The More Russia and NATO Need Each Other, the Better

Russia and NATO regularly make real steps towards greater cooperation. It must be understood, however, that normal relations will not be established until the internal conceptual obstacles to real rapprochement are removed.

Speaking in an interview with Echo of Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin went on record as saying that NATO’s cargo transit was a way for Russia to make money. But this was not the main motivation for the Russian leadership, because the bulk of the country’s revenues come from energy exports. This money will not have any perceptible influence on the structure or the size of the federal budget. Still, Rogozin’s point may be of some importance for some Russians who are gravely concerned by the situation.

The decision is important in geopolitical and strategic terms, as it bolsters Russia’s partner relations with the United States and the North Atlantic alliance. There have been ups and downs in the Russia-NATO relationship, with downs prevailing. Russia has repeatedly frozen bilateral relations with the organization for various reasons – NATO expansion (1994) and events in Georgia (2008) being two such examples.

Still, Russia and NATO regularly make real steps towards greater cooperation. It must be understood, however, that normal relations will not be established until the internal conceptual obstacles to real rapprochement are removed. The internal obstacle in the West is primarily NATO’s eastern expansion. The latest summit in Chicago again made clear that Georgia is a real candidate for NATO membership.

This fact in itself is deeply distressing to Russia’s political and expert community: not even the most stretched definition of Europe could extend to Georgia. What’s next, Libya?

NATO is embarking on geographical expansion in a bid to give its membership and activities global scope. This doesn’t make NATO a more effective organization. But NATO is growing more global and, as such, is an irritant for ordinary people around the world. Experts and politicians are outraged by how NATO has handled the European missile defense system being built near the Russian border. Experts claim it will not pose any threat to Russia’s strategic forces and nuclear deterrent. But no one in Russia takes this seriously.

In his public statements, the secretary general of NATO emphasizes that his organization has no concerns about Russia. But this is not so. According to its latest strategic concept, NATO will continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries do. And what countries does NATO seek to deter with its nuclear arsenal? It is clear that containment continues to be directed against Russia.

Politicians constantly deploy high-minded rhetoric about “U.S.-Russian partnership.” But in reality efforts are not being made to forge this partnership. Russian decision-makers have long been irritated by NATO’s activities. If the West fails to shift course – which I do believe is possible – there are no prospects for partnership. In this sense, the staging airfield in Ulyanovsk is a very important, if not unique, opportunity.

Russia agreed to cooperate with NATO on shipping non-lethal cargo to and from Afghanistan because Moscow believes that the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is important. Russian assistance to the NATO operation in Afghanistan is largely symbolic, but it holds some significance for the future. As soon as NATO and the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan, Russia will be left face to face with a resurgent and aggressive Taliban, which is using harsh methods to gain territory both in Afghanistan and other countries in the region. We’ve only just now begun thinking about how to counter this threat. By helping NATO in Afghanistan, we have greater reason to hope for NATO’s assistance in the future.

The transshipment base in Ulyanovsk is in Russia’s military and security interests. The project is also highly beneficial for the regional economy. But anti-NATO communist rallies have already been held in Ulyanovsk. The Communists are against a NATO transit and transshipment point at Ulyanovsk Vostochny airport. Owing to years of anti-NATO propaganda, both fair and unfair, the Russian leadership is unable to convince people that NATO’s logistics center in Ulyanovsk is in Russian interests.

Many experts, myself included, believe that NATO poses no threat to Russia. But a number of other experts and politicians disagree, and they can marshal numerous arguments to back them up. At times Russia’s position on NATO issues, primarily its expansion, is not taken into consideration, and this represents a political challenge. Russia’s arguments have been disregarded; there is no reaction apart from the oft-repeated claim – one we have heard for decades – that “NATO expansion poses no threat to your country.” However, if we feel threatened, this must be addressed. But nothing is being done. For the umpteenth time, they repeat the same thing, which, in my view, is not befitting true partner relations. Both sides should heed each other’s concerns.

Anti-NATO rhetoric in Russia has been fierce of late, including during the recent presidential campaign. Now the same people have suddenly blessed the establishment of a NATO transshipment base in Russia. I am sure that the authorities in the Ulyanovsk Region are totally unaware of how many jobs, if any, the base will provide for local residents. (In fact, this would be a real contribution to the region’s economy.) Some jobs may be created, of course, but it is entirely unclear what exactly the base will entail and how it will function. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Communists took advantage of this muddle to organize anti-NATO rallies. They exploited the exceptionally powerful anti-NATO sentiments that have been nurtured in Russia for decades, while the federal center played into their hand by failing to launch a PR campaign of its own.

The primitive arguments of the opponents of Russia-NATO cooperation are amusing. Ulyanovsk, they say, has numerous defense plants, an aircraft factory, a research institute that designs nuclear reactors, etc. Many people fear industrial espionage and an influx of smuggled drugs. Imagine a NATO plane landing in Ulyanovsk, releasing multitudes of camera-wielding spies that will scatter like cockroaches across the region to do their dirty work. It’s utterly ridiculous! All the exits and entrances will be policed by NATO and Russian forces, to say nothing of the FSB, which will have the base under its umbrella.

Government Resolution No. 637 of June 25, 2012, authorizes NATO to ship weapons and military equipment across Russia by rail and motor transport, whereas previously only air transportation was permitted. I admit that military cargo is likely being shipped as well. At the same time, it is quite possible that, in order to avoid further incensing public opinion, the authorities will not divulge what they have agreed with NATO. But I don’t see anything unnatural or dangerous for Russia in this. The more Russia and NATO need each other, the more they cooperate, the better.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.