NATO Secretary General announces a full review of co-operation with Russia alongside an intensification of training and other contact with Ukraine’s military
By Ian Davis, NATO Watch
NATO announced yesterday a full review of its cooperation with Russia to try to pressure Moscow into backing down on Ukraine, and said it would "intensify" its engagement with Ukraine. NATO Foreign Ministers will further review these steps when they meet in early April.
Following a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) at NATO HQ in Brussels, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will continue to meet with Moscow at the political level (via meetings of ambassadors in the NRC) but insisted that halting all other cooperation "sends a very clear message to Russia". The suspension of all staff-level civilian and military meetings with Russia also includes a proposed joint mission with Russia involving the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.
The NRC is the official forum for discussions and contacts between NATO and Russia, and is regularly convened, for example, during Alliance ministerial gatherings. Russia has a wide range of other contacts with NATO, for example, in relation to Afghanistan and in combating terrorism.
Rasmussen said the situation in Ukraine presented "serious implications for the security and stability" in the region and that Russia "continues to violate" Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He added:
As Chairman of the NATO-Russia Council, it is my duty to uphold the principles on which our relationship is founded. Those fundamental principles are now at stake. Our joint pledge to observe in good faith our obligations under international law. And our commitment to refrain from the threat or use of force against each other, or any other state. So I asked the Russian Ambassador to convey NATO’s firm message to Moscow.
Rasmussen also outlined measures that NATO would be taking to support Ukraine:
We will step up our engagement with the Ukrainian civilian and military leadership. We will strengthen our efforts to build the capacity of the Ukrainian military, including with more joint training and exercises. And we will do more to include Ukraine in our multinational projects to develop capabilities.
After the NRC meeting Rasmussen met the President of the European Council, Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, although no details of their discussion were released. The Secretary General is also due to meet the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mr. Arsenii Yatseniuk, at NATO HQ later today.
Alexander Grushko, Russia's Permanent Representative at NATO, expressed his disappointment with the outcome of the NRC meeting:
Russia had expected it would feature a discussion where it we would be able to clarify our approaches to the settlement of the situation in Ukraine. But at the very beginning of the meeting, the NATO secretary general announced that the NATO Council had preferred not to wait till our today’s meeting and had passed a decision to suspend cooperation in certain areas.
Such an approach, according to the Russian NATO ambassador, ran counter to all basic documents of the NRC "that state that before taking any decisions, Russia and the NATO countries would discuss problems, begin dialogue and try to agree a common position". "Today’s meeting was another evidence that NATO operates double standards and uses the Cold War stereotypes in respect of Russia," Grushko noted. "This is what we have been speaking against for years. We want to transform the structure of relations between Russia and NATO not in the format ‘one against twenty-eight’ or ‘one plus twenty-eight’ but as a pool of states that use the platform of the Russian-NATO Council to clarify their national approaches."
"The meeting was just the reading out national statements," he said, adding that the Russian side was sorry that there had been no in-depth dialogue:
At the same time, I would like to note that we could not help being surprised at persistent attempts to picture the situation as a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which is not existent and cannot exist whatsoever. All security threats, if any, stem entirely from the catastrophic domestic situation in Ukraine, which, to a greater extent, developed that way because many Western countries had exerted open pressure on public opinion in Ukraine urging it to draw 'the right conclusions'. We see the way to solve the current problems in restoring the rule of law. The basis should be the February 21 agreement attested by foreign ministers of three NATO countries. This agreement provided for the formation of a representative government that must take into account the interests of all political forces and regions of the country, the launch of a constitutional reform and subsequent presidential elections. Naturally, the constitutional reform must also take due account of interests of all minorities and regions. This is we think to be a way out of this situation.
The NATO announcement came as European and US diplomats broke off a meeting in Paris with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he would meet Lavrov in Rome today to continue discussions on how to "de-escalate" the situation in the Crimea. Earlier in the day, Lavrov said that the soldiers deployed to Crimea were not Russian, and that he could not order the "self defence" forces back to their bases because they did not answer to Moscow. On Tuesday, Putin said Ukraine's current leaders had come to power as the result of an unconstitutional coup.
In Washington, US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was preparing to bolster military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states to show "support" for its allies after Russia's intervention. The measures include expansion of aviation training in Poland and increasing the US role in NATO's air policing mission over Baltic countries. These moves are in keeping with the recommendations of Ivo Daalder, President Obama's former ambassador to NATO until just last year, who said: "In my view the next step ought to be to have reinforcements flown into Poland and the Baltic states and perhaps to Romania in order to demonstrate that our commitment to their defence is real".
The US has a small team of about 10 airmen stationed in Poland to support military training efforts, while NATO has been conducting air patrols over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for 10 years, as they do not have viable air forces. The United States assumed control over NATO's Baltic air policing duties in January, taking over from Belgium, which previously had the four-month rotating duty.
The NRC meeting with the Russian ambassador to NATO took place just one day after a second emergency gathering of NATO ambassadors on the Ukraine crisis. The meeting on Tuesday took place at Poland’s request to discuss the crisis within the framework of Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. “Under Article 4 of the treaty, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” a statement said. The meeting focused on the need to review the situation regularly and to keep member states fully informed. Article 4 meetings are rare but were held most recently after Turkey feared a spillover from the conflict in Syria.
White House officials are reported to see three possible next steps by Moscow: escalation into eastern Ukraine; staying put in Crimea, either through annexation or through de facto rule; or agreeing to let international monitors replace Russian troops in Crimea and hopefully accepting the Ukrainian government that emerges from the May elections. While the third option appears to the game plan of the White House and most Western diplomats, all the indications so far (including the vote by MPs in Crimea to join Russia) seem to suggest that Putin is looking to effectively freeze in place its occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.
As Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund argues:
This situation bears all the hallmarks of several long-standing, often referred to as "frozen", conflicts in Eastern Europe. In Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is contested by Armenia and Azerbaijan, or in Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, which have seceded from Georgia, Russia has long propped up separatists, providing political backing, military support, funding and passports. This undermines the stability of its smaller neighbors, challenges those nations' sovereignty, blocks domestic reforms, and impedes European integration.
If this analysis is correct, would US and NATO allies be forced to tacitly accept that reality or could they find a way to roll it back — and, if so, at what price?
NATO Watch Comment
Moscow's occupation of Crimea was fairly predictable and understandable, yet remains illegitimate nonetheless. But as with China over Tibet, for example, the US and its NATO allies know they are dealing with a major power and thereby need to proceed with caution. To date, most of the emphasis has rightly focused on urgent and sometimes private diplomacy with Moscow to encourage Putin to back down without avoidable loss of face. Germany, in particular, has shown commendable leadership in seeking a sensible and measured response.
However, the cracks in the tenuous transatlantic consensus are starting to widen with a number of voices within the US and NATO beginning to advocate greater muscle flexing towards Moscow. This is a mistake and is only likely to exacerbate 'East-West' tensions and harden positions in Moscow. It is hard to see, for example, any benefits from suspending planning for the first NATO-Russia joint naval mission to escort shipments of Syria's chemical weapons. Not only is this cooperation part of a wider 'public good' in terms of securing and destroying Assad's stockpile of chemical weapons, cooperation with Russia will continue to be a necessity in seeking peaceful resolution of the Syria conflict and in finding long-term solutions in Afghanistan and Iran.
Nor is it particularly helpful to see US and NATO officials lecturing Moscow on the merits of international law. The US also has a chequered history of military intervention and interference in its "near abroad" under the Monroe Doctrine, as well as via other spurious geostrategic adventures in clear violation of international law, as in Grenada in 1983 and Iraq in 2003.
It is likely that Russia could live with a pro-western government in Kiev developing closer economic ties with the EU, but it is the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO that is always going to remain unacceptable.
A peaceful solution to the conflict would be for Ukraine to pursue constitutional neutrality, as is the case in Austria and Finland. As Henry Kissinger suggests in a thoughtful opinion piece in the Washington Post, this would enable Ukraine to function as a "bridge" between East and West, thereby allowing economic and political cooperation with both Russia and the EU without threatening Russian strategic interests. A solution that keeps everybody happy, with the possible exception of the Ukrainians in Crimea not of Russian extraction, is about as good an outcome as can be anticipated at this stage. But such a solution remains a long way from being realised and is not helped by sabre rattling inside NATO HQ, which once again seems to be slavishly following the Washington lead.