26 June 2006 - NATO-RUSSIA COOPERATION STILL HINDERED BY MISPERCEPTIONS AND LACK OF TRUST [Press Release]
Despite good cooperation at the practical level, NATO-Russia relations still appear hindered by a lack of understanding and trust, particularly on the Russian side. Western and Russian members of parliament meeting at a Rose-Roth seminar in Sochi, Russia, from June 22-24, agreed that more transparency and dialogue was necessary to overcome this basic dichotomy and permit the strategic relationship ‑ an essential element in resolving the conflicts in the South Caucasus ‑ to fulfil its potential. The seminar, jointly organised by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, gathered some 40 legislators from NATO and partner countries, as well as members of governments, NATO officials, academics and civil society representatives under the theme: "Russia-NATO: Security Issues in the South Caucasus".
Most participants agreed that Russia and the Alliance had established a useful framework of cooperation at both the intergovernmental and parliamentary levels. However, Russian participants showed very sharp concerns about NATO and its relations with countries in former-Soviet area. Duma members declared that Russia needed to “defend its national interests” against the “encirclement” from NATO, which was demonstrated in particular by the Alliance’s relationship with Ukraine and Georgia. NATO PA members criticised this attitude as representative of Cold War rhetoric. NATO, they contended, has transformed itself radically since 1989 and enlargement is not intended as a strategy “against” any other country.
Nevertheless, many contributors tried to highlight the distinction between public and media attitudes in Russia as compared with the practical cooperation actually going on between Russia and Western countries. “The top-level dialogue and media reporting are all tough talk”, said a Moscow-based Western academic, “but below the surface, there is much that goes on to contradict that negativity”. In particular, Russia and Western countries have developed a successful relationship in the areas of counter-proliferation and the fight against terrorism and organised crime. The G-8 Global Partnership initiative as well as common diplomatic efforts in the context of the United Nations to solve the Iran nuclear crisis were cited as good examples of constructive cooperation.
Both NATO and Russian officials described NATO-Russia military cooperation as a success story. A military Work Plan, designed to increase the interoperability of NATO and Russian forces, started in 2003 and includes common exercises at all levels, training of Russian military and civilian personnel. Russia and the Alliance are also working together in critical areas such as Theatre Missile Defence, nuclear weapon accident response, and submarine escape and rescue exercises. This, however, is largely ignored by the Russian public, which, according to a NATO official, is fundamentally “out of step with the policy of the Russian government”.
Accordingly, some Russian parliamentarians declared their total mistrust of Alliance’s intentions also in the military sphere. One of them defined NATO as “the Pentagon’s foreign legion” and others indicated that they considered the establishment of US military bases in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as the conduct of NATO exercises in Crimea, as direct threats to the Russian Federation. Conversely, one Russian speaker also highlighted the ambiguity of the Russian government and military establishment, which perpetuated the idea of NATO as “a danger” in order to overcome the morale problems of the Russian armed forces. This was not reflected in the perceptions of Russia in NATO countries, creating a sort of “imbalance of trust”.
NATO’s relations with the countries of the South Caucasus were also seen as encroaching on Russia’s “sphere of influence”. With regard to the unresolved conflicts in that region, Russian participants insisted on the contrast between the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of self‑determination, indicating that in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia the latter was in their view predominant. They also compared these crises with that of Kosovo, where NATO was “favouring Kosovo Albanians’ self-determination against Serbia’s sovereignty rights”, hence criticising the West’s “double standards”. Western participants objected that all existing UN Security Council resolutions recognised the territorial integrity of Georgia, whilst in Kosovo international law had put into question Serbia’s territorial integrity and right to oversee Kosovo.
With regard to practical cooperation to solve the conflicts in the South Caucasus, many indicated that Western countries and Russia should work more together and help the parties to apply a step-by-step approach. Such approach, according to a Western expert, should focus “first on security issues – i.e. demilitarisation (in the South Ossetian case), and the signature of a non resumption of armed hostilities documents (in the Abkhaz case)”, then on “confidence building” and the creation of economic and civil society links. This appeared more difficult to achieve in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ‑ where some Russian speakers lamented a lack of significant international engagement ‑ but in all conflicts the implementation of infrastructure rehabilitation, economic development and civil society programmes appears crucial to break the isolation that the people in these entities live in.
Energy security was also debated in Sochi and emerged as another powerful irritant in Russian-Western relations. European participants criticised Russia's apparent willingness to wield energy endowments upon which Europe depends for political ends. One speaker also criticised the concentration of Russian energy resources into the hands of few, state-controlled enterprises. Russian participants dismissed such accusations and retorted that oil and gas prices were simply dictated by market laws.
In the concluding session of the seminar, a lengthy debate focused on the role of media and how anti-Western and anti-NATO perceptions or “myths” deeply rooted in Russian public opinion were exploited and encouraged by them. On the other hand, Russian participants lamented the overwhelmingly negative image of their country in Western media, concentrating mainly on corruption, organised crime and social injustice and downplaying the achievements of the Russian government. All participants indicated that both the Alliance and Russia needed to work on the question of public perceptions and on the “imbalance of trust” through an enhanced public diplomacy strategy. NATO PA meetings could actively contribute to such strategy by favouring a more intense and focused interparliamentary dialogue.