Analysis & Opinions - Future of Diplomacy Project

NATO and Russia: An Uneasy Relationship

| Nov. 08, 2017

"We’re neighbors. Russia is NATO’s most capable, armed, neighbor, indefinitely. The question is, what kind of neighborhood do we want to live in?” Ambassador Douglas Lute,  Senior Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project, posed this question in his discussion with Faculty Director, Nicholas Burns in a November 8, 2017, event at the Belfer Center.

"We are in the second strategic inflection point in the history of the NATO alliance,” he noted, citing the cataclysmic changes that accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the first. Twenty-six years after the end of the Cold War, NATO now faced a set of critical challenges from its Eastern neighbor. In Ukraine, incursions into Crimea and ongoing conflict in the Donbass Region — both violations of international law — and increasing Russian threats and incursions into NATO waters and airspace became “NATO's list of Russia's original sins." In addition, Russia’s hybrid warfare approach that includes interfering in U.S. election systems, Russian planes threatening mid-air collisions with NATO planes in international air space, and an evolving Russian nuclear doctrine that proposes using nuclear weapons to "deescalate" conventional conflict, signaled malicious intent.

“What is Russia to us today? Strategic partner, friend, adversary?”
“NATO has not labeled the relationship,” Lute replied to the question from Faculty Director Burns. Instead, NATO has focused on redefining a strategy that meets current threats with a two-pronged approach of strength and dialogue. “Even though dialogue is not the most comfortable thing right now or obvious” it remains key in NATO’s strategy, he noted.  Since 1997 the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations set a precedent for a NATO and Russia mechanism in which they could consult and cooperate. Though it halted in 2008 and again from 2014-2016 over the Russian incursion into Ukraine, it has been meeting on a quarterly basis again since.

Though constructive dialogue remained the first objective in relations with Russia, the Alliance proved adaptable over the decades. Recently, in an “almost Kennedy School-like exercise; going back to Schelling and the basics of deterrence” NATO modernized its deterrence approach, adding more conventional force structures — such as forward ground presences in Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Lithuania. The U.S. also demonstrated its commitment to NATO allies and to respond to Russian aggression unilaterally by deploying U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Teams in Europe. In modernizing, NATO also made resilience a tenet of deterrence. Each member state has to be resilient to domestic threats (i.e., Russian mobilization of Russian ethnic populations in Estonia) and external threats. "Resilience deserves the most attention and is where we are most vulnerable." NATO is not stagnating in its 68th year. “It will prove adaptive,” Lute assured.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation:NATO and Russia: An Uneasy Relationship.” Future of Diplomacy Project, November 8, 2017.


Nicholas Burns