NATO: Why not really make Russia a partner?

International Herald Tribune

NATO: Why not really make Russia a partner?

Ian Bremmer and Nikolas Gvosdev IHT Tuesday, June 22, 2004

WASHINGTON ‘You’re not our enemies anymore,” Secretary of State
Colin Powell told the Russians last month. Yet two years after the
NATO-Russia Council was unveiled as a new “bridge of security across
Europe,” 47 percent of Russians still consider the North Atlantic
alliance a threat to their national security.

As long as the NATO-Russia partnership remains solely a matter of
declarations and consultations, the opportunity to fundamentally
reshape the security not only of the Euro-Atlantic community but the
entire Eurasian land mass is being missed. Diplomats are squabbling
over four Belgian aircraft flying patrol over the Baltic states,
while real threats percolate along the soft underbelly of Eurasia –
terrorism, organized crime (especially smuggling and the drug trade)
and unstable states.

NATO’s primary purpose is to provide security. The alliance is there to
prevent any country – including Russia – from using force to dominate
its neighbors. But it is not NATO’s job to make Russia “disappear”
as an economic power in the region. If the United States wants to
extend a zone of peace and security across Eurasia, NATO cannot be
seen as a lever to keep Russia on the sidelines.

The “Great Game” geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West
for influence across the Eurasian steppe is over. Russia failed in
its attempt to monopolize the region’s transportation links, and the
construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is one signal victory. But
Central Asia’s gas reserves are controlled by Gazprom and, as in Soviet
times, will continue to pass through Russian-controlled routes. There
is nothing further to be gained by continuing to compete with Russia.

This is the reality: Moscow has sufficient economic and strategic
leverage to frustrate further Western plans for the region if Russian
interests are not taken into consideration. Russia will continue to
play a critical role in the Caucasus and Central Asia irrespective
of American intent. Cooperation with Russia is the only way forward.

Russia continues to have the most effective network of contacts
in Eurasia. First steps have already been taken in coordinating
intelligence collection, marrying Russia’s human intelligence
capabilities with American technological capacity. Why not build upon
this foundation and create a new security organization, grounded in
the NATO-Russia Council, that would develop joint institutions for
our joint security challenges?

Recent events in Georgia demonstrate how the lack of coordination
between Washington and Moscow can cause serious misunderstandings
and frustrate effective cooperation. When Americans hint that
the real purpose of U.S. forces in Georgia is to combat Russian
influence rather than root out terrorist cells, Moscow responds
with suspicion. Russia has a shared interest with the United States
in promoting a Georgian administration that can effectively crack
down on organized crime and radicals, and it demonstrated this by
helping to end the stand-off between President Mikheil Saakashvili
of Georgia and the defiant leader of Adzharia, Aslan Abashidze.
But cooperation will be limited if Russia believes America’s true
intent is to leverage Russia out of the region altogether.

Too often, security initiatives in Eurasia have had an “us or them”
approach. In the Kyrgyz Republic, both the United States and Russia
maintain military bases, although both ostensibly serve the same
purpose – to prevent the spillover of Islamist terrorism into Central
Asia. Indeed, Russia opened its base at Kant in autumn 2003, its
first post-cold war deployment, in response to the arrival of the
U.S. military. These forces have no mechanism for joint action –
not even the ability to communicate by cellphone.

Creating a joint U.S.-Russia base under the aegis of a NATO-Russia
partnership, a proposal the Kyrgyz president, Askar Akaev, endorses,
could lay the basis for practical cooperation that could then
be extended, both to the countries where Russia has prevailing
influence (such as Armenia) and those seeking greater integration
into Euro-Atlantic structures (such as Georgia, Uzbekistan or even
Azerbaijan). It would send a clear message to all countries in the
region that cooperation with Russia does not jeopardize their progress
to full membership in the Euro-Atlantic community.

It could also pave the way for greater regional stability. Take the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – if it can be resolved, a major source
of instability and a threat to the export of hydrocarbons from the
Caspian basin would be removed. Given the lack of trust on both sides,
the only effective peacekeeping force would be a joint Russia-NATO
operation – one that could give assurances to both the Armenians
and Azeris. The peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo – the
first time that Russian and NATO forces collaborated in that manner –
provide a foundation for extending such cooperation.

The American ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, has declared
that “NATO sees Russia as a partner.” If that is the case, then it
is time to institutionalize cooperation between Russia and the West
to deal with common threats.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at
the World Policy Institute. Nikolas Gvosdev is executive editor of
The National Interest. NATO looks east