It’s not back to business as usual, but NATO and Russian ambassadors did meet in Brussels on Wednesday for the first time in two years. A halting of all practical cooperation between the two sides was imposed by NATO after Russia’s support for an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Political dialogue has remained open.
After the meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the discussions “frank and serious” but said, “NATO Allies and Russia hold very different views. But we have listened to what each of us have to say.”
Some observers debate whether each side is truly listening. Often, it appears the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which was established in 2002 in an effort to improve security in Europe/Eurasia, is used solely for show. “The council proved largely impotent as a means of promoting larger scale projects for European security, enhancing crisis management, or defanging broader tensions between Russia and the alliance,” said Christopher Chivvis, Associate Director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and Cipher Brief expert. “Ultimately, it [Russia] cares little about the NATO-Russia Council beyond the optics.”
Still, dialogue is considered of utmost importance to tackle today’s crises, including in Ukraine and Afghanistan. Russian Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko remarked, “It’s better to talk than not to talk.” Stoltenberg emphasized, “Political dialogue among nations that share the same Euro-Atlantic area is both necessary and useful, especially in times of tensions as we experience now.” And German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted, “It is precisely because there are many difficult issues that this dialogue is inherently valuable and should be continued.”
But even when there is dialogue, it often fails to translate into meaningful action. Take the case of Ukraine. The NATO member countries believe Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal and Ukraine should return to full sovereignty. The Russians call the Crimea annexation a “reunification” and claim the peninsula’s large Russian population freely and fairly voted to join Russia.
At the NRC, all 29 parties agreed to the need for “a full and rapid implementation of the Minsk agreements,” the accord to end hostilities in eastern Ukraine. With two strongly opposing viewpoints on Crimea, it is difficult to imagine fulfillment of Minsk in the near future. In fact, in recent days there has been an uptick in ceasefire violations in Ukraine’s east.
Another area of opposing viewpoints presented itself during the NRC discussion on military transparency and risk reduction. NATO members expressed concern over last week’s incidents in the Baltics, where Russian fighter jets flew near a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft and a U.S. Navy destroyer. Grushko defended Russia’s moves during the NRC, claiming Washington was trying to unnerve Moscow by sailing the destroyer close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Again, it’s difficult to see how reforms to make military actions more transparent, a key point for Stoltenberg, will play out effectively when NATO and Russia each hold different opinions on the motives behind military maneuvers and seem unwilling to engage in substantive dialogue.
The final area of discussion during the NRC was Afghanistan. The talks revolved around the Afghans’ internal stability and regional terrorist threats. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has gained a foothold in Afghanistan and competes with the Taliban for brutality. Although Stoltenberg largely glossed over Afghanistan in his post-meeting press conference, this is the one area in which NATO and Russia have a common interest in defeating ISIS and where dialogue could prove fruitful.
Yet Chivvis points out, “Russia’s security relationship with Europe has been problematic for centuries. Dialogue alone is unlikely to effect this reversal and could be counter-productive if mismanaged.”
But Stoltenberg sees open discussion as imperative, “especially when tensions are high, political dialogue is necessary to discuss our differences and to reduce the risk of military incidents.”
Kaitlin Lavinder is an International Producer with The Cipher Brief.