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