NATO has been quite busy this week, with much of the interesting activity at the on-going NATO summit revolving around Russia. The main question is: How much should NATO respect or defer to Russian concerns? All states have legitimate security concerns, and with a state as large as Russia, NATO would be wise to pay some heed to those concerns. But, is Russia still a world power that demands that NATO back away from its own security concerns? How much leverage does Russia still have? How much does it still deserve?
The questions are all present in the two main issues under discussion: NATO's possible expansion into Ukraine and Georgia -- former Soviet republics -- and the proposed missile defense system that the US wishes to build in Eastern Europe. In spite of Russian objections, NATO decided to endorse the European missile shield. Russian officials have repeatedly expressed their concerns over the system: Russian President Putin has warned that deploying such a system could fuel a new arms race, while Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian Parliament has said "said Russia doubted Washington’s motives. “We still do not have a proper explanation of this project,” he said. “It is not about the number of interceptors. It’s about undermining mutual confidence and trust.”"
On the other hand, NATO has been unable to agree on offering Ukraine and Georgia membership in Membership Action Plans, a program that prepare states to join NATO. Both Germany and France are opposed to the move, arguing that "since neither Ukraine nor Georgia is stable enough to enter the program now, a membership plan would be an unnecessary offense to Russia, which firmly opposes the move."
The first problem is that NATO got its priorities exactly backwards. Both programs are likely to antagonize Russia, but if NATO was only to get one of the two (missile defense or NATO expansion) it should have gone with NATO expansion. I've written several times about the folly of deploying missile defense systems (quick summary of my view: it's technically possible, but the threat of ballistic missile attack by a rogue state does not justify the massive amounts of money). But NATO expansion is one of the most powerful pacific forces of the post-Cold War era. The transformation of NATO from a security organization to a democratization organization has resulted in democracy becoming entrenched in most of Central and Eastern Europe. Spreading NATO up to Russia's borders will all but ensure that war in Europe is a thing of the past. Both Ukraine and Georgia have shown themselves to be willing and able allies of the US and the West, and Russia has demonstrated a disturbing willingness to involve itself in the affairs of its former partners. Contrary to the predictions of realists, the persistence and expansion of NATO are essential to cementing the spread of democracy and preserving the current moment of European peace. If NATO is to upset Russia about one thing, it should have been NATO expansion, not missile defense.
But the other, and more fundamental, question is: Should NATO be paying attention to Russian concerns at all? Today's Russia is certainly not the Soviet Union of the Cold War. It is a second-, if not third-, rate military power now, it is moving away from democracy and the rule of law, its economy is a mess. Does Russia deserve the kind of respect and deference due a great power? Answering that question requires a look at what a cooperative Russia has to offer, and what an upset Russia could do to interfere with the West's interests.
There are few issues on which the West would certainly prefer to have a cooperative Russia. Russia does seem to have more influence than anyone else over Iran and Iran's nuclear program. Russia provides large amounts of oil and natural gas to Europe. On the other hand, Russia's membership in the G-8 is more of a sop to Russian pride than it is due to Russian economic power. The much-fretted-over rapprochement between Russia and China in 2005 that some analysts took as a sign of impending balancing against the US and the West has produced little tangible shifts in power, capabilities, or even intentions.
NATO certainly neither needs nor wants to provoke Russia unnecessarily. But it does seem as if too much deference is being given the once-Great Bear. Russia probably cares more about NATO expansion up to its borders than it does about the ABM system, which perhaps explains why NATO rejected the former and approved the latter. But maybe that concern should have been reason enough to do the opposite. Russian security concerns should be taken into account. But to allow those concerns to move NATO away from its pacific mission is the wrong choice.