Russia and NATO meet for first time in almost two years: What progress?

Meetings between NATO and the Russian Federation were suspended following the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Does Wednesday's meeting represent substantive progress? 

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks after a NATO-Russia Council at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2016.

The NATO-Russia Council held its first official meeting in almost two years on Wednesday, a session some hoped would signal a thaw in relations.

The two entities have had an increasingly strained and complicated relationship, as a series of events has put them at loggerheads: the war in Syria, Russia's alleged incursion into Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, and, most recently, the harassment of US military assets by Russian jets in the Baltic Sea.

Most observers seem in agreement that while the very fact of the meeting is a form of progress in itself, any substantive steps forward are still lacking, and the road ahead is a complex one to navigate.

"It's good to have a conversation, even in a pressure-packed relationship," James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, says in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "The meeting was a good thing. I know Ambassador Grushko [Moscow's ambassador to NATO] quite well: he's a good representative for Russia, balanced."

"However, there is substantial pressure in the relationship, which is going to make any accommodations difficult," adds Admiral Stavridis, now dean of The Fletcher School of International Affairs just outside Boston.

Stavridis refers to the situation in Ukraine and Crimea as "a particularly troubling strategic challenge," alongside the difficulties in Syria, in which Western interests are pitted against Russia's, with the former invested in the Syrian opposition and the latter supporting President Bashar al-Assad.

As for the recent incidents involving Russian jets flying uncomfortably close to both a US naval ship and a US reconnaissance plane, Stavridis sees it as part of an increased assertiveness on the part of Russia, pushing back against NATO's presence by its borders.

Some analysts, however, such as former US ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, are less optimistic. At best, perhaps, the recent meeting represents only procedural progress. 

"We have to assume that Putin has authorized [Russian jets to engage in this activity] because it's so provocative and dangerous that the Russian military wouldn't be doing it on their own," Ambassador Taylor, now executive vice president at the US Institute of Peace, says in a telephone interview with the Monitor. "But can we figure out why they're buzzing NATO forces? No, because we can't figure out Putin."

The inscrutable nature of Russia's President Vladimir Putin is not the only cause for some analysts' alarm. Indeed, US Congressman Steve Chabot, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sees Putin as rather astute, able to evaluate leaders and their likely reaction. He laments Putin's seeming assessment that "there wouldn’t be any pushback" from the current US administration with regard to an invasion of Ukraine.

"Putin's analysis of Europe is they're not going to do anything either," says Congressman Chabot in a phone interview with the Monitor. "He sees them as a paper tiger. They've let their militaries go for the past decade or so.... I think it's a very dangerous situation." 

But there is a way forward. It is, as Stavridis puts it, "to cooperate wherever you can; confront where you must." 

There are four clear areas where Russian interests and NATO's interests align, he says: Afghanistan, counter-narcotics, counter-terror (particularly with regard to Islamic State), and piracy off the coast of Africa.

"We have to confront Russia when they invade or annex, or when they support a criminal regime like [President] Assad," Stavridis tells the Monitor. "On other hand we shouldn't look for confrontation, but we should look for cooperation – confidence-building projects, working together."

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