The NATO Summit in Brussels: Implications for Russia

Lack of Change Makes Putin Tighten Black Sea Grip
A general view of a plenary session of NATO summit as leaders of member countries attend at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. (Getty)

On June 14th NATO held its 31st summit in Brussels. On the surface, at least, it looks like the transatlantic community is back on the same page, to its pre-Trump posture of unity, solidarity, and cohesion,” but at the same time “open a new chapter in transatlantic relations, at a time when the security environment we face is increasingly complex.” Major emphasis was put on the member nations’ commitment to strengthened resilience. U.S. President, Joe Biden, has been working hard to convince America’s allies that the U.S. is back on the world stage and is ready to reassert its leadership, and the NATO framework has offered him a great opportunity to keep promoting this point. Thus Mr. Biden’s firm statements at the summit regarding his full support for NATO came as no surprise. With this fully buy-in from the United States, NATO is set to move forward with its 2030 initiative focused on reinforcing the Alliance’s unity aimed at broadening its “approach to security and contribute to safeguarding the rules-based international order.” Russia’s “pattern of aggressive behavior” appeared front and center on the list of NATO’s “challenges of today and tomorrow” where “terrorism, cyber-attacks, and disruptive technologies, the rise of China, and the security implications of climate change” also appeared as major themes.

The official text listing key decisions made at the summit is titled “Strengthened Resilience Commitment” and speaks of an increasingly complex security environment which requires greater individual and collective resilience from the member states and allies:

“Under NATO 2030, we have agreed today to enhance our resilience. Noting that resilience remains a national responsibility, we will adopt a more integrated and better coordinated approach, consistent with our collective commitment under Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, to reduce vulnerabilities and ensure our militaries can effectively operate in peace, crisis and conflict. Allies will develop a proposal to establish, assess, review and monitor resilience objectives to guide nationally-developed resilience goals and implementation plans. It will be up to each individual Ally to determine how to establish and meet national resilience goals and implementation plans, allowing them to do so in a manner that is compatible with respective national competences, structures, processes and obligations, and where applicable those of the EU.”

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. (Getty)

The formal Summit Communique first explains how “NATO is a defensive Alliance and will continue to strive for peace, security, and stability in the whole of the Euro-Atlantic area.” The communique also reaffirms members’ commitment to the Article 5: “an attack against one Ally shall be considered an attack against us all” and promises the Alliance will “continue to pursue a 360-degree approach to protect and defend our indivisible security and to fulfil NATO’s three core tasks of collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security.” Very early on, in the third paragraph, the communique puts Russia on alert and lists it first in a list of key challenges facing the Alliance:

Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.  State and non-state actors challenge the rules-based international order and seek to undermine democracy across the globe.  Instability beyond our borders is also contributing to irregular migration and human trafficking.  China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”

The list of NATO member state grievances towards Russia is long. Under Putin’s leadership Moscow has managed to establish itself as an aggressor on a global scale. From its aggression in Ukraine to its support of the Assad regime in Syria, to waging cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns on the United States and Europe, NATO’s concern is well-merited.

“While NATO stands by its international commitments, Russia continues to breach the values, principles, trust, and commitments outlined in agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship.  We reaffirm our decisions towards Russia agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit and all our subsequent NATO meetings.  We have suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia, while remaining open to political dialogue.  Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’.”

The Brussels summit offered the opportunity to address more openly yet another problem area  in NATO’s backyard – Belarus. Lithuania’s president Nauseda told the summit leaders that Russia is trying to swallow Belarus and the Alliance must do more to deter Russia’s efforts there. Moscow’s recent designation of the United States and Czech Republic as “unfriendly countries” has also added fuel to the fire.

“We call on Russia to rescind the designation of the Czech Republic and the United States as ‘unfriendly countries’ and to refrain from taking any other steps inconsistent with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Russia’s growing multi-domain military build-up, more assertive posture, novel military capabilities, and provocative activities, including near NATO borders, as well as its large-scale no-notice and snap exercises, the continued military build-up in Crimea, the deployment of modern dual-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, military integration with Belarus, and repeated violations of NATO Allied airspace, increasingly threaten the security of the Euro-Atlantic area and contribute to instability along NATO borders and beyond.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference after his talks with President of USA Joe Biden at the US - Russia Summit 2021 at the La Grange Villa near the Geneva Lake on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting Russian President Putin in Geneva for the first time as presidents, on Wednesday. (Getty)

The communique explains how as part of its approach to Russia, NATO “will continue to respond to the deteriorating security environment by enhancing (its) deterrence and defense posture, including by a forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.” But what does this mean? After all, NATO posture clearly explains that the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia: “Decisions we have taken are fully consistent with our international commitments, and therefore cannot be regarded by anyone as contradicting the NATO-Russia Founding Act.” So, what are NATO’s options if it is truly committed to curbing the Russian threat?

 

So far we have seen that the Alliance very clearly grasps Russia’s malicious actions and is capable of keeping track of the growing list of Moscow’s assaults on the international rules-based order. But the communique falls short in setting this summit apart from all the previous ones where the list of Moscow’s offenses is regularly followed with “calls on Russia” to stop doing these things. There is also a lot of “standing in solidarity” with member-states like the Czech Republic: “In addition to its military activities, Russia has also intensified its hybrid actions against NATO Allies and partners, including through proxies. This includes attempted interference in Allied elections and democratic processes; political and economic pressure and intimidation; widespread disinformation campaigns; malicious cyber activities; and turning a blind eye to cyber criminals operating from its territory, including those who target and disrupt critical infrastructure in NATO countries.  It also includes illegal and destructive activities by Russian Intelligence Services on Allied territory, some of which have claimed lives of citizens and caused widespread material damage.  We stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic and other Allies that have been affected in this way.” 

The communique is also rich with “reiteration of support” for non-member, partner states like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine who are reaching a breaking point under Russian pressure: “We reiterate our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova within their internationally recognised borders.  In accordance with its international commitments, we call on Russia to withdraw the forces it has stationed in all three countries without their consent.  We strongly condemn and will not recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, and denounce its temporary occupation.”

In rare cases there is also mention of working closely together with Russia:

“Russia’s nuclear strategy and comprehensive nuclear weapon systems modernisation, diversification, and expansion, including the qualitative and quantitative increase of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons, increasingly support a more aggressive posture of strategic intimidation.  We will continue to work closely together to address all the threats and challenges posed by Russia.”

The communique concludes that that Allies “remain open to a periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue with a Russia willing to engage on the basis of reciprocity in the NRC, with a view to avoiding misunderstanding, miscalculation, and unintended escalation, and to increase transparency and predictability.  NRC meetings have helped us communicate clearly our positions, and we are ready for the next meeting of the NRC.  We will continue to focus our dialogue with Russia on the critical issues we face.  The conflict in and around Ukraine is, in current circumstances, the first topic on our agenda.  NATO remains committed to making good use of the existing military lines of communication between both sides to promote predictability and transparency, and to reduce risks, and calls on Russia to do so as well.  We continue to aspire to a constructive relationship with Russia when its actions make that possible.”

For years now these summits yield excellent summaries of Russia’s wrongdoings and document an increasing aggressive foreign policy of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The “calls” remain the same – NATO allies call on Russia to stop and reverse its aggressive policies. For years now the NATO-Russia council remains defunct, and the list of Moscow’s offenses grows with every communique. The Alliance has experienced major setbacks over the recent years – the Trump administration’s assaults and continued questioning of the purpose and viability of NATO deepened the previously existing identity crisis within this vast organization. If President Biden’s leadership implies the return of confidence and unity within NATO, that still cannot happen overnight. In the meantime, NATO’s eastern members and partners are losing precious time as with every year Russia’s hold on the Black Sea region deepens and its hunger for dominance over the Baltic Sea region grows more insatiable. NATO has not changed its language towards Russia, and has done nothing to enhance its policy toolkit to actually influence Moscow. Vladimir Putin, in return, uses this language to justify his decisions to keep enhancing Moscow’s increasingly militaristic, aggressive foreign policy – especially in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea regions, in the name of deterrence.

Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.