Back to the Future: Reassessing NATO-Russia Relations

by Daniel Pitcairn

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and efforts to destabilize Ukraine are forcing NATO to come to grips with a new strategic reality. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has crystallized just how severely events in Ukraine have undermined the belief that Europe is a continent at peace. The consequences of this crisis will certainly be top of mind as NATO leaders prepare for the Alliance’s summit in Wales in September. Speaking at an event on the future of NATO, British Ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmascott said that adapting to the threat Russia poses would be one of three main summit topics.

But how should NATO recalibrate? The answer depends largely on whether policymakers adopt a short-term or long-term perspective.

A short-term approach sees Russia simply as an adversary, focusing on punishing Russian aggression and reassuring Eastern European allies. By contrast, a longer-term approach recognizes that ensuring security and stability in Europe is not possible without Russian cooperation. Regardless of how the MH17 tragedy affects the immediate situation in Eastern Ukraine, it does not nullify this geostrategic reality. NATO has acknowledged Russia as a long-term strategic partner by signing the Founding Act premised on their mutual interests in 1997 and creating the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. In practice, adopting this more strategic perspective means the alliance must act prudently in the short-term to ensure it does not preclude partnership with Russia in the long-term.

However, NATO is showing signs of adopting a short-term, reactionary approach. The alliance has indefinitely halted an ambitious plan for cooperation with Russia and already begun pivoting its military apparatus to focus on Russia. In response, President Putin has announced that Moscow will counter increased NATO military activity near its border. The situation recalls Cold War standoffs and threatens to have lasting negative effects on regional security.

65 years ago, American and European statesmen faced a similar dilemma about how to cope with the threat emanating from Moscow. Many believed the USSR posed an existential threat to Western Europe and that they had to consolidate a military alliance to deter and counter Soviet aggression. Others thought the threat posed by the USSR was exaggerated and objected to NATO’s creation. One such statesman was George Kennan, the principal architect of the famous containment strategy. He argued in his “X” article that the USSR’s opposition to the West was primarily political and ideological, not military in nature. Moreover, significant events in 1947 and 1948, including the success of the Marshall Plan and the popular rejection of communist rule in Greece, Turkey, and Italy, indicated that the balance of power in Europe favored the U.S. and its allies – as many would argue it still does today.

Perhaps most importantly, as he recounts in Russia, the Atom and the West, Kennan foresaw that creating NATO would solidify the nascent Cold War in two ways. First, the establishment of a formal military alliance among Western capitalist nations designed to counter the Soviet Union would fall perfectly in line with the Communist Party’s narrative of capitalist encirclement and thereby help the Soviet dictatorship justify its existence. Second, as biographer John Lewis Gaddis records in George Kennan: An American Life, Kennan believed the alliance would signify “a final militarization of the present dividing-line through Europe.” Though the spread of communism no longer poses a threat and there is now no East-West dividing line running through Germany, avoiding playing into Moscow’s anti-NATO narrative and militarizing relations is integral to mitigating the consequences of the current standoff with Russia.

Despite Kennan’s shrewd assessment, reassuring European allies in the face of perceived Soviet aggression proved more compelling to the alliance’s founders than avoiding escalation.  The outcome was two-fold: a robust military alliance between like-minded countries in the North Atlantic and a protracted conflict with the USSR that would bring the world to the brink of nuclear warfare and last 40 years.

Today, Moscow again appears to threaten European security. Now, as then, how American and European leaders choose to frame the current crisis in the short term will have long-lasting effects. The difference is that the Russia of 2014 is far from the superpower the USSR once was and can be a valuable strategic partner for the United States and Europe. Come September, hopefully NATO leaders will decide to prioritize longer-term strategic interests over reactionary tendencies.

Daniel Pitcairn is a research analyst for Government Business Council, the research and analysis division of Government Executive Media Group. He is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs.