Russia-NATO. From Allies to Opponents

15 m.   |  2020-07-08

In April 2014, NATO, which had problems with Russia over Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance since 2008, finally stopped cooperation with Russia, freezing both military and civilian relations. In response to it, in December of the same year, Moscow announced that NATO forces and its member states’ military infrastructures near the Russian border, pose an external threat to the country.

The entry of Russian forces into Crimea and Russia’s participation in the Ukrainian crisis became the final reason for the freezing of bilateral relations. Two years later, in 2016, the meetings of the NATO-Russia Council resumed, and in March 2017, military cooperation was however snowy. Russian Defense Minister S. Shoygu notes, bilateral relations are getting worse year by year.

After 2014, the NATO summits are aimed at maintaining the line on the military-political “containment” of Russia, considering the “Russian aggression” a great danger for the member states.

NATO’s Enlargement to Eastern Europe

I nitially, the main aim of NATO’s creation was to protect Europe from the influence of the Soviet Union. The US wanted to increase its influence in Western Europe using the USSR as a reason. In 1954, the Soviet Union tried to establish contact with the North Atlantic Alliance, by sending a note on its membership, but was rejected. It was mentioned in the reply, that such a proposal “contradicts the security of Western States”. Shortly after that, Moscow formed a counterweight organization to NATO, the Warsaw Treaty, the members of which were the USSR and Eastern Europe.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Warsaw Treaty was also dissolved. It was expected that NATO would not be Russia’s main enemy as the USSR didn’t exist anymore, however NATO, expanded at the expense of weakening Russia.

The first enlargement of NATO took place on October 3, 1990,  after the reunification of Germany.

Pic.1. The meeting of M. Gorbachev and G. Bush at the Maltese Summit in 1989

The Russian side notes, that in 1989, President Bush assured Gorbachev, that after the collapse of Germany, NATO wouldn’t take any steps towards East Germany, moreover, according to official Russia, there was an agreement between the USA and other member states of NATO, that the North Atlantic Alliance will not extend to Eastern Europe. NATO in turn denies that there was such a decision, and that such an agreement could only be made in written form and with the consent of all the members. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly accused NATO of not keeping the “gentlemen’s word”.

In 2017, archive documents were declassified in the National Security Archive of the Washington University, which shew, that there was a contract signed between Russia,

The reunification of Germany and its NATO takeover of the East allowed the US to continue its trend of expansion, Russia didn’t take tough steps against this in the 1990s. Moreover, in 1993 NATO stressed that each country is free to choose an alliance that will maintain its security. Thus, although he called on Eastern Europe to remain neutral for the sake of NATO and Russia’s security, Czech, Hungary and Poland also joined NATO in 1999.

In 2002, NATO invited seven new member states to the Prague  summit, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the former members of the Soviet Union. Their membership protocols were ratified at the Istanbul summit, in 2004.

The latter became the first member states of the former Soviet Union to join this military alliance. Later, the Baltic States became NATO bases in Europe against Russia. 

In July 2016, at the NATO summit, against the background of tense Russia-NATO relations, a decision was made on the permanent presence of NATO troops in the Baltic countries: British battalion based in Estonia, Canadian battalion in Latvia, a German one in Lithuania, and an American one in Poland. In response, Russia formed three new divisions with the Iskander-M missile system deployed in the Kaliningrad region in 2018.

Russia-NATO Cooperation

A fter the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, President Yeltsin announced, that Russia’s cooperation with the “only military union left in Europe” would become one of the key components of the country’s security maintenance. During this period, direct contacts were established between Russia and NATO.

In 1991, Russia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, at the session which Boris Yeltsin didn’t rule out the possibility of joining the alliance. Generally, the idea of Russia’s joining NATO has been raised at various times by both Russian and Western leaders. In 1990, during the negotiations on German’s reunification, the head of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev  addressing the alliance, noted: “You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is simply a security structure. Therefore we propose to join NATO”, which the US Secretary of State called a “dream”. In an interview with the BBC in 2000, whether Russia would join NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin answered why not. However, the membership didn’t take place, moreover, in 2008 Putin noted, that in terms of security, Russia is a self-sufficient country and is not going to sacrifice a part of his sovereignty to create the illusion of increasing security. 

Although Russia didn’t join NATO a number of cooperation agreements were signed between the two sides. On June 22, 1994, Russia joined “the partnership for peace” project. And on May 27, 1997, at a NATO Summit in Paris NATO and Russia signed “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security”, according to which, the alliance was committed not to deploy military forces along Russia’s borders on an ongoing basis.

In 1999, controversy arose between the sides over the use of disproportionate Russian forces in Chechnya and NATO’s active operations in Yugoslavia; however, this didn’t actually affect the relations. Moreover, after the terrorist attack in the United States on September 11, 2001, Russia-USA relations became cosier, as a result of which a declaration titled “Russia-NATO relations: A New Quality” was signed in Rome in 2002, later Russia-NATO Council was established in 2003.

The main agenda of the Council was the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. At a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council at the level of defense ministers held in June 2003 in Brussels, Russia’s proposals for cooperation in Afghanistan was presented to NATO, where Russia suggested the transit of troops of the alliance and their deployment by air using Russian military transport aircraft.

In February 2009, Russia allowed NATO to transport cargo to Afghanistan through its territory. Russia’s air bridge gave the US and NATO an opportunity to double the number of deliveries to Afghanistan if necessary. Only the US had an opportunity to carry out up to 4.5 thous. flights and to transport up to 50 thous. tons of cargo annually through the territory of Russia.

Russia-NATO Council has taken a number of measures to prevent drug trafficking in Afghanistan. Since December 2005, the Council has trained employees to fight against drug trafficking from Afghanistan. About 3000 employees from seven participating countries were trained under the 2013 program.

Russia-NATO cooperation was also expanded in the fight against piracy. For several years, Russia has been sending ships to the Gulf of Aden to protect shipping from piracy.

Bilateral relations developed within the framework of SALIS (Strategic Airlift Interim Solution) program, aiming at searching for a temporary solution to the strategic military transport tasks of NATO member countries. In 2006, the German Ruslan SALIS GmbH, Russian Volga-Dnepr and Ukrainian Antonov Airlines won the competition. After the well-known events in 2014, Antonov Airlines refused to cooperate with the Russian company. In 2016, separate contracts were signed with the companies, however, in 2018, Volga-Dnepr announced stepping out of the contract at the end of year.

Georgia in the Spotlight of NATO-Russia Relations

N ATO-Russia relations became tense, when in 2008, the membership issue of Georgia and Ukraine was put on NATO’s agenda. Moscow reacted sharply and harshly. Officials from Tbilisi started talking about Georgia’s membership in NATO after the “Rose Revolution”, when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power. He stressed that joining NATO will not only give Georgia unprecedented guarantees of military and political security, but the separatist territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) will join stable, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Georgia.

USA was in favor for Georgia’s membership, which was trying to increase its influence in the South Caucasus. Thus, not taking into account further threats, Washington decided to be the first to cross the red line, by announcing about the inevitability of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership in NATO. It was clear, that the two countries had unresolved issues: the ongoing political instability in Ukraine after the orange revolution and the unresolved conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov directly warned, “It may potentially split Ukraine in two, leading to violence or even civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene or not”.

Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky also warned that if Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, Russia will be obliged to take military steps of a different nature aimed at ensuring its interests along its borders”. However, on April 3, 2003, the membership of the two countries was raised at the Bucharest summit, to which the USA and the Baltic countries voted for and Germany, France, Italy and Belgium voted against. France and Germany stressed that Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership to NATO can only be with Russia’s permission. Although the countries didn’t join the alliance, NATO considered it the first step towards membership.

On April 7, 2008, the Kommersant published an article, according to which, at a closed meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Bucharest, Putin simply warned his Western partners about annexing Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, if Kiev becomes a member of the North Atlantic Alliance. In the case of Georgia, the Kremlin leader promised to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Already in summer, this statement related to Georgia became a reality: Georgian-Ossetian war took place, resulting in Russia recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

This war caused difficulties in Russia-NATO relations. NATO countries accused Russia of using an unequal force and supported Georgia. On August 19, 2008, NATO’s Foreign Minister’s Council stated that it is impossible to maintain good relations with Russia, when its troops are in Georgia.

On August 21, 2008, in response to NATO’s statement, Russian side announced that it would suspend cooperation with the alliance in the humanitarian, scientific and educational spheres. On August 25, Russian President D. Medvedev turned  to NATO:

We have been developing relations with NATO for quite a long time. We would like these relations to be full. But we don’t need the illusion of partnership: day by day, an increasing number of states are drawn into the North Atlantic bloc, and we are told: “No, don’t worry, everything’s all right,” we naturally don’t like it. But speaking seriously, this cooperation is primarily of interest of the member states of the North Atlantic Alliance, and not the Russian Federation. And if they, in fact, break this cooperation, then nothing terrible will happen to us. We are ready to make any decision up to the termination of relations in general. Although, of course, this would be the most difficult development of events.”

However, in December 2008, the NATO leadership decided to resume cooperation with Russia. NATO Secretary General Hoop Scheffer explained that Russia has a major geopolitical role and NATO has no alternative. Since 2009, Russia and North Atlantic Alliance began to re-develop relations in all directions.

Georgia’s membership issue is still active. In 2016, Lavrov stressed, that Russia will not start a war if Georgia joins NATO, but such a behavior will destroy relations with NATO and the countries, which want to join the Alliance.

“Collapse” of Russia-NATO Relations

B etween 2010-2013, after the Georgian events, Russia-NATO relations were slightly settled, but in early 2014, Russia’s involvement in the civil war in Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea deteriorated bilateral relations again, leading to a cessation in cooperation.

NATO’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen qualified those events as a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and European security. Already on April 1, at the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels, the Alliance announced the cessation of all kinds of civil and military cooperation with Russia. Particularly, the joint mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons was frozen. Members of Russian Permanent Mission’s entering the NATO headquarters was forbidden as well. Only the head of the mission, his deputy and assistants stayed in Brussels, and in September, Russia wasn’t invited to the NATO summit for the first time after the Cold War.

An open struggle between Russia and NATO had begun. In December 2014, Russia stated, that NATO military forces and the military infrastructure of its members near the Russian border are the main threats to the country. In 2016, at the NATO summit, Russia “was declared” as the main threat to the security of the alliance and its restraint officially became the new mission of NATO. According to NATO, the annexation of Crimea completely changed the strategic situation in Europe. Russia’s actions in Ukraine were seen as a threat to NATO members in Eastern Europe, particularly for the Baltic States, where there is a significant Russian-speaking population. Thus, NATO took over the re-equipment of these countries. The alliance stressed that the presence of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic states is a strong signal to Russia, that if attacking Poland or the Baltic states, it will receive a counterattack from the entire alliance.

As it was already above mentioned, 4 battalions were deployed in the Baltic states, moreover, an international detachment of 5000 members was formed, which should appear in the military zone in 2 days at the latest. In addition, it was decided to increase the group of rapid response to 40 thousand.

NATO combat tanks sent to Poland

The development of air defense forces in Poland was key for NATO, as it was the weakest point for the Baltic States: they didn’t have an aviation force. Hence, NATO sent 4 planes and detachments to Poland and later to Estonia.

The escalation of the conflict between Russia and NATO was also demonstrated by military exercises. In Russia, their number increased by one and a half times, reaching 3.5 thous. military exercises. NATO also increased the number of military exercises, it became from 91 in 2013 to 270 in 2015. The joint military exercises with Ukraine also increased from 3 to 12 in 2015.

In 2019, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg informed, that $260 mil. worth investment will be made in the construction of a military warehouse in Poland in support for the operations of the American military contingent in Eastern Europe. He stressed that the military alliance envisages to expand its presence in the Black Sea so as to counter Russia’s aggressive actions.

This year, NATO’s Defender Europe 2020 military exercise was scheduled to take place, promising to be the largest in 25 years, with more than 37 thous. soldiers. Based on the official statements, the strategic aim of the military exercises is to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its “unwavering determination to support European allies”. The Russian side considers this military exercise an opportunity to further strain relations with Russia, by stressing that the military exercises are getting closer and closer to Russia’s borders. However, due to COVID-2019 pandemic, the military exercises were postponed for an unknown period.

Please note that this article is a translation, which has been written originally for readers versed in this topic.