Russia and NATO renewed their dialogue for the first time since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, but the talks failed to produce any results. However, the very fact that the summit took place means a lot and gives a reason to hope that the two sides can eventually find a compromise.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the media after a NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Apr. 20. Photo: AP
The first Russia-NATO Summit in over two years, which took place on Apr. 21, received mixed reviews from international experts. What was its purpose? Could it be interpreted as a sign of a rapprochement between Russia and the West? Was the summit a diplomatic victory for the Kremlin, or did Moscow miss out on an extended offer of friendship and cooperation?
Incidentally, the preparation for the summit was marked by protests about the flight of Russian fighter jets over a U.S. warship in the Baltic Sea and the interception of Russian surveillance aircraft, as well as Moscow’s retorts to the contrary. Against such a background, one could hardly expect good rapport between Russian and American diplomats. So the results of the Brussels summit appear unclear, even though its very occurrence is extremely important.
The event was rather brief and did not lead to any major changes in relations between NATO and Russia. Naturally, one of the key problems on the agenda was the situation in Ukraine. Even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed after the summit that the Russian side managed to introduce significant amendments into the agenda, there was not much room for dialogue. The West’s approach to the Ukrainian conflict has not changed.
According to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, cooperation between Russia and NATO is not possible unless the former starts respecting international law. Russia’s take on such intransigence is quite simple: NATO wants the Kremlin to give Crimea back to Ukraine and stop supporting Donbas. The current Russian administration cannot compromise on the Crimea issue because the peninsula’s incorporation into Russian is perceived as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main international victory.
For most Russians, the incorporation of Crimea is absolutely justified, so any half-measures related to the newly acquired territory, such as a new referendum or the transfer of military bases over to Ukraine would look ridiculous. Besides, Kiev could interpret it is a sign of Russia’s weakness and step up its demands and claims. At least, that is how Moscow sees the situation.
At the same time, the Kremlin and the West have very different stances on Donbas. All parties that took part in negotiations agreed to the Minsk Protocol in an attempt to deescalate the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, according to most Western politicians, only full compliance with the Minsk Agreements can lead to the lifting of the sanctions on Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made that correlation very clear during their press conference on Apr. 24 that followed their meeting in Hannover, Germany.
In the meantime, at the Russia-NATO Summit, the overhang of the Ukraine issue blocked all new Russian initiatives. Moscow’s suggestions for cooperation in Afghanistan and Syria were left hanging, even though the White House has been unilaterally trying to reach an agreement with the Kremlin on “legitimate military action” zones in Syria. Moreover, neither the summit, nor any other events, saw any progress in cooperation on fighting terrorism.
It is starting to look like the West and Russia have already forgotten the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. It is unfortunate because Russia could serve as the link between European police forces and Syrian special services in flagging potential radical extremists. After all, Moscow has extensive experience in counter-terrorism.
One would think that the feasible threat of another, even bolder terrorist attack in Europe could provide the necessary incentive towards the creation of new cooperation formats, including cooperation between Russia and NATO. Instead, the West and Russia keep adhering to their respective agendas and cannot come to an agreement.
As for mutual protests against maneuvers involving destroyers, surveillance aircraft, and fighter jets in the proximity of NATO borders, they definitely add fuel to the fire, but the summit’s agenda had been approved and participants’ speeches written long before these incidents occurred. Given the events of the past two years, muscle flexing should come as no surprise.
Most likely, the summit would have taken place even if the Russian pilot had lost control of the aircraft and collapsed on the deck of the American destroyer, but that is not a very realistic scenario, for such maneuvers undergo extensive planning and constitute a special part of information warfare during which competing sides showcase their pilots’ training.
What is curious, though, is that the day after the summit, in Sophia, Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary general of NATO and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, announced the need for tighter integration of the army and navy of those allies that have access to the Black Sea, whereas at the Hannover Summit on Apr. 24 there had been talk not only of the possibility of lifting sanctions, but also a U.S.-Germany joint military cooperation aimed at keeping Russia at bay. So the main message that the Kremlin can take away from the summit and subsequent events remains the same: The West is ready for dialogue, but the deal should be negotiated directly with Washington, not its allies.
In the meantime, the White House could definitely use a small diplomatic victory because traditionally during their second terms, U.S. presidents concentrate on consolidating their historical legacy. How will Obama be remembered? As the instigator of instability in North Africa and the Middle East? As the head of state that lost control over what was left of the Soviet Union? As a politician who left his successor a record number of unresolved issues and military conflicts that constantly endanger the lives of American soldiers? Even the ever-controversial President Lyndon Johnson managed to pass over to his colleague Richard Nixon just one major trouble: the war in Vietnam.
Therefore, the current U.S. administration is definitely interested in a reputation boost. Given that full compliance with the Minsk Agreements is evaluated by the White House unilaterally, Obama can still use this card to push for a significant diplomatic success on the Syrian issue, which would enable the U.S., like Russia, to claim significant advances in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and transfer a part of the Syrian territory over to the control of its allies. At the same time, the resolution of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine will be postponed until a later date, Ukraine will keep drifting towards NATO, and Crimea will de facto be acknowledged as part of Russia.
Such a scenario might be possible. However, the Russia-NATO Summit clearly showed the Kremlin that Moscow should abandon its attempts at sowing discord among America’s European allies and proceed to work with Washington directly. Then the next summit will not amount to two sides voicing their opposing views, but rather will be marked by productive cooperation.
Thus, the Russia-NATO Summit was neither a diplomatic breakthrough for Moscow or the West, nor a failed bilateral attempt at establishing rapport. What it actually accomplished was showing that a rapprochement was possible over the short term. This is based on relatively mild anti-Russian rhetoric at the Hannover Summit and the propositions on Syria delivered by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The NATO-Russia Summit yet again highlighted the differences between Russia and the West, and now all that needs remains is finding ways to get them resolved.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.