Dialogue Matters: Russia–NATO Relations

Main Image Credit Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meeting then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2014 before the NATO-Russia Council suspended meetings.

There has been much talk about the value, or lack thereof, of dialogue with Russia. But with Western relations with Russia at an all time low, there is a pressing need for new forms of creative dialogue through which to engage with Moscow.   

Last week, RUSI hosted both Ambassador Alexander Grushko, Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Defence and Foreign Secretary, in a rare public discussion on the future of Russia-NATO relations.  As is often the case on such occasions, old positions were restated. But the event also acted as a strong reminder of the enduring importance of dialogue, particularly at a time when Russia’s links with the rest of Europe and North America are so fraught. 

Since the height of the Ukraine crisis, much emphasis has been placed on the need to maintain channels for dialogue between the West and Russia, if only in order to ensure that the bulk of Europe’s security architecture remains in place. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently admitted at the Munich Security Conference that the Alliance needs ‘more dialogue’, as well as defence, with Russia so that both sides can ‘stop talking past each other, and start talking with each other’.

There is already at the very least a rhetorical mismatch between the efforts the West feels it has made to engage with Russia and Russia’s criticism of the West for not engaging as much as it thinks Moscow should be due. This is in part a convenient accusation for Russia, despite the fact that it is often Russia itself which declines various invitations and opportunities to engage. But the relatively limited format of current engagement facilitates this perception. Western official dialogue mainly comes in the form of back-channel diplomacy or high-level official government-to-government engagement, the results of which often remain unknown publicly. The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that formats of engagement should be broadened out to parallel platforms of more informal and more public, or at least to Track II dialogue, between Russian and Western officials, diplomats and analysts. It is worth noting that the RUSI event with Russia’s NATO ambassador was a request from the Russian Embassy in London, showing a degree of political will in this format to engage that could be replicated elsewhere.  

The value of engagement is often difficult to prove, especially when discussion defaults to the ‘dialogue of the deaf’. Russia’s tendency to blame everything on the West and refuse to consider its own role in the deterioration of relations prevents areas for compromise. For example, Ambassador Grushko highlighted a commonly cited Russian criticism regarding NATO expansion and its perceived detrimental impact on Russia interests as one of the causes for the diplomatic downturn. NATO’s ‘open door policy’ is seen as one of the ‘biggest geopolitical mistakes of the twentieth century’, as the Ambassador put it, for it is regarded as strengthening Western security, supposedly at the expense of the security of others. One can see how Russia would feel suspicious of the reasons for NATO enlargement, particularly given the psychological baggage around NATO’s anti-Soviet historic roots; the question is how this memory should continue to have an impact on the dialogue today. What the meeting RUSI hosted last week did do was to allow Sir Malcolm Rifkind to acknowledge Russia’s historic perceptions of NATO as a hostile force, but subsequently challenge the premise on which accusations around NATO expansion are based. Blaming NATO for expanding without any consideration for Russia’s interest removes the choice and agency from the European countries applying for NATO membership. The question was asked directly as to whether Russia had ever asked itself why all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact had been so keen to join NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are not new discussion points, but such an unofficial format for discussion allowed for publicly challenging the so often oversimplified, black-and-white, binary polarisation of such complex issues. 

This kind of dialogue also recognises that, realistically, there are fundamental differences in opinion that are unlikely to be reconciled through discussion alone. NATO is unlikely to persuade Russia that missile-defence projects in Europe do not pose a threat, both real and existential, to Russia. Although missile defence has become a useful narrative for Russia after the onset of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia also believes that any enhanced Western capability in this area could impact Russia’s nuclear deterrent, even taking into account the countermeasures that Russia could deploy, and as such remains a threat to Russia’s security. This issue, again, is not new, and it seems that both sides have exhausted their arguments on this. 

What RussiaNATO dialogues are able to do is to acknowledge these issues, maintain dialogue on them even if this proves to be repetitive, but move the conversation on to concentrate efforts on other areas of potential mutual co-operation. The RUSI dialogue identified a number of areas on progress can be made. Both Ambassador Grushko and Sir Malcolm Rifkind agreed that it was unhelpful for co-operation conducted within the existing NATORussia Council to be completely suspended; areas such as counter-narcotics training in Afghanistan and Central Asia and the Action Plan on Terrorism were cited as areas where progress could continue. Although political dialogue was never completely suspended within the NATORussia Council, and the suspension of other areas of co-operation was highly appropriate at the height of Ukraine tensions, there may now be room for greater engagement in this forum as part of NATO’s ‘defence and dialogue’ approach. Again, prospects of reviving full co-operation are unlikely to flourish, given the lack of trust post-Ukraine and sanctions on Russia’s defence sector. But conversation can begin to move on to other areas where progress can, nevertheless, still be registered.

And there is a particularly British angle to this as well. Given the UK government’s more absent policy towards Russia compared to certain European counterparts, the UK could play a significant role in providing more diversified and collaborative approaches to dialogue with Russia. The prime aim of this would not necessarily be to solve the most serious geopolitical problems like Ukraine and Syria but, rather, to use them as a framework to identify real areas for negotiation and mutual interest. Dialogue does not mean forgetting Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but it can certainly help the UK shape a more constructive policy towards Russia. 


Sarah Lain

Associate Fellow

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