NATO Presence*

*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Program Coordinator of the Russian International Affairs Council Konstantin Sukhoverkhov speaks on the prospects of U.S.-Russian dialogue after a recent NATO summit in Bucharest.

On Nov. 29 and 30, the Romanian capital hosted a meeting of NATO members’ foreign affairs ministers. They focused their attention on implementing NATO’s new strategic concept; deterring China; providing energy security; protecting important NATO infrastructure; and supporting Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Moldova. In addition, they discussed Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership.

Finally, they could not avoid discussing such issues as the Ukrainian conflict and Black Sea security. Despite everyone’s extreme concern about the Ukrainian crisis now, experts and the media instead focus on how the U.S. and its allies welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership at a meeting in Bucharest 14 years ago. Although not all countries supported this decision in 2008, President George Bush still managed to insist on it.

On Nov. 30, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We’re going to be reinforcing NATO’s presence from the Black to the Baltic Seas.” This statement is of particular interest given the context of NATO’s open-door policy. For those who keep track of U.S. foreign policy, this statement didn’t come as a surprise.

Even in the late 1990s, Democratic President Bill Clinton’s administration promoted the idea of NATO expansion from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This approach aimed to achieve an important geostrategic objective — to secure access to the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas as well as to the South Caucasus and Central Asia. At the same time, NATO ministers came up with the idea of strengthening cooperation with the “new Europe,” former members of the Warsaw Pact. The Bush administration continued this approach after the NATO Prague Summit in 2002, welcoming Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to the alliance. The countries joined NATO later in 2004.

Therefore, the alliance is continuing to expand and strengthen its security, which has been going on for more than 20 years. Nevertheless, in the realities of today’s world, Blinken’s statement also makes practical sense, as Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO. The incorporation of these Northern European countries into the alliance would divide the Baltic Sea into NATO-controlled and Russian-controlled waters, meaning there will be no third parties left in the region. Yet, it is still unclear when the countries will finally join NATO since Turkey is still opposing Helsinki and Stockholm’s bid to join the alliance.

However, there’s another interesting point in Blinken’s statement. He said Washington is ready to maintain military-to-military dialogue with Moscow to reduce the risks of various incidents. In other words, it doesn’t matter how the U.S. presents its foreign policy in public because in reality it is very pragmatic. Moreover, Russia and the U.S. have never broken off all contact even in the tensest moments of their bilateral relations, especially when it comes to security matters.

Syria is a good example of how Moscow and Washington can work together. It is true that all communication channels between the U.S. and Russian militaries were severed in 2014 after Crimea’s reunification with Russia. But already in 2015, due to the high activity of the Islamic State group and the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, the U.S. and Russian defense departments signed a memorandum on airspace safety in Syria. Subsequently, the military authorities of the two countries established round-the-clock communication channels.

Since 2016, there have been regular videoconferences between experts from both countries concerning the implementation of the airspace safety memorandum. The participants had the opportunity to share their assessments regarding the execution of negotiated agreements and analyze each other’s actions in resolving potential conflict situations. Although it is hard to imagine such a level of cooperation today, the most important thing is that such a precedent exists. In addition, we should not forget that Moscow and Washington are currently engaged in consultations on strategic stability. However, Russia has recently decided to postpone a meeting of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission in Cairo, Egypt.

Despite all the difficulties in bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. — particularly related to NATO’s open-door policy and the Ukrainian conflict — it is extremely important that both sides continue to maintain dialogue. This will help prevent incidents that could aggravate the already tense situation in the world.

The author is the program coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council

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