Servicemen take part in the joint multinational military exercise 'Noble Partner 2018' at Vaziani training center, outside Tbilisi, on August 1, 2018
Russia's Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev showed a very sharp reaction on August 16, 2018 to reports about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) planning joint military drills with Georgia. He said possible accession of Georgia to this Western military alliance would be catastrophic and lead to major tensions in that region. This came after Russia's President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2018 criticized NATO’s strategy to develop its infrastructure close to Russian borders. He added that the key to establishment of security in Europe was developing cooperation and restoring trust, not expansion of new military bases and infrastructure close to Russia's borders. Defying Putin’s remarks, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, invited Georgia to become a full member of NATO on July 12, asking the country to start its membership process. This issue, along with holding joint military drills with Georgia, will have serious repercussions some of which will be discussed below.
NATO’s relations with Russia: Effective variables
The main basis for cooperation between NATO and Russia is the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which provides a framework for consultation on various security issues. It also paves the way for practical cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas where the two sides have common interests. The council’s agenda is based on bilateral cooperation as determined by the NATO-Russia agreement signed in Paris in 1997, which sets the formal framework for the two side’s cooperation. The quality of cooperation between Russia and NATO members is determined by the NRC and is steered through various committees and working groups affiliated to it on an annual basis. The driving force for cooperation at this council is mutual understanding of each other’s strategic priorities and common challenges. In doing so, NATO had managed to establish good relations with Russia. Even when NATO cut its relations with Russia in reaction to Moscow’s measures against Ukraine, it kept the communication channel open and the NATO-Russia Council continued to hold its meetings. Such a pragmatic approach, however, does not mean that there is convergence between the two sides, because expansion of NATO toward east has been a major sticking point between Moscow and the military alliance. As a result, Russians have always seen this expansion as a threat to their national security.
Russia and eastward expansion of NATO
When Putin was elected as Russian president in January 2000, relations between his country and NATO had hit rock bottom. In spite of his anti-Western tendencies, Putin at first tried to facilitate reestablishment of cordial ties between Russia and the West.
A statement was released at the conclusion of NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, announcing that Georgia and Ukraine could take steps to become members of NATO. These two countries are of very high importance to Russia, because both of them are close to Russia's Volga region, which is the agriculture hub of the country and provides access to the Caspian Sea oil fields. Therefore, the Kremlin cannot accept the risk of losing its control on these regions. In view of these developments, one can claim that Russia sees NATO as a threat to its security. Therefore, Russia's move to stop eastward expansion of NATO is rooted in this country’s realistic approach to international politics. In fact, the Kremlin is trying to protect its security. The most important reasons why Russia sees expansion of NATO as a threat can be explained as follows:
A) Threat against security and reduction of Russia's influence in international system: While expansion of NATO is seen by Western powers as a sign of further development of Europe and democratic peace, Russian elites consider it as a tool used to strengthen West’s strategic standing against a weakened Russia following the Cold War. They also maintain that this tool ignores the role and advantages of Russia within the international system.
B) Identity-based threat: Expansion of NATO and the European Union and their increasing influence has been seen in Moscow not only as a form of aggression by the West against Russia's geopolitical interests, but also as a threat against “civilizational identity” and historical narrative of Russia. Russia's relations with the West and countries in Eurasia are seen by the Kremlin and many Russians as an affair, which goes well beyond foreign policy and international security matters. They consider this issue as part of their national identity. The image of the West in Russia shows the West as a power that tries to alter the unique and conservative national identity of Russia, including patriotism, orthodox Christianity, role of the national leadership and traditional gender roles. The image projected of the West in Russia depicts not only the United States and NATO, but also even the European Union’s foreign policy, as tools for further expansion of their influence, including their influence in Ukraine.
C) Means of influence in the void left by the Soviet Union: Another reason why Russia is opposed to eastward expansion of NATO is that such expansion does away with buffer and border zones between this vast country and NATO. What is of utmost priority to Moscow is to firstly maintain its own influence and secondly, counter the West’s influence in former republics of the Soviet Union, which are collectively described by Russia as its “near abroad.” Moscow’s main goal in its periphery is to prevent neighboring countries from getting close to the West and keep in place the buffer zone, or at least, neutral countries around them. Russia, as one of the most important potential obstacles to expansion of NATO, still holds a historical fear of being surrounded. This is why Russia is trying to analyze the political transition, appeal to the public opinion, and prevent real integration into the West’s political, economic and security structures of those countries, which have already moved to exit Russia's sphere of influence, including Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
D) Ensuring economic interests: A reason why Russia opposes expansion of NATO toward east is economic issues. From the viewpoint of Russia, if NATO continues its expansion toward east, Moscow’s economic interests will be in jeopardy. Therefore, Russia believes that finding access to new economic areas is a reason behind expansion of NATO. Moscow also maintains that the United States and European members of NATO put forth the idea of eastward expansion of NATO to gain more advantages in the fields of oil and minerals, and control markets in such countries. This issue, the Russians argue, is at odds with national interests of their country.
NATO’s viewpoint on eastward expansion
NATO claims that its enhanced presence in the Baltic region is in reaction to a change in the security environment as a result of Russia's aggressive measures against Ukraine. In response to the alleged threat posed by membership of new countries to NATO, it maintains that those countries that join this alliance must comply with the principles and policies of this bloc and subsequent commitments arising from them. Among those commitments, which were underlined during the latest NATO summit in the Polish capital city of Warsaw, was that NATO and its members must pose no threat to Russia.
Answering to allegations that NATO is laying siege to Russia, the alliance has noted that Russia ignores geographical facts. It claims that Russia has more than 20,000 kilometers of land borders with less than one-sixteenth of it being with NATO members. In other words, out of 14 countries that have common land borders with Russia, only five countries are NATO members. Outside NATO territories, this alliance is only maintaining military presence in two locations: Kosovo and Afghanistan. Both of these cases have been approved by the United Nations Security Council to which Russia is also a member. This comes while Russia has stationed military forces and runs military bases in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine without consent of those countries’ governments.
Hossein Asgarian is the resident fellow at Abrar Moaser Tehran Institute.
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