As long as NATO and Russia keep looking at each other through the lens of the Cold War, it will be impossible to make positive changes in their relationship.
The first company-sized contingent of about 150 U.S. paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team based in Italy march as they arrive to participate in training exercises with the Polish army in Swidwin, northern west Poland. Photo: Reuters
For a different take read: "The downward spiral in the Russia-NATO relationship"
Based on the results of its recent Warsaw summit, NATO has fully returned to its former Cold War rhetoric. NATO has discarded all its new plans and strategic concepts, and returned to its most important and foundational role — to keep Russia in check. No wonder Russia has also fueled its anti-NATO rhetoric recently.
Just six years ago, the future looked so much different. Back in 2010, at the NATO summit in Lisbon, the meeting was nothing short of historic. The reason for this was a new NATO strategic concept that was supposed to extend over 10 years. At that time, NATO looked at the world’s future through a geographic as well as a functional lens, and aimed to expand its horizons. From that perspective, Russia was no longer viewed as a dangerous rival.
Flash forward to today. At the end of the Warsaw summit, NATO declared 15 points of issue that they took with Moscow’s actions. In these 15 points were included various grievances against the country, starting from Ukraine and Crimea, to the combat troop training that Russia was conducting on its own territory.
How Poland’s viewpoint influences NATO
It is not at all surprising that the rhetoric used at the NATO summit took such a harsh tone. This communication style has been used for months, even before the NATO summit. It is enough to open any Polish newspaper, and see a number of typical clichés, which include anything from warlike and neo-imperialist Russia to the vulgar comparison between Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia.
Unfortunately, it is the Polish rhetoric that in many ways dominates the European discussion of Russia. It is unlikely that in countries like Greece or Portugal (or any other NATO country), Russia is seen as much of a political or military threat.
For Poland, such statements represent a rehashing of the nation’s cultural and historical beliefs. It is unlikely that even top NATO officials perceive Russia as a real threat. However, Polish politicians as well as some politicians from the Baltic States, live by this notion, and try to spread this idea among other NATO members.
There are two political figures who are especially vocal in their disparagement of Moscow: Lithuanian president and former Communist party member Dalia Grybauskaitė and Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz. It is Macierewicz who imparts to NATO Poland’s view of Russia. Recently he stated in an interview that the purpose of NATO was stopping “Russian aggression.” So the Polish view is that NATO should not have any other purpose, it is all very simple indeed.
Positives in the NATO-Russian relationship
The Polish and Baltic view of Russia is keeping NATO from viewing Russia in a different light. In reality, Russian-NATO relations have not always been hostile. At one point, during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, there were even discussions by experts of creating a common anti-missile European defense system, which would include Russia. This system would protect Europe from common threats. In the end, the project was rejected, and now the defense system is promoted by the Americans, without even hints at a mythical Iranian threat.
The U.S. and Iran made a deal, but a base for putting anti-ballistic missiles in Europe was kept open. But the fact that there was a plan for a common missile defense system is in itself important. It is interesting to note that these commonalities were discussed in Lisbon in 2010, at the “summit of the future.”
There was also the positive experience of allying in Afghanistan. There was also a NATO transit center near Ulyanovsk in Russia, and a program of common training for the prevention of the drug trade in Central Asia. There were also agreements to fight piracy in international waters. In addition to this, there were many other instances, which had to do with preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons).
Why has the positive agenda disappeared?
It is important to ask politicians and foreign policy analysts in Poland: “Besides criticism, what else can you offer Russia? Does NATO have a positive message for Russia?”
Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for officials in Poland to answer this question – despite the fact that the problem of radical Islamic terrorism affects everyone, including Russia and NATO. Europe has experienced tragic terrorist attacks over the past two years, and Russia has an unfortunate history of dealing with terrorists on its territory. When real and not mythical problems are considered, Russia and Europe have much in common.
However, the lack of positive thinking in regard to Russia was seen in the final decisions made in Warsaw. An increased military presence on NATO’s borders of course puts Moscow on edge, and makes Russian officials worry about what appropriate steps they should take. In fact, they responded in the same manner as NATO.
What prevents NATO and Russia from finding common ground
Another step back to the Cold War past is the decision of NATO to expand up to Russia’s doorstep. In fact it was a dangerous idea, the roots of which went back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The desire of NATO to include as many countries bordering Russia as possible has created immense tension between the two competing sides.
Once again, at the end of the summit, there were suggestions to proceed with what was once thought inevitable from the viewpoint of NATO strategists - the eventual membership of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. What Russia’s reaction will be, and how the Moldovan public will react is unclear.
Unfortunately, the NATO summit in Warsaw became yet another summit in a long line of summits that only reflected memorized clichés and traditional approaches without a vision for the future. Objectively, the summit was a triumph for the hosts - the Polish politicians were counting on certain decisions, which were ultimately made.
From the perspective of future strategy and development, and improvements in relations between Europe and Russia, the summit was a return to the past. If, at the 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO looked to the future, then in Warsaw in 2016, it looked to the past.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.