Did the world become more secure and predictable three decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall? The world hardly did however its part called Euro-Atlantic space likely succeeded in that. NATO leaders who I met in Brussels insistently cite the former border between western and eastern blocs and the current Russian border with western neighbors as an example, including the Baltic Sea area, first and foremost. Regardless of major contradictions about NATO eastward enlargement it is one of the most secure places in the world at present.
The key to stability lies in relations between Russia and NATO which are far from cloudless. Last year marked 15 years of the signing in Paris of the Russia-NATO Basic Act in which the parties pledged not to attack each other and created the first permanent interaction structure.
However air raids on Yugoslavia followed. Then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov even U-turned his plane over the Atlantic Ocean in protest and cancelled a visit to the United States. Also last year marked 10 years of the summit in the Italian Pratica di Mare airbase where Russian President Vladimir Putin and NATO partners tried to resume cooperation and set up the Russia-NATO Council. But it was followed by NATO enlargement to Baltic countries, Ukrainian and Georgian membership bids, and the war in South Ossetia.
In November 2010 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and NATO leaders agreed at the Lisbon summit on strategic partnership and chose the pilot project of European missile defense for the beginning. However instead of bonding the parties it developed into an apple of discord and political relations again cooled down. Paradoxically, political relations between the alliance and Russia look dim and full of collisions while practical cooperation develops dynamically and successfully. It was confirmed by the ministerial meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels on December 4.
How can it be explained and did the December meeting of NATO ministers with Sergei Lavrov add impetus to NATO-Russia relations? I asked the question to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
He agreed. We have progressed in practical cooperation and continue to go ahead. In a broader political context we decided at the Russia-NATO summit in 2010 to develop genuine strategic partnership between Russia and NATO. Partnership means not only practical cooperation in which we progress but also political consultations on issues of discord. They include strategically important problems, such as the situation in Afghanistan, missile defense, etc. The fact that we do not agree on everything does not diminish the solidity of relationship. We have to comprehend there will always be political issues on which we differ. They have to be discussed in an open and frank atmosphere. We have to progress in some spheres and continue discussions in others.
Rasmussen believes the December meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov which took place after a new cooling in relations was successful and "new energy" is likely to appear in 2013 which the general secretary promised to breathe into the NATO-Russia Council before his mandate expires. An action plan was adopted. It calls for continuation of launched projects in 2013 and for expanded cooperation in other important spheres. They include elimination of excessive munitions and enhanced fight against drug trafficking...
One of the major disputes is caused by the missile defense which was expected to become the main cooperation project two and a half years ago in Lisbon. Russian officials say further progress in relations with the alliance depends on NATO position on European missile defense. It sounds like a precondition. Are NATO members ready to change their current approach to "two separate systems" (Russian and NATO) and provide legal guarantees to Moscow the missile defense is not targeted against Russian strategic deterrence potential? So far no way out of the deadlock is seen.
I want to be completely clear in the issue, said NATO chief. We decided to create on the NATO basis a missile defense system because we are responsible for the protection of our peoples and territories against any threats. We believe the missile threat is real and we have to possess proper defense against it. At the same time we invited Russia to cooperate. We can launch interaction between Russian and NATO systems.
We stated that we have no intentions to undermine the Russian strategic deterrence potential to say nothing about attacking Russia, he went on to say. We do not plan to attack Russia. Our missile defense is not designed either for attack or for weakening the Russian strategic deterrence. We invited Russia to cooperate and proposed creating two jointly controlled missile defense centers in which Russian and NATO staff would work together and the Russians could see with their own eyes that our defense does not target Russia.
As for guarantees, in 1997 Russia and NATO adopted a joint document called the Basic Act. We stated in it that we shall not use force against each other. We abide by the commitment and are ready to confirm it. I believe Russia also complies with it. A political document in which the governments of 27 countries confirm the 1997 decision - not to use force against each other - have the same force as any other legal document.
The NATO chief added that it is impossible to draft a legal document which would be ratified by parliaments of 29 countries. It is impossible because of the dispersed opinions of lawmakers in the countries. Rasmussen believes Russia would obtain stronger guarantees had it accepted NATO proposal on two joint command centers. Politically a declaration can be adopted which would confirm the 1997 commitments.
Another apple of discord is the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE). Russia expressed readiness to come back to the negotiating table to adapt the treaty which was signed in the times of the former USSR. But without preconditions. They include NATO demand to Russia to reject the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and withdraw its military bases from there. The alliance does not want to discuss CFE adaptation until Russia fulfills the demand.
I believe the CFE is a very important framework document for control of conventional forces, said Rasmussen. We need a legal framework to control these type of armed forces. However the consent of the host country is an integral part of our arms control scheme. It is clear there is currently no consent of the host country to Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia because both territories are a part of Georgia according to international law. It is definitely a major obstacle and an issue on which we have deep contradictions with Russia.
I am very serious about promoting genuine strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, Rasmussen said. It is in our common interests. The words "strategic partnership" presume a possibility to disagree in some spheres and at the same time progress in others. I believe it is in Russian interests to develop strategic partnership with NATO because there are many points where our fundamental security interests coincide. They are Afghanistan, the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism, sea piracy, etc.
These are concrete interests. However from the strategic point of view it is in the Russian interests to attract foreign investments which promote its economic development. Investment and business climate become more attractive when investors see a secure environment. If we develop strategic partnership investors will feel more secure, the NATO chief said.
Russia is a major exporter of energy carriers and fuel supplier to Europe. Russian fundamental interest is to export energy in a stable atmosphere. If the Europeans believe that Russia is using energy as a foreign policy weapon they will turn to alternative suppliers. That would not be in the Russian interests. Positive relations with NATO countries will serve Russian interests. So far NATO countries comprise the mightiest economic force in the world. It is in the Russian interests to cooperate with the zone of economic might.
Afghanistan is an important point of coincidence of NATO and Russian interests. The return of the country to terrorism haven and source would be a major threat to security of the West and Russia.
Although in contrast to Ukraine, Georgia and several non-members of NATO Russia did not send (for clear historic reasons) its soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, it plays a major role in NATO operation by providing transit through its territory for supplies to ISAF, by supplying combat helicopters and spare parts to the Afghan army, training crews and technicians for them, and by joining effort with NATO in training experts to fight drug trafficking. The helicopter supply program is financed by the joint NATO-Russia trust fund which, according to Rasmussen, will expand operations this year.
Last year at Chicago summit NATO decided to gradually end the military operation in Afghanistan, transfer responsibility for security in the country to Afghan military, withdraw the last combat units from there by late 2014, and begin a new non-combat operation to train and support Afghan forces. It was not accidental that the decision was adopted in the time of the economic and financial crisis as it is cheaper to finance, train and supply local security forces than keep expedition corps in the distant country.
However Moscow is concerned by potential consequences of the decision and believes it is premature to withdraw ISAF from Afghanistan as local armed forces are not ready to take over responsibility for security and in several hours after the withdrawal of NATO military the Taliban will seize power back.
We are not simply withdrawing from Afghanistan. When we complete the ISAF combat operation by late 2014 the strong Afghan security force will be prepared to take over the mission. We enhance the potential of Afghan forces and our aim is to raise their strength to some 350 thousand men, including the army and police. What is more important is that we raise the quality of their skills and can see how they are taking over the leading role in security operations. Already now they play a leading role in 80 percent of our operations. They hold 90 percent of training exercises themselves and have professional rapid deployment units. I am convinced that when we complete the combat mission the Afghans will be able to fight and will not allow Afghanistan to again become a rear base for terrorists, Rasmussen said.
The Afghan operation is an example of combat actions "outside the NATO zone of responsibility" the possibility of which was envisaged in the new strategic concept of NATO and caused disputes and criticism also from Russia.
The NATO chief stressed that in Afghanistan the alliance fulfilled UN Security Council resolution. NATO also wants to get a UN mandate for the training operation which is to begin after 2014 pullout although an invitation from the government in Kabul would be a sufficient legal ground for the mission. Rasmussen believes Russia as a permanent UN Security Council member will welcome the resolution as it is in its interests to ensure a lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The NATO air campaign in Libya was also mandated by the United Nations. However today NATO rarely recalls it, mostly the lessons: Libya exposed drawbacks in NATO military potential which Chicago summit demanded to immediately remedy. European NATO members could not cope with the task without Americans who were reluctant to join Libya campaign. Europeans lacked high-precision munitions, refueling aircraft, strategic airlifters, modern means of reconnaissance and communications for an independent operation. Therefore NATO has to remedy the drawbacks through modernization of the military potential, unified financial efforts of European alliance members in acquiring costly hardware, increased military appropriations and thus decrease reliance on the United States.
Rasmussen said the United States has been displaying falling interest in European problems after the Cold War.
We still can see US participation in European affairs when the talk is about conflicts on the space surrounding EU. However long-term trend shows the United States expects from European allies independent resolution of the crises on the space, he said.
In general the NATO chief does not think the alliance shall play a role of a global gendarme and interfere in conflicts which do not directly affect its members. However nobody has cancelled article 5 of the Washington Treaty which envisages collective NATO defense by musketeer's principle One for All and All for One! We cannot jump from one country to another and resolve all conflicts on the planet. It is simply impossible. The mission of the alliance is to ensure security of its member-states, he said.
NATO has no intentions to interfere in Syria and Mali. It is another case if the conflict in Syria jeopardizes the security of NATO member Turkey. It is in this context that deployment of six Patriot missile units close to the Turkish-Syrian border should be viewed.
We are there to protect Turkey which is a NATO member. It is an exclusively defense measure. The deployment of Patriot missiles is no preparation for a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. I repeat: NATO has no intentions to interfere in Syria. We are convinced that political solution is the right decision, Rasmussen said.
There are post-Soviet countries which want to get under the NATO collective defense umbrella which they view as their independence guarantee. The NATO "open-door policy" is a constant source of tensions and paralyzes Russia-NATO relations from time to time. The issue has been solved for the Baltic countries: from 2004 they are full members of NATO covered by article 5 provisions.
But NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 listed Ukraine and Georgia as potential candidates to join the alliance. Further political developments in Ukraine pushed NATO membership to the background. However Georgian desire to join the alliance did not diminish even after the victory of the opposition over Mikhail Saakashvili. Moscow warned that any new steps to bring Georgia closer to NATO membership can simply "kill" the Russia-NATO Council.
Is there any possibility to integrate Georgia into the alliance without deteriorating relations with Russia? It was this consideration that guided Angela Merkel at the summit in Bucharest where she actually blocked the provision to Ukraine and Georgia of the status of official candidates for NATO membership.
Let me recall the basic principle. It is the business of any nation to decide whether it wants to join any alliance or not and how to build up its national security. Russia signed up to the fundamental principle in the 1999 OSCE Charter. It is no business of Russia to decide whether Georgia should join our alliance at a certain stage or not. It will be decided by NATO and Georgia. In Bucharest we decided that Georgia can be a NATO member if it complies with certain criteria. So far it does not. We set up the NATO-Georgia commission and we work to promote reforms in Georgia. In future it may comply with NATO criteria, Rasmussen said.
But can Georgia join the alliance without Abkhazia or South Ossetia? Does Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its military deployment there impede Georgian accession to NATO?
These are hypothetical issues. Naturally, we hope for a peaceful resolution of the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We embarked on the policy of non-recognition (of their independence) and call on Russia to comply with corresponding international obligations. We regret that Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It contradicts international law and we insist on full respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia in its internationally recognized borders. In answer to your question... Naturally, it would be inadmissible to give Russia the right to veto NATO enlargement.
I know that Moscow is not excited by our open-door policy. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that NATO and European Union enlargement helped create a zone of stability and economic progress in Eastern Europe. For centuries the Russian strategic goal was to ensure stability on its western borders. By NATO and EU enlargement we promoted reforms and economic development in Eastern Europe and thus created there a zone of stability along Russian western borders. Moreover, Russia received economic benefits from the stability zone. If we look at trade and investment statistics, we shall see that Russia benefited a lot due to economic progress in Central and European Europe.
How calm is stability in the Baltic Sea region where NATO's article 5 directly borders on Russia? Baltic leaders constantly complain about inadequate alliance assistance to ensuring their security and draw Brussels attention to large-scale Russian military exercises close to their borders.
It is true that from time to time we see Russian military exercises. We call on Russia to display maximum transparency. To hold exercises is a natural thing in itself. NATO countries also do that. But we do it in an absolutely transparent way and clearly show we have nothing to conceal. We want our armed forces to interact. There will be many military exercises this year. I do not think they damage relations in any way if they are transparent and observers are present. The problem is that we have to state insufficient transparency from the Russian side when the talk is about exercises. From time to time we hear rather strange Russian rhetoric. I call on Russia to return to decisions which we together adopted in Lisbon and develop genuine strategic partnership, Rasmussen said.
However even strategic partnership differs greatly from alliance membership. Therefore, there is nothing new in media "leaks" that appeared last year about the existence of various NATO plans to defend Baltic countries. NATO officials disclosed on conditions of anonymity that such plans do not mean that NATO sees a threat from Russia. The plans do not contradict the intention of the alliance to develop strategic partnership with Russia.
It is a rule that we never comment our various plans. But I can assure you that we have the necessary defense plans for all alliance members no matter where they are located. This is the essence of our defense alliance. We have plans for all possible situations. As for the Baltic Sea region, I am very satisfied that security situation has considerably improved there in the past years, Rasmussen said.
Alexander Mineev, for Amber Bridge,