What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Russian politicians are always keen to quote Emperor Alexander III, who famously remarked that Russia has only two friends: its Army and its Navy. This statement, lifted from a totally different historical context, is supposed to serve as proof that the country needs no partnership with the West, and especially with NATO. When President Dmitry Medvedev decided to join leaders of the alliance during their summit in Lisbon, he went against the spirit that still prevails in Moscow's political circles.
He made this an official line while meeting the 46th Munich Security Conference participants in the Russian capital. Medvedev admitted that in Russia "there is the sense that NATO is some kind of aggressive element." "This is in many respects a mistake," he opined. For a Russian leader to utter this was unthinkable even a year ago when relations between Moscow and the alliance were pulled out of the political refrigerator, where they were locked since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
There seems to be several reasons for this cautious and still by no means definitive change of direction. It seems that there is a gradual reassessment in progress of the way Russia deals with the outside world. This is a result of a sober analysis of several factors: economic crisis that has shown that the country’s economy is inexorably linked to the global markets – and is, by some estimates, the weakest of the G20 nations; troubled demographics, directly and indirectly affecting national security issues; the rather shaky condition of the Russian armed forces undergoing painful reforms with a still uncertain outcome. The much-ridiculed intention of the Russian Navy to acquire “Mistral” ships from the French is but a symptom of a larger malaise – chronic shortage of modern weaponry, which the nation’s industry is still – or yet - incapable of reducing.
And of course, the rise of China, which has lots of cash, increasingly treats Russia like a junior partner, elbows her out of Central Asian markets and robustly competes with her in the international arms markets – frequently selling back-engineered and updated versions of Russia’s own military hardware.
All this made lots of influential people in Moscow reevaluate the country’s potential and the real dangers it faces. Having the world’s largest military force - 3 million Chinese officers and men- sitting on your eastern border, and one of the planet’s most unpredictable and treacherous regimes – the Iranian – brandishing threats of nuclear Armageddon on your southern one, provides for an uncomfortable geopolitical surrounding.
While notionally Russia has its own “mini-NATO,” the Collective Security Treaty, this organization has proven to be ineffective. Moscow’s allies spectacularly refused even to consider supporting its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. They were unwilling to help the government of Kyrgyzstan last summer, when it was pleading for assistance to quell the ethnic riots in the southern city of Osh. On top of this, the Russian leadership is locked in an increasingly fierce stand off with Belarusian President Alexander Lukshenko, nominally a key military ally. With such friends, who needs enemies?
Against such a backdrop, Russia-NATO relations with all their ups and downs look like a stable and at least modestly successful enterprise. If one looks back at the thirteen years that have passed since the signing of the NATO-Russia Charter in Paris, there were thousands of exchanges, seminars, training exercises, which, although never managing to break the mould of mistrust, nevertheless contributed to Russia and the alliance getting to know each other better. Moscow did not stop providing vital transit for the NATO-led International Security Force in Afghanistan even at the height of disagreements over Georgia. In short, even if in many a Russia eye NATO is the devil, it is a devil that is known pretty well by now.
The “reset” of Russian-American relations provides Moscow with a much-needed exit from a cul-de-sac of anti-Western rhetorical clichés without losing face. Russia now has the chance of a lifetime to mend its ties with NATO and the West in general and fill them with new meaning. The Russian public remains largely under the influence of years of relentless anti-NATO and anti-Western media campaigns, especially on Russian TV. So the change of attitude, if it really is afoot, will probably not be presented as a meeting of minds and values as it was during a failed attempt at rapprochement in the early 1990s, but rather as a hard pragmatic choice made in the national interest. Still there is no doubt that this decision will eventually have tangible domestic consequences if it is to be implemented in earnest. However, even if the NATO-Russia rapprochement fail again this time, it is still bound to remain the only viable game in town if Russia is to become what it states it wants to be: a respected power among the world’s leading nations.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.