On 27 May 1997, during the NATO summit in Paris the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Russian Federation” – in short: NATO-Russia Founding Act – was signed. Against the backdrop of a drastically changed overall political climate, the question may be raised to what extent this international agreement still bears relevance for the relations between NATO and Russia? Is it still one of the pillars of European security or has it turned into a declaration of intent and relic from the good old days?
At the time both sides attempted to not view each other any longer as opponents but as partners, to place mutual relations on a new cooperative footing, and to create an inclusive security community in the Euro-Atlantic area. From today’s perspective one can conclude that these attempts have failed. There are numerous voices both in Russia and in the West today that demand a fresh interpretation of the document. The passage about NATO refraining from the “stationing of substantial combat forces” at its Eastern borders is a particularly controversial issue. The Russian side accuses the Alliance to have violated its own declaration of renunciation long time ago. Western analysts occasionally consider that severe changes in the international security environment and Russia’s record of violations against the main provisions of the document during the last 20 years would justify the permanent and robust deployment of NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe.
Despite the prevalent disagreement about the content and purpose of the document, the NATO-Russia Founding Act continues to have a special standing, especially in the German debate. The German federal government repeatedly underlined that in the context of formulating a general NATO strategy towards Russia (“simultaneously displaying strength and willingness to communicate”) nothing should be done that would in any way contradict the Act.
Taking a closer look at the text of the Founding Act, it becomes clear that the forum for consultation and cooperation, the NATO-Russia Council, is accorded a key role. The Council, founded in 2002 in Rome, oversees the work of numerous working groups and additional ad-hoc groups, which deal with topics of mutual military relevance, ranging from the fight against terrorism to arms control and civil emergency. Originally, the Council was meant to meet twice a year at the level of foreign and defence ministers and chief of staffs as well as on a monthly basis at the level of ambassadors (permanent representatives at the NATO-Council) and military representatives. The reality, however, is rather disillusioning, since over the years a regular meeting schedule never materialised. Also, the NATO-Russia Council never developed into an effective decision-making body. The reasons are multifaceted: lack of trust, missing political will and an allegedly decreasing demand for talk.
The 2008 Russo-Georgian War around South Ossetia represented a first turning point. One of the consequences was the suspension of the work of the NATO-Russia Council. For almost two years no meetings took place. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 represented yet another breakdown. In the context of the annexation of Crimea, NATO decided to withdraw from all practical and civil cooperation with Russia in the Council. Although the door for political consultations at the ambassadorial level was kept open, there was complete silence again for another two years.
These practices essentially contradict the intended purpose of the body, because the central objective of the NATO-Russia Council was to become “the principal venue of consultation between NATO and Russia in times of crisis or for any other situation affecting peace and stability”. The opposite is the case today: when NATO-Russia relations are in crisis, the work of the Council also becomes dysfunctional or is completely disrupted.
After resuming the dialogue in 2016 and the last meeting in March 2017 (prior to the Meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels), a more constructive exchange of information was made possible again. Even if there was still no convergence of opinion regarding Ukraine, both sides nevertheless reported about recent major military exercises. In addition, several initiatives concerning risk reduction during military manoeuvres were discussed. Especially this last topic merits closer attention.
The entire Euro-Atlantic area, in particular the Baltic sea region, have witnessed during the last three years an increasing number of hazardous military incidents, that involved Russian, NATO and third parties’ civilian and military vessels as well as combat aircrafts. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, the European Leadership Network (ELN) counted 60 of such incidents. Most of them concerned air space violations and close encounters of American military vessels and Russian jets. The most public incident happened in April 2016, when a Russian fighter jet came dangerously close to the US destroyer Donald Cook, which at the time was in international waters off the Russian coast of Kaliningrad. Both Russia and NATO have repeatedly blamed each other for having conducted flights in border regions with transponders switched off. This continues to be dangerous, but is not illegal, since military aircrafts are not bound by the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Despite the fact that numerous states maintain bilateral agreements with Russia, that have been concluded still during Soviet times, a key problem continues to persist: the lack of a multilateral mechanism or agreement that minimises the probability of hazardous incidents and takes measures to manage them in case they happen (see report by ELN 2016).
In realistic terms, there is no other format for consultations, which could serve as a platform for discussing these topics besides the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council. It is beyond question that there is a need for action. Ambitious initiatives with unrealistic expectations, however, are hardly expedient in this regard. Instead, continuous work with the objective of taking appropriate measures to improve the military-to-military contacts both in the Middle East and in the Euro-Atlantic area are paramount. This could help, eventually, if not to minimise then at least to define the risk of military incidents or accidents spiralling out of control. Yet, looking at the agenda of the forthcoming NATO summit in Brussels, it is questionable whether this issue will currently enjoy priority.