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Commentary | 3 April 2012

The Context for Chicago: A Mistrustful NATO-Russia Relationship

Image of Des Browne

Des Browne |Chair of the ELN, Vice Chairman of the NTI, Convener of the TLG and former UK Defence Secretary

NATO Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The following is the text of a speech delivered at the Russian Council on International Affairs (RIAC) in Moscow on March 23rd 2012. Des Browne spoke at a RIAC conference on the theme of A Euro-Atlantic Security Community : Myth or Reality? and addressed the conference immediately after President Medvedev. 


Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, friends,

It is a great honour to speak at this important conference. In particular, to speak after President Medvedev.
I want to echo some of what the President has said.

This conference is important because of the serious and pressing nature of the issues that will be discussed and because of the quality and seniority of the people taking part in it. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Igor Ivanov, and the staff of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) for organising today’s event. Speaking from my vantage point as convenor of the Board of the newly formed European Leadership Network, I hope this will be the first of many opportunities for cooperation between the new Russian Council and the European Leadership Network.


A context of Mistrust

As I have limited time, I shall limit my comments to a few areas. For purposes of brevity, and I hope stimulation of some discussion, I will use straight-forward language and may at times over-simplify to make my point.

Let me start with a comment about the context for today’s meeting.

Despite two decades of statements to the effect that the Cold War is over and there is a new era of cooperation between the US, NATO and Russia, the truth is that our mutual relations remain characterised by deep mistrust. It seems to me that this mistrust exists on both sides, and is contaminating the debate on missile defence, non-strategic nuclear weapons, and the conventional force balance in Europe and on the so called frozen conflicts in the Caucasus. The recent disagreements over how to respond to change in the Middle East, in particular over Syria, are also making cooperation between us more difficult.

I understand some of the reasons for this mistrust. I know that here in Russia there is concern that NATO has misused its military power in places like Kosovo and Libya, and that it seeks United Nations Security Council approval to do so again in its own, and not wider international interests. I know there is concern too in some parts of this city, over US capacity to quickly upload nuclear warheads to strategic missiles in future and to use such upload capacity to intimidate Russia or other states in the international system. And I know there are concerns over the potential of NATO ballistic missile defence deployments to undermine the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Inside NATO on the other hand, I know there is lingering fear of Russian intimidation of some eastern members of the Alliance, deep concern over Russia’s stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons and its proximity to NATO borders, and concern over what some see as a Russian willingness to use military force to settle disputes in places like Georgia and other parts of its near abroad.

I could go on. But I won’t.

Instead, let me ask the audience this. Where will this mistrust lead us? Do we want to let our mutual relations continue like this indefinitely or even allow them to deteriorate further? Do we want to allow mistrust to persist to the point where it turns some future disagreement into a real and profoundly dangerous crisis between us? Does anybody seriously want to go back to the Cold War and repeat that kind of brinkmanship again? I think, and I hope not.

This mistrust is fundamentally a legacy of the Cold War and of adversarial Cold War thinking and it is up to us, the generation of leaders and thinkers who grew up with the Cold War, to address it. In the era of climate change, of globalised trade legally regulated through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), of transnational terrorism that is a threat to all of us, we must move beyond it, not hand this historical baggage on to my children, and to yours.

The truth today is that geographically, we share a common Euro-Atlantic Security space but none of us have done enough to make that shared geography into a genuine shared security community. What can be done then, to help us change direction?

I have five brief points.

First, on missile defence, the immediate practical priority in my view, and in the view of my colleagues on the recent EASI Working Group on missile defence, is to create joint NATO-Russia cooperation centres for pooling and sharing data from satellites and radar, in real-time, to build confidence and provide common notification about any missile attack. Joint command-staff exercises should also be resumed and expanded to include defence against medium and inter-mediate range missiles. This cooperation should be built on the principle of national sovereignty and each party, while cooperating, should protect its own territory.

To break the log-jam and get this cooperation moving, I believe the United States and its NATO allies should be willing to specify the maximum number of interceptors that are to be deployed in Phase IV of the Phased Adaptive approach of NATO’s planned BMD system. Such a number would have to be subject to 4 or 5 yearly strategic review against the changing missile threat environment but giving a number now ought to be possible, and it would be a valuable trust-building measure. I believe if the positions in this debate were reversed, NATO would request such a number from Russia and it ought therefore to provide one itself.

Second, I believe the U.S. and Russian presidents should task each of their military leaderships to find ways of extending warning and decision time as these relate to nuclear weapons. Too many weapons remain on very high states of alert. This contributes nothing effective to the security of either side and is a dangerous legacy of the Cold War. If our publics knew about it, they would most likely, and rightly, be horrified by it.

Third, we need to make progress on the issue of Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons.

In my view, the current U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in Europe are militarily useless and should be reduced in number, consolidated to fewer bases, and eventually removed altogether. Not everyone in NATO agrees with me and it is not clear what the future of these weapons will be.

I know the Russian position up to now has been that these weapons must be removed to national territory before any discussion of Russian weapons in this category can begin. I say to this audience in all honesty that Russia is strong in this category of weapons systems and is known to station some of them very close to NATO territory, especially in the Baltic region. The nearest NATO non-strategic nuclear weapons to Russian territory are, on the other hand, at In cirlik airbase in Turkey, some 800 km away.

Now, I know that for Russia there is nothing non-strategic about these NATO weapons. I also believe, in its own security interests, Russia should be willing to negotiate their removal from Europe in return for a small reduction in its own stockpile, increased transparency on total numbers and locations of weapons held in this category, and some removal of Russian systems to points further away from NATO borders.

There will be no hope of progress without reciprocity.

Non-strategic nuclear weapons are in my view a dangerous terrorism risk and should be eliminated altogether but even if people believe they provide a valuable source of security I think there is a worthwhile deal to be done here. Russia, in my view, would also be well within its rights to trade increased transparency on NSNW for greater transparency and increased warning time in relation to NATO conventional forces.

Fourth, we need to protect and continue to ensure full implementation of the New START Treaty, the verification regime of which builds confidence and stability in an important area of the US-Russian relationship at an important time. This agreement is the nearest thing we have to a security anchor for the relationship and we should ensure its continued existence and well-being. Any break-down in implementation or withdrawal from the Treaty by either side would immediately replace hard information about nuclear deployments with a vacuum that could only add to mistrust.

Fifth, I urge everyone to also balance the areas of controversy between us with growing cooperation across a wider front of issues such as trade, energy, sustainable exploitation of the Arctic, counter-terrorism, stabilising Afghanistan, and more. We have many interests in common and many future opportunities that we can work together to exploit. Although most of my comments today have focused on military issues, it is also on this wider terrain of cooperation that a prosperous, and peaceful future for our children will be built.

Lastly, I want to say that whatever happens, it is important to keep the process of dialogue going, which is why the European Leadership Network is seeking cooperation with the our hosts today, the Russian International Affairs Council, and with others here in Moscow. I look forward to the rest of today’s meeting, and to hearing the perspectives of others.

Thank you.


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.