A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Beyond Deterrence

Re-thinking the NATO-Russia relationship.

A series of confrontations have made NATO’s relationship with Russia increasingly adversarial, rendering cooperation all but impossible. Changing this dynamic will be essential to preserving European security.


© REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

At the battle of Ulm in 1805, Russian troops were to join those of Austria against Napoleon. However, as the Austrians used the Gregorian calendar and the Russians were still using the ancient Julian calendar, the plan failed – when the Russian troops arrived “on time,” the battle was already lost. The Russians were ten days late.

This is a legend, but it contains two interesting observations: that Russia and the West live in separate worlds; and that this can be dangerous for both. Arguably, we are now once again in such a dangerous period. This time, however, Russia does not even try to “arrive on time,” but instead seeks to portray itself as being perfectly happy in its own time zone. Worse, for today’s Russia the West is no longer something to align herself with, but an adversary who means Russia ill and needs to be kept at bay.

The result is an excessively militarized policy: the annexation of Crimea, an undeclared war against Ukraine, an increasingly reckless military campaign in Syria, statements about moving nuclear-capable “Iskander” missiles into Kaliningrad, the cancellation of the US-Russia deal on the disposition of plutonium, and a disinformation campaign of a magnitude not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War. Against this background, NATO’s military reinforcement measures for its Eastern Allies are both a necessary and a timely move to draw a “red line” against Russian adventurism.

However, deterring Russia must not be the entire story. As long as the West remains committed to the long-term goal of building a just and lasting European peace order, the Alliance’s agenda must also reflect this wider objective. This means that NATO must aim beyond deterrence and once again, as in the 1990s, become part of a broader effort of constructively re-engaging with Russia.

NATO: A Four-Letter-Word?

Such a re-engagement will be a major challenge. Russia has never ceased to view NATO as an instrument of containment. NATO’s first “out-of-area” engagement in the Balkans in the mid-1990s was seen as encroachment into a traditional Russian sphere of interest, while NATO’s enlargement was interpreted as a plot to encircle and marginalize Russia. Hence, whatever the Alliance says or does will be viewed through a lens of competition. In the words of a seasoned observer: “In Russia, NATO is still a four-letter-word.”

Moreover, given that today’s Russia is far more resentful and antagonistic than the “strategic partner” of the previous decade, NATO will have to develop any engagement strategy in parallel with military reassurance measures. This will make a meaningful political dialogue even more difficult, as military developments could interfere and even take the dialogue hostage.

The Triumph of Hope over Experience?

Given these constraints, attempts to re-engage with Russia may bring to mind Dr Samuel Johnson’s characterization of a second marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience.” Yet even if the range and depth of an eventual re-engagement with Russia remain limited – and less burdened with overblown expectations than in the past – NATO should nevertheless demonstrate that it is more than merely Russia’s nemesis.

Paradoxically, even the specific military implementation of NATO’s renewed focus on deterrence can be seen as part of a re-engagement strategy. NATO’s emphasis on reinforcements and on a rotational rather than permanent presence in NATO’s east are clear signals to Russia that the alliance has no intention to go back to a Cold War posture. Given Russia’s current siege mentality, it is doubtful whether NATO’s measured military response is actually interpreted as a signal of restraint. Yet as long as Russia does not significantly up the military ante, the allies are likely to refrain from measures that could complicate an eventual de-escalation and even rapprochement with Moscow.

Another indication that NATO is willing to explore venues for re-engagement with Russia are the repeated calls for a modernization of the OSCE Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures, and talks about avoiding military incidents and enhancing transparency. These calls focus on discussing the most urgent technical issues, but if such discussions were to yield tangible progress, they could provide a basis for moving further.

In contrast, a renewal of practical cooperation looks less likely. This is not only because NATO, in response to Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine, has ruled out a return to “business as usual.” It is also because past experience with NATO-Russia cooperation, which once ranged from peacekeeping in the Balkans to coordination on counter piracy operations, is ambiguous at best. Such cooperation did improve atmospherics and enhanced transparency, but it always remained “nervous” and, above all, did not translate into agreement on larger political issues.

The Future of European Security

NATO should not accept Russia’s confrontational stance as the “new normal”, but neither should it lose sight of the bigger picture: the future order of Europe and Russia’s place within it. This unresolved issue lies at the heart of the current crisis, irrespective of the fact that many aspects of Russia’s current behavior have their roots in domestic policy. This is a much more fundamental conversation that has yet to take place.

The post-Cold War order is based on the enlargement of Western institutions as well as on Western-inspired norms, including the right of each state to choose its security alignments. These principles, which Moscow also agreed to, are non-negotiable, yet their full implementation could well lead to Russia’s geopolitical marginalization. For a while, Russia’s weakness fostered the impression that Moscow had accepted the rules set by the West; yet this impression confused acquiescence with agreement. Today, with Russia having decided to play by its own rules, merely reminding Moscow of its international obligations appears futile.

Clearly, the NATO-Russia relationship is too narrow a framework to discuss these higher-order issues. They must be broached on a different level. NATO would only provide the atmospheric accompaniment to such a dialogue. Yet this makes it all the more important that NATO appear open-minded and cooperative. A division of labor in which the alliance was relegated to playing “bad cop” while other institutions play “good cop,” offering Russia economic and other incentives, is in no one’s interest.

NB. The author writes in a personal capacity.