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Commentary | 21 June 2010

The Search for Mutual Trust in the NATO-Russia Relationship

Image of Wolfgang Ischinger

Wolfgang Ischinger |President of the Foundation Council, Munich Security Conference Foundation

CSBMs Defence NATO Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The Cold War settlement, initially intended to serve as starting point for a more inclusive system of common security, has not led to the disappearance of resentment and mistrust, on the contrary. The OSCE, the comprehensive security forum in Europe, has lost some of its appeal because a few member states feel that their vital concerns are not being met. NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe was another factor contributing to the situation that we are facing now. While agreement was reached as early as 1996 that the admission of new member states should be accompanied by initiatives to address Russia’s concerns about this process, the NATO-Russia Council never lived up to this expectation. This became ultimately clear when the NATO-Russia Council suspended its work during the Russian-Georgian War in 2008 – at exactly the moment when intensive consultation between the US, Europe and Russia would have been of utmost importance.

Russia is often still perceived as the former Cold War enemy, although it has become – and should be perceived as – one of our most important strategic partners in the 21st century. What is needed in the long term is nothing less than a Grand Bargain between North America, Europe and Russia. A prerequisite for such an endeavor is to reestablish mutual trust. Two areas are especially promising in this regard: Joint Ballistic Missile Defense and arms control negotiations, including on tactical nuclear weapons, ideally embedded within a stronger partnership between Russia and NATO.


Joint Ballistic Missile Defense

The presidents of Russia, the U.S. and the secretary-general of NATO have each identified a cooperative approach to missile defense as the next critical stage both to advance U.S.-Russian relations and to overcome the Russian-NATO divide. While progress cannot be reached easily, the reasons for such an endeavor are nevertheless obvious: First, North America, Europe, and Russia face a common challenge from ballistic missiles in the hands of third parties like North Korea or Iran, capable of using these weapons. Second, full-scope trilateral cooperation would significantly contribute to advancing and solidifying the bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. and between Russia and Europe. Third, achieving mutual understanding regarding the role of missile defense constitutes a critical element in achieving progress in the realm of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament because strong trilateral cooperation will also reinforce mutual understanding with regard to the role of nuclear weapons and conventional arms. Finally, a missile defense system established by Russia, the U.S. and Europe will be greatly enhanced in technical as well as geographical terms.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

The role and purpose of nuclear weapons has changed fundamentally since the end of the Cold War. Most experts agree that any residual benefits that might have been obvious during the Cold War are now overshadowed by the risk of nuclear proliferation and the related risk of nuclear terrorism. Furthermore, classical deterrence, as applied during the Cold War with two major parties involved, is by far more complicated and therefore less stable when more than two actors are involved.

Therefore, a useful step to advance nuclear disarmament might be negotiations on the reduction or elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in conjunction with a new effort regarding the CFE treaty, with the important side effect of adding further momentum in advancing Western-Russian relations. Those still sticking to Cold War perceptions of Russia should note that extended defense does not require the physical presence of nuclear weapons on the territory of the countries covered. As early as 1987, NATO Foreign Ministers proposed significant reductions of short range nuclear weapons in their Reykjavik declaration. And when 15 years ago US-Secretary of Defense William Perry pledged that NATO would have no intention, no need, and no plan to deploy nuclear weapons to new member states, he correctly clarified that European NATO countries would be covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella regardless of whether or not nuclear weapons were stationed on their territory.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept did not include substantial guidance on substrategic nuclear weapons . Therefore, it is even more important to reach a political and strategic agreement on how to proceed with this process. Including Russia in this process is a historical opportunity for all – for the US, for Europe for NATO – and for Russia.


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.