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Commentary | 1 July 2015

Resumption of meaningful dialogue requires a change in Russia’s behaviour

Russia’s regime is fighting a war in Ukraine. At the same time Moscow is intimidating its other neighbours, exerting its power upon Moldova and Georgia, disguising its military activities in Eastern Ukraine, and violating its major international obligations. It is recruiting, training and commanding so-called separatists in the east in order to destabilise the rest of Ukraine. Russia aims by all possible means to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence by halting Ukraine’s European trajectory.

This is not only a war against Ukraine, but against the European order itself, that we have worked so hard to build. This order is based on principles of territorial integrity, national sovereignty, non-violability of national borders, the right of countries to choose their own future. Russia’s belligerent behaviour violates those principles and undermines European security. It is deliberately violating its obligations under UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, Budapest Memorandum, the NATO – Russia Founding Act as well as the Minsk Agreements.

Russia’s bellicose behaviour can be attributed to different cause-effect rationales, and assessed with a variety of possible outcomes. Russia has returned to a language of power and block-to-block approach and is singling out the zones of its privileged interest. In this way, Russia is creating and maintaining spheres of instability around its borders.

At the same time, the cynical and aggressive propaganda campaign by Putin’s regime continues and aims at confusing its own people by portraying an “aggressive” block of NATO led by the United States and some neighbouring EU countries as looking for ways and means to “destabilise” and ”undermine” Russia. It claims NATO is expansionist yet at the same time annexes Crimea. This hypocritical behaviour can be illustrated by the most recent Putin’s quote: “It is NATO, which is coming closer to our borders, not us moving somewhere”.

Recent Russian military activities, messaging and some doctrinal intentions are exceptionally worrisome. For example, Russia’s strategic intentions to use nuclear weapons early in conventional regional conflicts for the purpose of de-escalation; currently observed over-flights of Russian strategic aviation in a close vicinity of NATO borders; Russia’s proclaimed intentions to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea, and to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, as well as Putin’s most recently announced intention to obtain 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of piercing any missile defences.

Before the aggression against Ukraine, Moscow sat together in the NATO-Russia Council and within the G-8, among many other diplomatic forums. It has been offered numerous ways by NATO and the European Union to cooperate — it has only chosen in many cases, such as with the EU Neighborhood Policy, to decline. It was on Russia’s demand, that the infamous Corfu Process had been initiated and conducted in the OSCE for a period of several years, only to discover that Russia itself was not interested in joining the consensus among participating states.

NATO has been reaching out to Russia in a transparent and constructive spirit over the last 25 years, including through the Partnership for Peace Programme, NATO-Russia Council, based upon NATO-Russia Founding Act and the Rome Declaration. However, Russia’s aggressive military activities in Georgia and Ukraine clearly demonstrated that Russia was no longer interested in the implementation of international commitments and principles, including the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.

By agreeing to the Founding Act relationship with NATO, Russia committed to reduce its conventional and nuclear forces and to withhold from using force to settle disputes among states. Instead, it has violated these and other provisions in Georgia and now in Ukraine, thus rejecting its own pledges and assuming confrontational posture with the Alliance.

Unfortunately the future is not clear. Russia has undermined the predictable, rules-based European security order, the fundamental principles of which are enshrined in the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Russia is deliberately undermining those principles, but they cannot be renegotiated on the basis of Moscow’s hypocritical actions.

It was only right that in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine the Alliance discontinued the practical cooperation of the NATO-Russia Council. Until Russia’s intent and policies change, NRC cooperation should not resume.

Before any eventual dialogue between NATO and Russia is relaunched, we have to ensure that it is not at the cost of our security, that it will not harm the Alliance’s cohesion, and that it will not weaken Euro-Atlantic stability. Any possible way ahead with Russia should not be at the cost of our principles, values and security of our neighbours and partners, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

When it comes to military contacts, the so-called redline emergency communication is available through appropriate arrangements between the NATO SACEUR and the Chairman of the Military Committee, on the one end, and Russia’s Chief of Staff on the other. These can and should be used to avoid misunderstandings and/or minimise escalations, especially when the Russian military engages in frequently unannounced snap exercises. Similarly, all the NATO states that border with Russian Federation have long ago established emergency communication lines on bilateral basis. The question remains – will their Russian counterparts answer when called?

The full implementation of the Minsk Agreements (however bleak its prospects in light of recent attacks by the Russian-led separatists may seem) remains the best way to end this tragedy. Certainly, full implementation of the Minsk commitments by Russia will be one important litmus test for the Alliance’s future re-engagement with Moscow.

NATO has always been open about its exercises and capabilities in line with Vienna document transparency measures and its partnership commitments. Just recently, during the meeting between the NATO Secretary General and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Stoltenberg handed over the list of NATO’s planned exercises to his Russian colleague. However, to be effective, transparency should be mutual and predictable. Russia has so far not demonstrated such openness when it comes to its deployments and exercises.

The Russia regime’s behaviour has created a new strategic reality for NATO. After 25 years of focusing on out-of-area crisis management and on good- willed partnership with then strategic neighbour – Russia, we now must re-commit to our original mission of collective defence.

Strengthening NATO’s capabilities is a preventive, not escalatory measure. By demonstrating the capacity to defend its Allies, the Alliance stands the best chance to deter and discourage today’s Russia from intimidation, sabre-rattling, propaganda and provocation. NATO’s principal mission is now to adequately deter Russia’s escalatory behaviour as well as to adapt its defence and deterrence posture to a changed security environment. While any resumption of meaningful dialogue with Moscow, which obviously will not be the same as it was, depends on Russia’s behaviour.

Allies should continue to call Russia to change course and to end its self-imposed isolation. This should be done whilst bearing in mind that the fundamental principles that underpin European security and shape international order are non-negotiable, and their selective implementation is not acceptable.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.