Nato and Russia are finally back in business with each other - and the diplomatic victory is Russia's

This week's meeting is also a victory for realism in foreign policy, on the part of east and west

Mary Dejevksy
Tuesday 19 April 2016 16:12
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David Cameron and Vladimir Putin
David Cameron and Vladimir Putin

Two years might seem but the twinkling of an eye in the great scheme of world affairs. In an age of instant communications, 24-hour news and an international default position that favours dialogue, however, two years is a very long time for the West and Russia not to have been talking. And this has been the formal position since June 2014, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation announced that the working of the Nato-Russia Council was to be suspended in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

This week, though, came the first signs that the atmosphere, if not yet the substance, of what we used to call East-West relations could be warming. This week, Nato ambassadors are scheduled to sit down with their Russian counterpart, Alexander Grushko, at Nato headquarters outside Brussels to discuss an agenda that includes all the troubled areas that East and West should be talking about: Ukraine, Syria, the greater Middle East, Afghanistan, perhaps also Iran.

The good news is that such an agenda suggests a reversion to something like an East-West normal. Desirable though that would be, however, there is also a need for clarity. That this meeting is happening at all marks a significant climb-down - and not by Russia. It is taking place only because the Western side, i.e. Nato, has decided that some talking is better than none. And this is quite a turnaround.

The wording of the Nato announcement was indicative. Highly defensive, it was designed to minimise the significance of this gathering, to suggest that Nato-Russia relations had continued at one level or another without a break, and that there could be no question of normalisation so long as Russia held on to Crimea.

This was true up to a point. Cooperation had continued on Afghanistan and Iran, and to an extent, discreetly, over Syria. But the particular initiative, the attitudinal change, that revived the Nato-Russia Council came from the Western side. It was the West that had blocked pretty much all channels of communications in the wake of Crimea, and it was the West that was now trying to re-establish them.

No new opening could be happening, of course, without the acquiescence of Russia, and the Kremlin has played its part - in not rejecting a series of deliberately understated Western initiatives. In February, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, Grushko, addressed a London military think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, in unusually conciliatory terms. And last month, a former Russian foreign minister turned think-tanker, Igor Ivanov - who tries to keep channels open to the West - delivered a similar message at a Chatham House security conference also in London.

Asked whether Russia was prepared to re-enter dialogue with Nato, he answered rhetorically, “Why not?” It was Nato, he pointed out, not Russia, that had suspended the Nato-Russia Council in the first place. And it was Nato that would have to mend the broken connections.

To this extent, this week’s Nato-Russia Council meeting represents a big diplomatic victory for Russia. More significantly, however, it constitutes a victory for realism in foreign policy, on the part of East and West.

In recent years, the running in east-west relations has been made by the ideologues and the idealists (not always the same thing). Ukraine tended to be seen as the next ideological battlefield, the next place where Western values were destined, in the end, to prevail.

This week’s meeting of the Nato-Russia Council is an acknowledgement by the Western side of two realities. First, that Ukraine is still contested territory, if you think in terms of East v. West. Second, that cutting off hard-won institutional channels of communications is not a sensible course.

The Nato-Russia Council was set up in 2002 as a consultative forum where tensions, real and potential, could be discussed. It was suspended - first in 2008 after the brief military confrontation on in Georgia, and second, in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea as fighting broke out in Ukraine. In both instances, it was ruled out of account at the very time when it should have been most useful.

Over the past two years there have been those - prominent among them the former Nato Secretary General, Lord Robertson - who have warned that the lack of any formal - or even informal - communications channels made the situation in Europe post-Ukraine potentially more unstable than during the whole of the Cold War.

There have also been think-tanks - such as the UK-based European Leadership Network, and others - advising that dialogue, whether official or through back-channels, was almost always preferable to its absence. Such voices were rarely heeded at government level, however, where being seen to rebuff Russian “aggression” was paramount. Few stopped to consider whether that “aggression” was action or - perhaps - reaction.

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One of the many flaws in this approach was the failure to provide for the inevitable rapprochement. Russia was told to end its involvement in eastern Ukraine and comply with the terms of the Minsk 2 agreement - which it has been doing - then told that there could be no improvement in relations until it handed back Crimea (which not even the Kiev government seriously expects Moscow to do).

This week’s meeting of the Nato-Russia Council offers the first hint that the realists may finally be gaining ground in the contest for Western Russia policy, the first acknowledgement by the West that in Ukraine it might have overplayed its hand, and the first evidence that - in the diplomatic jargon - Nato is trying to build an ‘off-ramp’.

It is just regrettable that it took two years and the suspension of the very forum set up to avert these sorts of post-Cold War risks before dialogue was allowed to make a comeback. Now is the time for both sides to take a deep breath and start again.

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