Mr. Medvedev goes to Lisbon

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has accepted an invitation to meet with NATO leaders at a summit in Lisbon in November. Whether this meeting will fundamentally change NATO/Russia relations, however, depends on both sides.

Mr. Medvedev is coming to Lisbon, after all. This is good news. More important, however, is what comes out of the NATO-Russia Council summit scheduled for Nov. 20. If it is another declaration about the final-final end of the Cold War, the momentum that has been building over the past 18 months for a new relationship between Russia and the West will start dissipating and will eventually die down amid the political campaigns of 2012. What NATO and Russia need at this juncture is a political decision to move ahead with several major practical projects that would transform their relationship and, in the process of doing so, generate a modicum of trust.

The first major decision Medvedev and his NATO colleagues need to make is to agree on the parameters of Russia’s collaboration with the alliance on the issues of European missile defense. There are many caveats here that need be taken into account. Russia will not be simply joining NATO’s future system, and for a good reason: Moscow wants to be strategically independent, and that should be respected. By the same token, a joint system, in which Moscow will share in control and have the right to veto U.S./NATO decisions, will never be acceptable to Washington or Brussels, and should not be sought by the Kremlin.

Instead, the United States/NATO and Russia, who have already spent much time discussing their respective threat assessments and discovered much common ground between them, can start working to bring to life the Joint Data Exchange Center to monitor missile launches. The agreement to establish the center dates back to 2000, but the Bush administration later lost interest. The mission of the center could be broadened to include all missile launches, anywhere in the world. Also, the enterprise, which was initially a U.S-Russia joint project, could be expanded to include other NATO countries. At the next level, U.S./NATO and Russian missile defense assets could be linked in a coordinated system in which each partner would be controlling its own weapons and responsible for specified zones of operation. That scale, depth and degree of cooperation would create the critical mass sufficient to start transforming residual strategic competition into 21st century strategic collaboration.

A second decision, which in the 21st century should be parallel to missile defense, would be to launch a cybersecurity initiative that would pool NATO’s and Russia’s resources in order to detect, protect from, and defend against cyber attacks. NATO and Russia have an equal stake in making sure that the very functioning of their societies is not disrupted by utterly unconventional means and by highly non-traditional attackers. Now, at the beginning of the Cyber Age, organizing and institutionalizing such cooperation, virtually unburdened by the legacy of the Cold War, is a most promising and forward-looking exercise.

A third major decision would be to open the door to military technical cooperation between NATO and Russia. In many NATO countries, defense budgets are being cut. Russia, in contrast, has just embarked on a program of defense modernization and rearmament. Moscow has even started shopping for arms abroad, to the bewilderment and disappointment of the domestic military industrial complex. A better way than buying off the shelf, though, would be to engage in joint research, development and co-production of weapons systems. This makes sense from a number of angles: strategic, political and commercial. There are many areas where such cooperation is possible, from shipbuilding to communications to aerospace.

A fourth decision, also of a vital nature would be to found a NATO-Russia “college” to train military officers and civilians to do the tasks of cooperation across the broad range of security issues, from anti-piracy to anti-drugs, to missile defense to industrial cooperation. The college’s principal mission would be to engender and foster team spirit among its students, who would then use that experience to promote cooperation on behalf of the Russian Federation and the alliance. Without such a corps of well-trained, dedicated and open-minded people on both sides, no integrative projects agreed to at the highest levels can be successfully implemented.

None of the above is uncontroversial. There are skeptics, and there are opponents to each proposal on both sides. All decisions would require leadership, perseverance and courage. At the start of each decade since the end of the Cold War, there was a window for Russia-NATO rapprochement. Boris Yeltsin wanted full-scale integration into the institutions of the West, but those hopes evaporated during the NATO bombings of Serbia. Vladimir Putin began by promoting an alliance with the U.S. and NATO, and ended up fighting in the Caucasus. Now, it is Medvedev’s turn. Whether this time the two sides will finally change the game does not wholly depend on Medvedev and Putin.

Dmitri Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

With permission from Russia Beyond the Headlines

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