The New Cold War? NATO-Russian Relations in 2013

Aaron Willschick argues that NATO-Russian relations have hit a low point in the wake of the annual Munich Security Conference last week. Unless Cold War sentiments and old hostilities are left in the past, relations between the two sides will remain fragile and unpredictable.

Even with the Cold War over two decades in the past, NATO’s relationship with Russia can be summed up as something resembling the saying “one step forward, two steps back.” Just when it has seemed that relations between the two are improving, there is some development that impedes any progress made. As recently as 2010, NATO and Russia publicly expressed a commitment to improving their relationship and developing a stronger alliance. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept stresses the importance of fostering a true strategic relationship between NATO and Russia and the goal of increasing political consultation and practical cooperation in areas of shared interest. Among the key areas of cooperation in the strategic concept are the fight against terrorism, defence reform, military to military cooperation, counter-piracy and airspace management.

All the optimism surrounding the signing of the Strategic Concept has more recently given way to tension and uncertainty between the Alliance and Russia. This was no more evident than at last week’s annual Munich Security Conference, one of the most important meetings of security policy makers in the world. Both U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tried to put a positive spin on things by emphasizing cooperation on Afghanistan and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, but the disconnect between the two sides was made clear by some of Biden’s comments. “It’s no secret that we have serious differences on issues like Syria, missile defense, NATO enlargement, democracy, human rights. These differences are real,” he said.

The most apparent area of tension surrounds the NATO missile defense system. This past fall, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin came out against the military defense system, stating that it presents a threat to Russia’s national security which could trigger the militarization of Europe. Rogozin stated that the radius of use of the defense system makes it a real threat to Russia which may force Moscow to consider the threatening prospect of a militarized Europe if new threats to Russia’s strategic potential appear. He implored the NATO delegation not to push Russia into a position where it may have to pursue a more “technical response.”

Russian concerns came to the forefront again in Munich when NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the Alliance has no intention of backing down on its plans for the European missile defense system. The comments came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed the sentiments of the Deputy Prime Minister that the program, as well as NATO eastward expansion, has caused undue friction, reminiscent of the Cold War. NATO responded by reaffirming that the missile defense system is merely aimed at fending off an Iranian missile threat, but Moscow has rejected these claims, saying that the system has the capability to grow powerful enough to threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Some have observed since the events of the Munich Conference last week that Russian relations with the West have perhaps hit their lowest point of the last two decades which is saying a lot considering the mutual mistrust that existed in the early 1990s. Judging by these latest developments it is fairly apparent that NATO, particularly the U.S., still view Russia with some degree of suspicion. It is quite unfortunate that much of the same hostility of the Cold War era remains prevalent. Some of the unease from the viewpoint of the West can be traced to the lack of a transition that has taken place in Russia over the last twenty years. While many of the Soviet satellite states have undergone successful political and economic transitions to democracy and a market economy, Russia has resisted these trends, in many ways sticking to its authoritarian traditions. This has caused NATO countries to continue to look upon Russia with a lot of skepticism.

If progress is to be made, both sides are going to have to fundamentally alter their views about one another and leave Cold War sentiments in the past. Improving the NATO-Russian relationship is severely hampered by the continued presence and stranglehold on power maintained by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has done very little to advance Russia towards being a legitimate democracy in his time in office and it is well known that he likes to portray himself as a very strong leader who will not back down to the West. It is unfortunate but NATO-Russian relations will likely continue down the same downward path they have been on for some time now. Until Putin leaves office and the Russian people elect a leader more willing to compromise with the West, interactions like those that have occurred at Munich will likely continue indefinitely.

About Aaron Willschick

Aaron Willschick is a graduate from the MA program in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He also holds an MA degree in political science from York University and a BaH from York University’s Glendon College. His research interests include the European Union, European security and defense policy, NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe and democratization. He has extensive experience in policy and research, having worked as a trade assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and a research assistant to well-known Canadian author Anna Porter and York University political science professor Heather MacRae. Contact Information: Email: awillschick@rogers.com