"The crisis which is now behind us militarily ... cannot leave us in a situation where we refuse to talk," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his colleagues. Germany had been reluctant to break off relations last summer, and has been working assiduously to restore contact ever since.

He was supported by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who said later that:

NATO and Russia need to work together. I think it is important that NATO move to re-establish the NATO- Russian Council. I think that gives us an opportunity to put our concerns directly to the Russians. It also allows us to engage on issues of mutual concern in a number of areas.” The UK had supported the Bush administration in breaking off NATO-Russia talks, and is now supporting the Obama administration in their resumption.

A number of the Eastern European members of NATO expressed deep concern at the ease with which their western counterparts have shrugged off the events of last year.

"We support NATO-Russia dialogue. Russia must be given an opportunity to demonstrate a constructive attitude, interest in more extensive relations with NATO and a will to move forward on issues of mutual interest," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet briefed journalists, but warned that "we cannot seriously speak of true NATO-Russia partnership before Russia fulfills the terms of the treaties it has signed."

Briefing reporters in Warsaw, Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich expressed strong reservations at the decision and added that NATO’s credibility was on the line in relations with Russia, over Georgia, but also over the failure to issue invitations to the Ukraine and Georgia to join the Alliance.

The Czech government came under some criticism at home for its refusal to back the Lithuanian veto. Czech representatives felt that the suspension of the NRC last year was far too small a protest about the war in Georgia, and the move now to reinstate it deeply cynical. The Czechs further warned of Russian "imperial ambitions".

Not all of the older NATO members were wildly enthusiastic about the reopening of the NATO-Russia Council. They were pragmatic enough to accept it. Greek Foreign Minister Bakoyannis accepted the decision as “necessary and useful”, but underlined that relations “must be of a sincere and substantive dialogue", as well as of "cooperation on handling common challenges such as, for example, international terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and of weapons of mass destruction and the situation in Afghanistan."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed the US position hard. Talks on the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan were delayed by some time in order to get agreement. Sources say that Lithuanian delegation members complained that all NATO members should be on an equal footing, and that they had been placed under intolerable pressure to give way. Clinton acknowleged that the debate had been “vigourous”, but continued that:

I thought it was absolutely invigorating to have the kind of true debate that exists among friends and allies over such an important issue. We emerged with greater unity of purpose about how to build a constructive relationship with Russia and a stronger consensus about our relations with the emerging nations of Europe’s east. While the alliance won’t agree and indeed need not agree on every issue relating to Russia, we can and do agree that we must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest. We also agree we must find ways to manage our differences with Russia where they persist, and stand firm where our principles or our vital interests are at stake.

She did accept that some member States have “..particular concerns that a number of nations in Europe’s east, who have long experience with Russia, have voiced about any kind of dialogue with Russia, whether it be NATO-Russia, the United States-Russia, or any kind of discussion,” but emphasized that the position of the administration is that:

.. there are benefits to reenergizing the NATO-Russia Council .. We have areas where we believe we not only can, but must cooperate with Russia – nonproliferation, arms control, antiterrorism, anti-piracy efforts. There are a number of important matters that should be discussed between us and Russia. There are equally serious matters that we need to not stop talking to Russia about. I don’t think you punish Russia by stopping conversations with them about matters, whether it be the misuse of energy supplies or the failure to comply with the requirements set forth by the OSCE and others concerning their actions in Georgia.

(Read the Secretary of State’s full Press Briefing)

In truth, of course, NATO needs Russia – especially for its vital mission in Afghanistan. As the NATO Monitor has regularly observed, NATO leaders have tied the future credibility of the Alliance as a future 'global security provider' to success by ISAF. And, to do the best it can to ensure that success, NATO needs Russia.

NATO would like Russian help in rescinding the Kyrgyz decision to close the Manas air base (a vital resupply point) to the US and other Alliance members. They would also like Russia to allow a land-supply route for non-lethal military supplies for Afghanistan. US sources have briefed that they are hopeful that Russia may also allow lethal military supplies to travel by land, and the opening of an air corridor into Afghanistan. (Reuters has a good report on this) None of this will be possible without the resumption of talks in the NRC.

The dispute that surfaced yesterday on the issue is yet another example of the differences between old and new NATO members. The Eastern Europeans see NATO through the lens of Article V, its main purpose the same as it was in 1949. The US, and many of the older NATO members, see NATO as a renewed Alliance which can act globally to build security for all. It is very hard to see how too such completely disparate world views can be reconciled. Of course, at Strasbourg and beyond, the cracks will be papered over. But the Strategic Concept debate is likely to prove long and hard indeed.

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