NATO, Reinvented

By Sudeep Paul

Has Dmitry Medvedev successfully capitalised on his time as Russian president to pre-empt Vladimir Putin in bringing Moscow irreversibly close to the West? Not Yet. What happens within Russia is a different sport altogether. But one suspects that Putin (mark his silence), even if he’s still scripting his return to the top job in 2012, has lost some room for manoeuvre. The NATO-Russia partnership, post-Lisbon, is a reality, never mind all the circumspection. Global geopolitics had been calling for this realignment, and it’ll not be easy for a new Putin presidency to undo Russia’s change of course.

NATO’s Lisbon summit is a lesson in how it pays sometimes to discard or freeze the concerns of small states. The “Intermarum” — former Soviet satellites and Baltic states deeply suspicious of Moscow who insist on NATO’s continued eastwards expansion as their buffer against Russia — have lost out thanks to the compromise between “Core Europe” (Germany and France) and the “Atlanticists” (the US, UK, etc) on withdrawing from Afghanistan and securing ties with Moscow.

While there was disagreement about Afghanistan all along the run-up to Lisbon, Russia dovetailed the interests of the Paris-Berlin axis and Barack Obama’s goal of “re-setting” ties. Former Soviet satellites and the Baltic states, for all their historic wrongs at the hands of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, are out of joint with global geopolitical imperatives. History is not unfolding in Europe (notwithstanding Hungarian neo-fascists!), and not likely to in the visible future (notwithstanding the threat to the eurozone from the PIIGS).

Despite Medvedev’s rapport with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, the Atlanticist emphasis on new theatres of engagement and NATO’s evolution to handle evolving threat perceptions closely mirrors Moscow’s own. So, out of Lisbon, the US and “Old Europe” on one hand and Russia on the other emerged with gains. All of that is good news for India, which not only gets regional and global strategic room but also a scope to make up for lost time in engaging with NATO. NATO, after all, has done most of the right things in Lisbon.

On Afghanistan, Obama’s got his way. Stating that he definitely intends to end US combat missions by 2014, he has nevertheless qualified American engagement by declaring it “hard to anticipate” four years in advance. That’s behind the document NATO signed confirming its security commitment to Afghanistan post-2014 and its insistence on checking ground reality at each step, starting next July when the transition begins. The unpopularity of the Afghan war pinches NATO’s European leaders harder and they needed a date to reassure public opinion. Yet, the promise of keeping an eye on Kabul should dissuade the Taliban from lying in wait till 2014.

To stabilise Afghanistan, the alliance needs Russian help. NATO has secured that — Moscow is enabling alternative supply routes to Afghanistan via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, bypassing the near-impossible Pakistani routes. It’s also going to upgrade the training of Afghan security forces and collaborate on piracy and terror.

However, missile defence demonstrates how the Georgian war of 2008 has been buried. The European missile shield being a core cause of Russia’s tensions with the West, Moscow had to be brought on board. For this, NATO took the diplomatic call sometime ago in emphasising that the missiles were looking at proliferating regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, not at Moscow. Russia has agreed to explore the invitation. It’s not joining yet. Moreover, NATO wants its new integrated missile system to be separate from Russia’s and Medvedev insists on full information exchange and a primary Russian role in jointly developing the new system. Russia’s not joining yet, but it’s almost there.

An unsettled issue that might eat into the Lisbon success is the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Medvedev wants the US to ratify the treaty immediately and Obama has forced it upon the lame-duck US Senate, hoping to get it ratified before a fiercer

Republican Party enters Congress next year. Obama’s European allies dread the prospect of New START failing, thereby jeopardising action on Iran and Russia’s own weapons deployed close to East Europe.

Obama’s outreach was pivoted on the definition of Russia as a “partner, not an adversary”. Medvedev reciprocated saying Moscow’s actions will be “symmetrical” to Washington’s. Russia, therefore, will be closely watching Obama’s every move. NATO’s new Strategic Concept (mission statement) cuts costs by shutting down redundant headquarters and agencies. This trimming was long overdue to fit the alliance into smaller defence purses and focus expenditure on new-age threats like cyber terror. These last are significant achievements that may keep NATO alive several decades after the Cold War. Yet, without the roadmap with Russia, Lisbon couldn’t roundly be called a success. That partnership is meant to end NATO’s existential crisis.