Russia and NATO Forge Closer Ties: Jim Headley Comments on Russia-NATO Relations since the Kosovo Conflict

By Headley, Jim | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Russia and NATO Forge Closer Ties: Jim Headley Comments on Russia-NATO Relations since the Kosovo Conflict


Headley, Jim, New Zealand International Review


With the dissolution of its adversary bloc, the Warsaw Pact, NATO entered a period of existential crisis in the early 1990s, during which it searched for a new purpose. The crisis was resolved with the decision to enlarge by taking in new members from the former communist states of Central/Eastern Europe, and with the development of a new role in peacekeeping or peace-making 'out of area' (beyond the borders of member states). This was tested initially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then in Kosovo and was formalised in the Strategic Concept adopted at the Washington summit in April 1999. At the same meeting, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic became the first former communist states to join the alliance.

NATO defended its changing role and its enlargement on the grounds that they would spread 'European values' and bring stability and peace to the region. Such claims were greeted with scepticism in Russia, where NATO was perceived primarily as a military organisation of the Cold War era, directed originally against the Soviet Union and therefore anti-Russian in essence. The proposed NATO 'expansion' into Central/Eastern Europe was considered a threat to Russian interests, while its actions in the Balkans were seen as pushing Russia out of an area of traditional interest, and contributing to a unipolar world by undermining institutions in which Russia's status as a great European and world power were recognised: the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Russia responded by opposing NATO enlargement, by resisting NATO's attempts to take responsibility for peace enforcement in the former Yugoslavia, and by seeking to establish the supremacy of the OSCE within the European security structure. Nevertheless, Russian policy-makers realised that Russia could not afford an open confrontation with the West and therefore had to get the best out of a bad deal. Hence they sought to establish a working relationship with NATO through the Partnership for Peace programme and through joint peacekeeping in Bosnia. In May 1997, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed and a Permanent Joint Council (PJC) was established to co-ordinate relations in key areas of common concern.

But there remained a lack of trust between the two sides. Russian representatives felt that their NATO counterparts were not allowing Russia real input into decisions on matters which affected its interests, summed up by the American view that Russia should have a 'voice but not a veto'. NATO representatives felt that Russia was not taking advantage of the Council to develop truly co-operative relations, but was instead using it as a negotiating forum, as well as a means to acquire intelligence information on NATO.

Underlying problems

The Kosovo conflict was therefore not so much a cause of the rift between Russia and NATO; rather, the rift was a symptom of underlying problems. The Russian view that NATO was deliberately excluding it from decision-making and driving it from a region of traditional interest was merely confirmed by the initial NATO threat of force against Serbia/Yugoslavia in September 1998, then by Western leaders' insistence on a NATO-led peacekeeping force for Kosovo to implement a peace deal based on the Rambouillet accords, and finally by the actual use of force after the breakdown of the Rambouillet talks. The Kosovo campaign was seen as a dangerous precedent that might be used, through the spurious 'doctrine of humanitarian intervention', to justify future NATO armed intervention in the former Soviet space or even in Russia itself.

Once the bombing started, Russia broke off all relations with NATO except in practical co-ordination of peacekeeping forces in the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina (and subsequently in the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) in Kosovo). Yet, there was no wider breach between Russia and the West: despite his sometimes over-blown rhetoric designed for domestic audiences, President Yeltsin continued to acknowledge that Russia's interests lay in good relations with the West, not in a new Cold War. …

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