European leaders have clearly set themselves apart from the United States and the administration of President Donald J. Trump in relation to the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. They view the deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as a success for non-proliferation and international security. In contrast, the current US Government has criticised the deal for failing to address non-nuclear issues, notably Iran’s continuing ballistic missile development, which the USA has long viewed as both a regional and a global threat.
Iran’s missile programme was also one of the main justifications for President Trump’s recent refusal to certify that continuing the suspension of sanctions—a key US commitment under the agreement—is proportionate to Iran’s respective commitments under the JCPOA. As a result, continued US adherence to the deal now depends on the US Congress.
However, while defending the JCPOA, the major European powers have joined the Trump administration in squarely condemning Iran’s missile tests and satellite launches. This commonality of views was highlighted in a joint statement on 13 October 2017 by the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which said that ‘as we work to preserve the JCPOA, we share concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities [and] . . . stand ready to take further appropriate measures to address these issues’.
The Trump administration expects European countries to take a harder line on this issue. As part of an attempt to address the JCPOA’s ‘many serious flaws’, the US President has urged ‘allies to join us in . . . thorough sanctions outside the Iran Deal that target the regime’s ballistic missile program’.
Given the transatlantic disagreement over the JCPOA, European countries might feel increasing pressure to focus on Iran’s ballistic missile activities in order to find common ground with the USA. But is the Western perspective on Iran’s missile programme based on an objective threat assessment, and is a punitive approach helpful in addressing it?
Transatlantic disagreement over the JCPOA, solidarity against the missile threat
The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement negotiated between Iran, the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, with the specific aim of putting an end to concerns that Iran’s nuclear programme might be used for military purposes. Although ballistic missiles were left out of the agreement, they were mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015.
More specifically, the missile-related provision in the resolution calls on Iran ‘not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’ until 2023. This ambiguous formulation has been a source of increasing controversy. The Iranian position is that its missile testing has nothing to do with the JCPOA, because its missiles are conventional and not designed to carry nuclear weapons. This diverges from the Western expectation that Iran should have suspended missile testing for eight years.
On these grounds, the Trump administration argues that Iran’s continuing missile tests violate the spirit of the JCPOA—as well as Resolution 2231. The USA’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has repeatedly called for the Security Council members to punish Iran for its ‘blatant violations’ of Resolution 2231, including ‘provocative and destabilising missile launches’.
European countries, in contrast, have stressed that the JCPOA is essentially a nuclear deal, and that everything else is outside its scope. At the same time, however, they too have condemned Iran’s missile activities as inconsistent with Resolution 2231, even though they do not subscribe to the USA’s accusation of violation.
France, for example, has threatened to push for European sanctions in response to Iran’s missile tests, and has said that it would consider ‘the means to obtain from Iran the cessation of its destabilizing ballistic missile activities’. France, Germany and the UK have also joined the USA in calling for UN Security Council action in response Iran’s missile tests and satellite launches, arguing that the tested missiles are ‘inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons’, and pointing to similarities between satellite launcher and long-range missile technologies.
The link between nuclear weapons and missiles
Although there is no binding international treaty controlling ballistic missiles, they are often associated with nuclear proliferation. This is because ballistic missiles, particularly long-range ones, have historically been the most important delivery system for nuclear warheads.
At the same time, several countries rely on conventionally armed missiles as part of their national security strategies. Of the 31 countries that currently possess ballistic missile capabilities, only 9 are nuclear-armed. The arsenals of most of the remaining 22 states are not generally viewed as problematic due to their short range and small numbers. However, there are also political factors behind the lack of attention to their capabilities, which is why it is rare to hear that Israel and Saudi Arabia actually possess the longest-range ballistic missiles in the Middle East—not Iran.
Nevertheless, Iran’s missiles stand out from the rest for several reasons. Apart from having the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the region, Iran actively develops its missiles through testing. It also has an adversarial relationship with the USA, which has long suspected Iran of having nuclear weapon ambitions. Although it was hoped that the JCPOA would put an end to such concerns, critics argue that Iran might still develop nuclear weapons after the deal expires—in which case it could mate its missiles with nuclear warheads.
Finally, Iran’s past purchases of North Korean missiles and related technology continue to fuel speculation about ongoing missile cooperation between the two countries. Iran has also reportedly provided assistance to the Syrian Government in missile technology.
Iran’s missile programme as a regional deterrent
Iran views its missiles as a counter to the military capabilities of its regional rivals—particularly their state-of the-art, Western-supplied military aircraft. Despite US and international sanctions, which have considerably restricted Iran’s ability to develop its conventional armed forces, the country has become increasingly self-sufficient in developing ballistic missiles.
The role of ballistic missiles in Iran’s national security was highlighted in the 1980s, when its cities were left defenceless against Scud missile and air attacks from Iraq under President Saddam Hussein. Iran’s acquisition and use of its own short-range missiles is regarded as a crucial turning point in the Iran–Iraq War. Since then, Iran’s ballistic missiles have gained further importance as a conventional deterrent—particularly during the escalation of the nuclear crisis in 2006–13, when Israel and the USA threatened military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran’s missile arsenal consists of short- and medium-range missiles. Its longest-reaching operational missiles have a range of 1600 kilometres, which means that they could hit Israeli or US military bases in the Middle East. Although Iran continues to develop its missile capabilities, its focus for the past decade has been on enhancing the accuracy, rather than range, of its missiles. As noted by Michael Elleman, a leading missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there is ‘no evidence to suggest that Iran is actively developing an intermediate- or intercontinental-range ballistic missile [ICBM]’.
In other words, Iran’s pattern of missile testing—which has sought to address the long-standing problem of poor accuracy—is consistent with the programme’s stated purpose as a regional deterrent. It also reinforces the argument that Iran’s missiles are designed to be conventional, not nuclear: nuclear-armed missiles do not need to be accurate, due to their disproportionate destructive power. For conventional purposes, however, inaccuracy severely limits the missiles’ military utility.
Iran’s missile development has also been influenced by the perceived need to respond to the growing number of anti-ballistic missile systems in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel. For example, Iran’s Emad missile is equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle, and the Khorramshahr missile is reportedly able to carry multiple warheads. Such features can increase the chances of overcoming missile defences.
The link between space rockets and long-range missiles
Iran successfully used the Safir space launch vehicle (SLV) to send its first satellite into space in 2009, and has since then delivered at least three more satellites into the Earth’s orbit. In addition, Iran has launched animals into space and has plans to send humans there as well. It is currently developing a larger Simorgh SLV to reach higher orbits.
Given the technological similarities between missile and SLV technologies, Iran’s satellite programme has raised suspicions about its potential aims to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Indeed, there are many historical examples of states having converted ICBMs into SLVs, or developing the two technologies in parallel. However, the reverse scenario—that is, SLVs being turned into long-range missiles—has never happened, because ICBM development is more demanding in many ways. Missiles carry warheads that must not just reach space, but must also withstand re-entry into the atmosphere. Further, they need to work reliably under various conditions, with little advance warning.
Although having a satellite programme can contribute to ICBM development, it is not a shortcut to long-range missiles. Even if Iran converted the Simorgh SLV into a long-range missile, it would still need to undergo the normal, time-consuming routine of missile testing, which would not go unnoticed.
Iran’s missiles and NATO’s missile defence policy
Some of the current Western solidarity against the Iranian missile threat can be traced to the missile defence policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—also known as the European Phase Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Introduced by the USA under the Obama administration, EPAA was preceded by the Bush administration’s plans to put large interceptors in Europe to defend the US mainland from hypothetical nuclear-armed ICBMs coming from Iran.
Instead, the aim of EPAA was to protect south-eastern parts of Europe from Iran’s existing arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles. The key idea was to adapt to changing circumstances: while systems against ICBMs were envisioned in the later stages of EPAA, President Obama said that there would be no need for the system if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs were eliminated.
The NATO Secretary General at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, also referred to the Iranian threat when arguing for EPAA to be adopted as official NATO policy. However, since that decision was made at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, the alliance has avoided direct references to Iran. At the same time, NATO has never openly challenged the US argument that EPAA is essentially about Iran—except for stressing that the system ‘is not about any one country, but about the threat posed by proliferation more generally’.
Arguably, European countries valued EPAA primarily because it was seen to strengthen the transatlantic link and provide additional reassurance against Russia. Unlike many other forms of military cooperation, land-based missile defences have meant permanent US presence on European soil. This trade-off seemed unproblematic during the height of the Iran nuclear crisis, but the picture has changed considerably since then. Despite the landmark nuclear deal, in May 2016 NATO began to construct a new missile defence site in Poland against intermediate missiles—which Iran does not possess.
Nevertheless, US officials justify the new Polish site in terms of the Iranian threat, pointing to the possibility that Iran might still develop longer-range missiles. Meanwhile, NATO continues to talk about the generic threat of missile proliferation and points to over 30 countries with ballistic missile capabilities, without unpacking what this threat means in concrete terms.
European disinclination to subject NATO’s missile defence policy to critical scrutiny can be understood in terms of inertia, the desire to ensure US presence on the continent, as well as the heightened need to maintain transatlantic unity after the events in Ukraine. This creates a bias that makes European countries less prone to question US assessments of the Iranian missile threat, also outside the context of EPAA.
Putting Iran’s missile programme in context
The prevailing Western tendency to target Iranian missiles while ignoring the overall military balance in the Middle East reflects the historical experience of the USA and its regional loyalties. Despite mounting pressure to join this approach and the related punitive measures, European countries should put the issue of Iran’s missiles in its proper context.
Iran’s ballistic missile programme does not constitute a global threat. Rather, it is part of broader regional security dynamics, and cannot be addressed in isolation. As missiles play a key role in Iran’s national security strategy, it is unrealistic to expect that the country will forgo efforts to improve their operationality and survivability through testing.
In September 2017, President Hassan Rouhani responded to US condemnation of Iran’s missile development by stating: ‘No matter if you like it or not, we will boost our defence and military capabilities to the extent deemed necessary for defence. We will not seek permission from anyone to defend our country and our land.’
A punitive approach to Iran’s missile programme is not only likely to be ineffective, it could also undermine simultaneous European attempts to maintain the JCPOA, lending legitimacy to potential measures by the US Congress to link US adherence to the JCPOA with the missile issue. Even if the US measures do not directly impact the JCPOA, new sanctions against Iran’s missile programme might further impede international trade with Iran, thus increasing the already pervasive Iranian perception that sanctions relief is not being implemented.
Therefore, it is important that European countries do not let the missile issue distract them from seeking to maintain the JCPOA as their first priority. The former US Department of State coordinator for the deal’s implementation, Jarrett Blanc, recently argued that ‘Iran and its missiles are less dangerous because of the JCPOA. That accomplishment cannot be sacrificed for an unrealistic effort to pressure Iran on ballistic missiles’.
However, this does not necessarily mean that there is no way to constrain Iran’s missile programme. Given repeated statements by Iranian officials that the country has no need of missiles beyond the range of 2000 km, Iran could in principle agree to limit its missiles to that level. As for any further limits to Iran’s ballistic missile programme, they are unfeasible without parallel discussions with other states in the region about their respective military capabilities.
Unfortunately, it is not an optimal time to discuss either Iran’s missiles or the broader issues of regional security. As the JCPOA has shown, arms control negotiations require at least some mutual respect and trust, both of which are clearly absent from the current US–Iranian relationship and in relations among Middle Eastern countries. This also casts a shadow on any attempts by others to start a missile dialogue with Iran, which would probably be rejected as part of the controversial US plans to ‘renegotiate’ the nuclear deal. Further, any new Iranian compromises with the West should not be expected at a time when previous promises under the JCPOA are in such serious doubt.
Yet this should not discourage long-term thinking. European countries could use their political channels with Iran and other regional actors to get a more thorough understanding of their respective security concerns. Such knowledge could then be used to inform future discussions on Iran’s missiles, as well as a more comprehensive arms control dialogue in the region—a goal that has long evaded international efforts, but is still worth pursuing.
First published in SIPRI.org
Modernization of nuclear weapons continues- number of peacekeepers declines
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) launched the findings of SIPRI Yearbook 2018, which assesses the current state of armaments, disarmament and international security. Key findings include the following: all the nuclear weapon-possessing states are developing new nuclear weapon systems and modernizing their existing systems; and the number of personnel deployed with peace operations worldwide continues to fall while the demand is increasing.
World nuclear forces: reductions remain slow as modernization continues
At the start of 2018 nine states—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)—possessed approximately 14 465 nuclear weapons. This marked a decrease from the approximately 14 935 nuclear weapons that SIPRI estimated these states possessed at the beginning of 2017.
The decrease in the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world is due mainly to Russia and the USA—which together still account for nearly 92 per cent of all nuclear weapons—further reducing their strategic nuclear forces pursuant to the implementation of the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START).
Despite making limited reductions to their nuclear forces, both Russia and the USA have long-term programmes under way to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapon production facilities. The USA’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), published in February 2018, reaffirmed the modernization programmes and approved the development of new nuclear weapons. The NPR also emphasized expanding nuclear options to deter and, if necessary, defeat both nuclear and ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks’.
‘The renewed focus on the strategic importance of nuclear deterrence and capacity is a very worrying trend,’ says Ambassador Jan Eliasson, Chair of the SIPRI Governing Board. ‘The world needs a clear commitment from the nuclear weapon states to an effective, legally binding process towards nuclear disarmament.’
The nuclear arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states are considerably smaller, but all are either developing or deploying new nuclear weapon systems or have announced their intention to do so. India and Pakistan are both expanding their nuclear weapon stockpiles as well as developing new land-, sea- and air-based missile delivery systems. China continues to modernize its nuclear weapon delivery systems and is slowly increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.
In 2017 North Korea continued to make technical progress in developing its nuclear weapon capabilities, including the test of—what was claimed to be—a thermonuclear weapon, in September. North Korea also demonstrated unexpected rapid progress in the testing of two new types of long-range ballistic missile delivery systems.
‘Despite the clear international interest in nuclear disarmament reflected in the conclusion in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the modernization programmes under way in the nuclear weapon-possessing states indicate that genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament will remain a distant goal,’ says Shannon Kile, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.
* ‘Deployed warheads’ refers to warheads placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces. ** ‘Other warheads’ refers to stored or reserve warheads and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.
Total figures include the highest estimate when a range is given. Figures for North Korea are uncertain and are not included in total figures. All estimates are approximate.
Number of peacekeepers falls globally, despite increasing demand
There were 63 multilateral peace operations active during 2017 (one more than in 2016): 25 operations were deployed in Africa, 18 in Europe, 9 in the Middle East, 6 in Asia and Oceania, and 5 in the Americas.
The total number of personnel deployed in multilateral peace operations decreased by 4.5 per cent during 2017, from 152 822 to 145 911. Nearly three-quarters of all personnel were based in Africa. The decrease in the number of personnel is explained by the fall, by 7.6 per cent, in deployments by the United Nations, whereas the number of personnel in non-UN operations increased by 2.3 per cent to 47 557.
Although the UN clearly remains the principal actor in peace operations, African actors are claiming an increasing role in African peace and security matters. This is reflected in the establishment in February 2017 of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Joint Force (Force Conjointe des Etats du G5 Sahel, FC-G5S).
UN peacekeeping reform remained high on the international agenda in 2017. However, these discussions were overshadowed by two other significant developments during the year: the greater insecurity of personnel deployed in UN peace operations; and the efforts—particularly by the US administration—to drastically reduce the UN peacekeeping budget.
In 2017, UN missions witnessed a dramatic escalation in fatalities linked to hostile acts—in both absolute terms (from 34 in 2016 to 61 in 2017) and as a ratio of the number of uniformed personnel deployed (from 0.31 to 0.61 per 1000 uniformed personnel). Whereas in preceding years most fatalities occurred in the UN mission in Mali, in 2017 the UN operations in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also faced substantial losses.
‘An independent review into the security of peacekeepers released in 2017 (2017 Cruz Report), suggested that UN peacekeeping operations should adopt a more robust and less risk-averse force posture,’ says Timo Smit, Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme. ‘However, this raises the question, which was not addressed by the Cruz Report, as to how the UN should generate sufficient forces that are both willing and capable of adopting such a posture.’
In 2017, UN peace operations—like African peace operations—could no longer be certain of predictable and sustainable funding. The budget cuts and related troop reductions meant that the UN had to rethink its strategy in many operations. ‘Is it realistic to expect the UN to continue to do more with less, and is it worth taking the risk?’ says Dr Jair van der Lijn, Director of SIPRI’s Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.
‘A number of finance-contributing countries hoped that budget cuts might be used pragmatically to strengthen peacekeeping reform. However, the actual effects of resource reduction on some operations might put peacekeepers at further risk and leave populations more vulnerable,’ says Van der Lijn.
NSG Expansion for Non-NPT States: India and Pakistan’s Case
The ascent of the NSG as one of the critical and influentialcartel groups promoting the cause of non-proliferation intends to urge India to become part of it by passing the chronicled reality that the NSG was created against the Indian nuclear weapons tests. The Great Powers possessing nuclear weapons have already given certain exemptions to India in terms of trading in the field of nuclear technology transfer. However, these special exemptions by the NSG members are not consistent with the purported arrangements of the NSG that does not permit a state unless it is party to the NPT.
Albeit Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was made against the Indian atomic test, it is astonishing to note that even the NSG’s revised guidelines of June 2013 did not name India specifically, whose nuclear weapon test wound up in the creation of NSG.
NSG works on the consensus by following the two prominent sets of its normative posture. Firstly, it is responsible to strictly follow the guidelines for nuclear exports. Secondly, it also relates to nuclear related exports. It is imperative to note that the first set of NSG’s guidelines deals with elements such as a) nuclear materials, b) nuclear reactors and equipments, c) non- nuclear materials for reactors, d) plants and equipments for the reprocessing, enrichment and conversion of nuclear material and, e) nuclear technology for each of the above nuclear export elements. Whilst, the second set of NSG guidelines largely deals with nuclear export related materials such as fuel cycle and nuclear explosive for industrial purposes only. Both of these two sets of NSG guidelines are consistent with the provisions of internationally binding treaties in the field of nuclear non-proliferation such as the NPT and many other.
Since the NSG rises up as one of the important cartel groups in the field of non-proliferation, it is not free from the critical issues it confronts. For instance, the Indo-US nuclear deal and the NSG’s nuclear exemptions to India has become a critical issue for the NSG in terms of sustaining its credibility. This indicates that NSG may drift away from the provisions it sets and undermine its own set of guidelines.
However, there can be certain plausible options that the NSG may undertake to restore and enhance further its normative posture and credibility as one of the rising cartels in the field of international non-proliferation like the NPT would recognize both India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons states before they think of joining the NSG. Presumably, as India and Pakistan enhance their nuclear maturity, the NPT and NSG could eventually recognize these nuclear weapons states with the ultimate motive to strengthen the non-proliferation regime
It is also encouraging that the NSG could expand its membership by inducting more states that may include those states which are either Party to the NPT or those who have not yet joined the NPT. If in case India is embraced before Pakistan, it could have critical consequences for regional arms race and increased over reliance on nuclear weapons in the South Asia. Alternatively, the NSG could relax its provisions unanimously agreeing that it could eventually pave the way for both India and Pakistan to join the NSG. However, both would remain legitimate and responsible nuclear weapons states by following the essential parameters of the international non-proliferation regime including that of the additional protocol of the IAEA. Furthermore, the NSG might adopt tostrictlystand by its provisions without showing any flexibility by not allowing both India and Pakistan to become part of the NSG unless they fully satisfy the guidelines of the NSG particularly joining of the NPT.
In a nutshell, this may not be favorable to the NSG as this would show NSG too rigid, discriminatory, and limited by not increasing its membership. Plausibly, expanding its membership and promoting the cause of non-proliferation, the NSG could enhance its credibility in the field of non-proliferation by making both India and Pakistan obligatory to the essential parameters of the non-proliferation.
NATO–Russia Council: What Are the Outcomes?
The principal outcome of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) held on May 31, 2018 is that it actually took place. The Council had been planned for the eve of the next NATO summit scheduled for July 11–12, 2018. Therefore, both parties have clear reasons and motives to get together and discuss mutual interests and concerns within this specific context.
In terms of practical outcomes, the Council offered few. The agenda generally repeats the limited range of issues from the six previous meetings at the ambassadorial level. Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal that the country is ready to maintain political and diplomatic contacts within the Council and discuss mutual concerns even in the current “reduced” regime, and that it is also ready to pursue the dialogue, search for opportunities to return to a dialogue on particular issues and carry out work in the areas of mutual interest.
Unlike the previous sessions of the Council, the results of these recent meetings were not made public. The websites of official agencies ran only short communiques. Today, Russia has taken a serious and well-thought-out step by not abandoning the dialogue proposed by NATO. At the same time, however, we expect the Council meeting to contribute to practical progress, to help achieve a productive dialogue and to restore a practical agenda.
The principal outcome of the NATO–Russia Council held on May 31, 2018 is that it actually took place. While it was NATO that proposed holding the consultations, it was unclear what the real agenda would be and what practical outcomes were to be expected. And these are the key issues. Russia continues to emphasize the need for tangible results, particularly in the current political crisis. On the other hand, it is also noteworthy that the Council was planned for the eve of the next NATO summit, which is scheduled for July 11–12, 2018. Therefore, both parties have clear reasons and motives to get together and discuss mutual interests and concerns within this specific context. Despite the apparent stalemate in the NRC, the opportunity to compare notes in the run-up to the most important event on the NATO calendar, which will be attended by heads of state and government, should not be squandered. The Russian side largely took these very circumstances into account.
In terms of practical outcomes, the Council offered few. The agenda generally repeats the limited range of issues from the six previous meetings at the ambassadorial level. Although the participants of the NRC round table did not plan to discuss anything new, they naturally took the new realities and the military and political situation into account. The emphasis at the previous NATO–Russia Council was on the WEST 2017 joint strategic military exercise between the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus. This time, in discussing transparency, reducing risks and tensions and preventing military incidents, Russia was primarily interested in the upcoming large-scale Trident Juncture 2018 exercise.
Clearly, this will be a major exercise with the participation of up to 45,000 people, including representatives of partner countries. And Russia is understandably interested in the relation of the military activity to the declared functions of containing Russia. At the time, it is apparent that a sufficiently substantive discussion of the issues of reducing military threats and risks and developing joint steps in that direction cannot be considered without stepping up the inter-military dialogue, and that dialogue still does not work in the NATO–Russia Council format. Contacts have been established between NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, but that is not enough. It is obvious that discussing Risk Reduction – the problems of cutting risks, preventing and neutralizing military threats – requires a systemic dialogue, not only between military leaders, but also between specialized military experts. NATO does not agree to this: since April 1, 2014, all practical contacts have been cut, and practical cooperation and interaction have been blocked.
Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal that the country is ready to maintain political and diplomatic contacts within the NRC and discuss mutual concerns even in the current “reduced” regime, and that it is also ready to pursue the dialogue, search for opportunities to return to a dialogue on particular issues and carry out work in the areas of mutual interest.
It is not easy to confirm such sentiments in current conditions, particularly since seven diplomats from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to NATO were stripped of their accreditation in March 2018. Russia does not merely view this as an unhelpful step; it sees it as narrowing the options for dialogue. But Moscow nevertheless agreed to the Council meeting, thus putting the ball in NATO’s court. Moving away from diplomatic parlance, this is a gift from the Russian side, since NATO will need to report on the second track of its relations with Russia at the July summit: balancing “effective containment” with “successful dialogue.” This task had become all the more pressing for the Alliance in the run-up to the summit. Its headquarters would like to demonstrate that the adopted formula had been productive, and Moscow did not want to exacerbate relations and give grounds for more anti-Russia rhetoric. Jens Stoltenberg can now quite responsibly report at the July summit that the dialogue is developing, without focusing attention on the difficulties and its practical ineffectiveness. Yet, if Russia sends such a signal and “gives a gift” to NATO before the summit, then NATO should consider the issue of how to pragmatically develop the dialogue with Russia in the future. Of course, it is also a very important test for Russia. NATO’s future policy will be clearer after the summit: whether the alliance will use the very fact that the NATO–Russia Council took place as a propaganda tool for reporting on the successes of its policy regarding Russia, since the latter is prepared to maintain a dialogue. Conversely, Russia’s signal could be interpreted differently, and NATO may consider and discuss the prospects and contents of its future dialogue with Russia in a pragmatic and consistent manner.
Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal.
Another nuance that is also a fairly important circumstance is the fact that the results of the Council’s meeting were not made public. Communiques on the websites of NATO and the Russian mission were very brief. They stated the agenda and briefly listed the issues under discussion. Moreover, the parties abstained from talking to journalists, and that makes the current Council different from its previous sessions, which were invariably followed by political commentary – including comments from the NATO Secretary General on the alliance’s website and answers to questions from the media. Now there is nothing of the sort, and this reticence means that the situation is unclear, and we should look at how NATO will react in the future and what discussions surrounding the Russian question at the summit will mean.
The topic of Russia at the upcoming summit is especially important against the background of events that may have an unfavourable impact on the general atmosphere of the summit. For example, the major complications in Euro-Atlantic relations, with Trump trying to stress the rather unpopular tenet of the “Old Europe” and showcase the successes of New Europe, which follows Washington’s politics and policies. Trump believes that “Old Europe,” primarily Germany, which has rather unsuccessfully laid claim to European leadership, is moving in the “wrong” direction.” This context is highly unfavourable for the summit itself, and possibly for Russia–Europe relations. A number of specific events, such as the attack perpetrated by the United States, the United Kingdom and France against military facilities in Syria, the publication of U.S. plans to deploy permanent military bases in Poland, etc., could also have a negative effect. This is all very serious and should be taken into account by both NATO and Russia. Today, Russia has made a serious, well-thought-out step by not abandoning the dialogue proposed by NATO. At the same time, however, we expect the Council meeting to contribute to tangible progress, help achieve a productive dialogue and restore a practical agenda.
First published in our partner RIAC
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