“We are prepared to go as far as NATO is prepared to go.” People who attended the NATO-Russia council meeting in Lisbon confided to me that this is what Dmitry Medvedev told the presidents and the prime-ministers of the allied countries. If this is indeed so, then Medvedev has embarked on a course that might see Russia’s national interests redefined in a dramatic way.
To be in the Portuguese capital at this moment was a significant time for someone like myself, who has covered Russia-NATO topics since the early 1990s. Here was the Russian leader ending nearly fifteen years of hostile rhetoric and finally admitting that the alliance is not a threat but rather a preferred partner for his country.
To me there were several important benchmarks in Medvedev’s performance. First, there was no mention of NATO enlargement as a threat to Russia’s security. This was a staple of Moscow’s set of key foreign policy messages ever since the mid-1990s. Although it can be argued that this time the question of alliance membership for Ukraine and Georgia is not on the agenda, and probably won’t be anytime soon, but this has never prevented the Russian leaders from voicing their intransigent attitude in the past.
Second and no less importantly, Medvedev has shown remarkable restraint with regard to Georgia. He called the events of 2008 a “crisis in the Caucasus” – something my former employers in the BBC could not have put more neutrally; refrained from any personal attacks on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (who met Barack Obama for the first time); and even linked the possibility of further discussions of the aftermath of 2008 events to the perspectives of Russia-NATO cooperation.
Third (and probably first from the point of view of the allies), Medvedev pledged Moscow’s increasing support for ISAF operations in Afghanistan and more military supplies to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Bearing in mind the fact that Karzai’s government is under growing criticism for inefficiency, cowardice and corruption, the Kremlin’s attitude can only be seen as a deliberate demonstration of solidarity with the alliance.
Fourth, Russia accepted NATO’s invitation to join work on creating a common system of ballistic missile defense. This is the most uncertain result of the Lisbon summit. No one can predict how the future BMD will operate, what will be its command structure, or who will be ultimately responsible for pressing the launch button. There is also the unresolved issue of the common threat assessment. Russia and some NATO allies, like Turkey, are reluctant to point the finger at Iran, still believing it to be susceptible to sanctions and other forms of diplomatic pressure.
However, it seems that the BMD project is viewed in NATO more in political and economic terms than purely military ones. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO and Russian defense ministers will start discussing the common threats’ issue soon, but no one will put any pressure on them to produce immediate results. Which suits Russia just fine for now. For its part, Moscow is interested in participating in a US-Europe technological pool that, NATO leaders hope, will eventually start working on the nuts and bolts of the BMD system.
Sceptics might say: “So what? Apart from some progress on Afghanistan, there is nothing of substance here.” And I would probably agree. However, Medvedev’s symbolic message of restraint on the one hand and constructive attitude on the other was unmistakeable.
There was a not entirely unexpected echo of the 1980’s era and Mikhail Gorbachev, when the Soviet president spoke about the arms race as an unacceptable economic burden for his country. Still there is a difference: Medvedev, quite expectedly, presented his policy as an expression of national interest rather than ideological choice as Gorbachev did in his time. Since the idealism of Gorbachev and Yeltsin is routinely portrayed in Russia as misguided at best and treacherous at worst, Medvedev’s attitude is understandable. He has to break the mold of decades of anti-Western propaganda to embark on a new course. This cannot be done overnight and the Russian president is a lawyer, who instinctively prefers to proceed rather carefully.
However, if the cooperation with NATO eventually rises to a qualitatively new level, there will be no way of avoiding the perennial question of my country’s relations with the West: Is it possible for Russia to cooperate with the United States and Europe without broadly sharing their values?
If, as Medvedev emphatically said, Russia does not exclude eventually raising the issue of NATO membership, it will have to become a Western-style democracy or at least show its firm desire to become one. Because this is what NATO allies are – democracies. Admittedly, this is not a topic for today. But in the era of rapid changes, it is not a theme for the next century either. Medvedev made a bold step in Lisbon. But now the really hard part begins.
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.
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.