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A New US President Offers Chances to Reduce NATO-Russia Tensions

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Image courtesy of U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine/Flickr.

Russian foreign policy needs to be understood and adequately addressed for diplomacy to have a chance for a comeback in NATO-Russia relations. Here, the election of Joe Biden as US president could serve to reverse the worrisome tendencies in US foreign policy under Trump and restore pragmatic dialog and direct military contacts with Moscow. Calls from expert communities for rebuilding the arms control architecture to reduce the risk of unintended incidents and escalation are growing louder.

How did NATO-Russia relations get this bad?

NATO and Russia hit rock bottom in 2014. Alarmed by Ukraine’s growing pro-Western orientation and afraid of losing its most important warm-water port in Sevastopol, Russia annexed Crimea and sent “little green men” to support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, resulting in a suspension of all practical cooperation between NATO and Russia and downgrading of the political dialog at the NATO-Russia Council.

Russia’s provocative behavior since has included a build-up of Russian military forces along its western borders, impromptu exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, intensive disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks directed against Europe and the US, and poisoning opponents of the Russian regime in NATO countries’ territory and in Russia itself. Notably, since the US terminated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019 due to repeated Russian violations, the security dilemma in Europe has worsened considerably as this treaty’s demise opened further cracks in strategic stability.

Concerned about the increasing danger of unintended military confrontation, 145 former US, European, and Russian diplomats, generals, researchers, and politicians have called for political action in Moscow and at NATO to restore practical dialog on how to impose limits on military activity in Europe. They have also proposed recommendations for exploring risk-reduction practices through transparency.

Why more is needed

In a joint letter they put forward a series of measures, suggesting that “these steps can contribute to an atmosphere in which resolution of those difficult political issues becomes more achievable” despite the mistrust and political disputes. However, this requires that NATO overcome three crucial obstacles:

Firstly, Trump’s incoherent policy and questioning of alliance solidarity has damaged the cohesion of the transatlantic partnership. It is reasonable to expect that the Biden administration will conduct a more predicable foreign policy and employ less confrontational rhetoric to re-establish trust among its European allies and reiterate the strategic value of the Alliance for both sides of the Atlantic.

Secondly, NATO and Russia need to find the political will towards new arms control agreements in and for Europe. Extending the New START, the last strategic nuclear arms control treaty, beyond 5 February 2021 is only part of the problem. The traditional institutional channels for confidence-building measures (the NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) remain frozen. NATO can nevertheless try to become a platform for negotiation again, as it did in the past for the Vienna Document, the CFE Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty (OST). To resume a much-needed dialog, NATO and Russia should do their utmost to focus on reviving the remaining cornerstones of the European security architecture. To preserve the OST after the US withdrawal in December 2020, the European allies should coordinate their approach to Washington and highlight the benefits of the treaty. Russia might believe that the US would still get access to the OST data through its NATO allies, and would be happy to kill the treaty since Moscow has no allies with which to share the data. If both the US and Russia abandon the OST, the operational relevance of the treaty will diminish, as there would be no participating great powers that could use the treaty to build confidence among themselves.

Discussions in 2021 regarding the updating of the Vienna Document will require better expectation management on both sides. In order to agree on long-needed reductions in thresholds for prior notifications of military activities and increases in inspection and evaluation quotas, Russia must stop politicizing them; instead, they must agree to reach a shared technical understanding of these measures. NATO and Russia could explore the geographical expansion of this political agreement into the Asia-Pacific region to increase transparency amid the renewed great power competition.

Thirdly, while diplomacy and dialog are crucial to avoid unintended escalation, re-establishing a working relationship with Russia is challenging in itself. The cause of the demise of the NATO-Russia relationship still exists. Russia is a status-seeking power that may even disregard security concerns in pursuit of its status recognition. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia in a precarious situation: Stagnation, economic backwardness, and authoritarianism cause a sense of vulnerability that results in a tendency to blame the West, to assert Russia’s position as global player, and to claim its sphere of influence in the former Soviet region through external aggression. All of these objectives are best served by fracturing the NATO alliance.

In need of smart moves

In order for this call to more dialog to work, several steps are necessary: Firstly, NATO needs to become once again a trustworthy platform for negotiations. This is possible only if Washington changes its rhetoric and remains interested in issues of European security. This means that European allies need to make themselves relevant to the US at a time when it is increasingly preoccupied with China. They should provide the US with diplomatic backing vis-à-vis China and step up their own defense capabilities so that Washington stops perceiving them as free riders.

Secondly, NATO could start by addressing Russia’s long-term fears dating back to the end of the ABM Treaty. Modernization of the Vienna Document must be depoliticized. The European allies should keep highlighting the benefits of the OST until the Biden administration returns the US to the treaty, while reaching an understanding with Russia regarding the latter’s compliance problems. Moscow might stay interested in keeping the OST alive because this would allow it to conduct overflights over US military bases in Europe.

Not all of these objectives will be secured overnight. In order to achieve them, several elements will be necessary, including patience, a willingness to find common ground in order to make the relationship between Russia and NATO functional, and cooperation and predictability in the transatlantic relationship.

About the Author

Dominika Kunertova is a Senior Researcher in the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies.

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