The NATO summit to be held in Lisbon on Nov. 19–20 has a hefty agenda in which Russia features prominently. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is defining its role in Afghanistan; is seeking agreement on joint missile defense; and is hosting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The Lisbon NATO summit is supposed to be attended by 27 state heads, plus Medvedev who will attend the separate NATO-Russia summit.
Despite viewing NATO’s enlargement as a threat, Moscow still conducts a dialogue with the organization. This is understandable, as the real threats to Russia come from the instability in Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, and, in the long term, from the increases in China’s military and economic power. Russia shares the longest border in the world with China, and suffers from low birth rates and imbalances of both population and military forces in Siberia and the Far East.
While Russia’s trial balloons for a new European Security Treaty fell flat, the cooperation between Moscow and NATO can happen in the areas where Moscow and Brussels have common interests, such as Afghanistan; combating drug trafficking and religious extremism; and fighting piracy. Yet, Russia’s insistence on limiting NATO troops levels in Eastern Europe and warning on troops movements is a non-starter, especially after Russia abandoned the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.
Yet, Russia and NATO countries, led by the United States, often have fundamental differences on issues such as European security architecture, missile defense cooperation, deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and Georgia. However, Russia and the alliance could cooperate in some areas of mutual interest.
Moscow could play a role in strengthening security in Afghanistan and Central Asia, since such stability is in Russia’s interests. First, cooperation between NATO and Russia over military logistics operations will supply NATO forces in Afghanistan, who in turn will combat the flow of drugs from that region. Second, Russia, who suffers from drug traffic emanating from that area, can contribute to the coalition forces, by cooperating with, and even training, Afghan anti-drug services and by supplying helicopters, light arms, and other security equipment with which the Afghans are familiar.
Russia’s civilian experts may participate in the reconstruction and even in post-conflict operations in Afghanistan if its government and the command of NATO and U.S. troops consent. As for the combat operations, Russia did not express interest in involving its forces in Afghanistan.
If the U.S. withdraws its forces from Afghanistan in haste and Afghanistan subsequently falls under the Taliban’s control, it will be a source and the exporter of Islamist extremism.
Another topic of negotiations between Russia and NATO could soon concern the interaction between alliance and Russian missile defense systems. Experts in the NATO headquarters in Brussels believe that both sides can benefit from the exchange of threat assessments. Exchange of data on common threats, including those relating to potential missile defense program cooperation, dispels the ideas that NATO has designed this missile defense system to mitigate the Russian nuclear deterrent. However, joint control of missile defenses is not on the agenda. Nor the NATO-Russia agreement on missile defense cooperation should become an agreement on Western missile defense limitations. These negotiations are politically and technically complicated, and no positive outcome can be guaranteed.
After bilateral talks with the U.S. President Barack Obama during the summit of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation organization in Japan, President Medvedev said that a meeting of NATO would mean “the improvement of relations between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” and noted that he was going to discuss issues relating to European missile defense systems at the Lisbon meeting with President Obama. These issues are important as Medvedev is championing a broad-ranging modernization program for Russia, including the military reform.
Unfortunately, in Moscow there are politicians and experts of the old school who promote continuous distrust between the West and Russia, leaders for whom such discord is politically and professionally beneficial. It creates a concept of a hostile encirclement [of Russia], consolidates people around the regime, and justifies the disproportionate growth of military expenses, often wasted or otherwise misspent.