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Can NATO Nudge Russia Westward?

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, CFR Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 20, 2010

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The trilateral summit between French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made some gains in drawing Russia closer to NATO, with Russia agreeing to attend the NATO summit in Lisbon next month and leaving the door open to discussing cooperation on a European defense shield. CFR's Charles A. Kupchan says the effort has been difficult because many Russians, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are skeptical of the West's intentions and many new NATO members from the former Soviet bloc are uncomfortable about closer ties with Russia. A key issue was NATO's effort to forge a Europe-wide missile defense that would include Russia--a discussion that began during the Bush administration, says Kupchan, who adds that Russia is suspicious about whether NATO and the European Union are sincere in their bid to make "Russia a card-carrying member of the Euro-Atlantic community."

What was the point of this unusual Franco-German-Russian summit?

This kind of three-way summit is not so unusual. In the weeks before the Iraq War, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met to stand up to the United States and try to head off the war. This summit had a very different backdrop, in that you now have--in all three capitals--leaders who are much more pro-American and Atlanticist. So this summit by no means took the form of a group to balance the United States or to do things behind the United States' back. What this meeting was really about is an effort to explore an alternative route for drawing Russia westward and anchoring it in the Euro-Atlantic community. A conversation on that subject has been taking place within NATO, and NATO is expected to say something about this topic at the upcoming summit in Lisbon on November 19 and 20. But that conversation has been difficult, in part because there are many NATO members from central Europe who aren't too comfortable on reaching out to Russia.

You mean mostly the former members of the Soviet bloc?

That's correct. So, this summit was an effort to discuss the issue in a smaller forum, to get the major European powers to brainstorm about new linkages between Europe and the Russian Federation. On the table was discussion of a European Union-Russia consultative council that might look a little bit like the existing NATO-Russia consultative council. But Russia doesn't like the NATO council because it feels like a second-class citizen; it feels as if it is one country meeting with twenty-eight NATO members. In its discussions with the EU, it hopes to be able to carve out a more elevated status.

The discussion over missile defense is a proxy for a much broader discussion about whether NATO and the EU are still hedges against Russia or whether these institutions are sincerely interested in opening their doors to Russia and making Russia a card-carrying member of the Euro-Atlantic community.

At the recent NATO foreign and defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, there was considerable discussion about a proposed European missile defense, which will be a main topic in Lisbon.

The effort to bring Russia into the missile defense system began even before Obama took office. While the Bush administration was still running the show, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Moscow and spoke to the Russians about this issue but didn't make much progress. Obama has revamped the missile defense program, and as part of that overhaul the administration is now working with its NATO allies, both to get unanimous approval for this system from NATO and to get the Russians to participate. That goal has not yet been achieved. The discussion over missile defense is a proxy for a much broader discussion about whether NATO and the European Union are still hedges against Russia or whether these institutions are sincerely interested in opening their doors to Russia and making Russia a card-carrying member of the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia remains suspicious, and that's why it continues to keep its distance from missile defense and from NATO. It's safe to say this is an issue that provokes great domestic controversy in Moscow. Even Medvedev, who may be more forward-leaning on these issues, faces Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the military, and a bureaucracy that still harbors resentment and suspicion, particularly toward the NATO alliance.

The Russian military has often talked about the European missile defense, particularly when it was proposed in the Bush administration, as a possible cover for a first strike against Russia. Right?

Russian objections are primarily a function of paranoia and perception. That's to say, they're uncomfortable seeing missile interceptors and radar systems deployed in central Europe, not far from their borders. It's a sign of how much Russia has been cut out of European security. There is a degree of legitimacy in Russian objections, in as much as it is possible that the radar deployed for the missile defense system could be used to look into Russia, and that the installations used for the interceptors could be used for missiles that could be targeted against Russia. Those are some of the objections that the Russians have voiced. But their real objections are much more about symbolism than concern about the impact of the missile defense system on Russia's deterrent because, frankly, the size and scope of this system under consideration would have no effect whatsoever on the integrity of Russia's deterrent.

What's caused this great wave of strikes in France? Is it simply Sarkozy's effort to raise the retirement and pension age a couple of years?

The French have a long history of civil disobedience, so it's not all that unusual that workers and students are taking to the streets. This is one piece of a story taking place in many different parts of Europe, where the governments are imposing austerity programs of one sort or another to try to address deficits and get out of the financial crisis. The cutbacks in Britain are even more draconian than what's happening in France. There, the main issue has been the raising the retirement age, but this is part of a broader conversation that's taking place as Europe is dealing with the fact that its cradle-to-grave welfare state is insolvent and that major changes are needed to address the fact that the systems can't survive in their current form. The French public is fighting back, but it seems to me that it's really only a question of when, not if, these changes are made, because they are essential to the economic welfare of major continental economies, including France.

The trick will be to pocket any gains that are made in this summit and expand the conversation into a broader Russia-EU-NATO context, because as the NATO-Russia conversation moves ahead and the EU-Russia conversation moves ahead, it's very important for the EU and NATO to coordinate their policies vis-a-vis Russia.

What's going on domestically in Germany? Has Merkel survived her problems that arose a few months ago when she refused to bail out Greece?

Merkel remains a reasonably popular leader, even though I would say the German government as a whole continues to face difficulties over domestic economic reform, and over the mission in Afghanistan. Probably the most important story vis-a-vis Germany right now is discomfort with Germany across Europe. In the wake of the financial crisis in Greece and Merkel's reluctance to approve a bailout, there's a growing sense across Europe that Germany is increasingly focusing its interests in national terms rather than in European terms. That is raising concerns about whether Germany will continue to play the role of Europe's engine, and how intact the Franco-German coupling is as the foundation for the European Union.

In some ways, one could cast the debate in the following way: that Germany is becoming more of a "normal" nation. It is more normal in the sense that Germans are becoming more comfortable talking about the national interest and talking about patriotism. The problem is that Europe has thrived on Germany not being a normal nation. It's thrived on Germany identifying its own interests with the welfare of Europe. In that sense, the debate about where Germany is headed is part of a bigger debate about whether the EU is, perhaps, running out of political momentum as a process of re-nationalization takes place in Germany and across the EU.

I just want to touch a bit on Medvedev. How strong is he as a leader, or is he really taking his guidance from Putin, who everyone thinks is just waiting to be reelected as president?

I don't think anybody knows how to characterize the balance of power between Medvedev and Putin. There's no question that Putin remains a very influential figure. The last few months have seen maneuvers that suggest that Putin may well run for the presidency again, in which case Medvedev would certainly be demoted. With his firing of the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, recently Medvedev seemed to have strengthened his hand and over time, he has been able to bring into the Kremlin more of his own team, to some extent pushing out some of Putin's team. But it's safe to say the Russian government effectively has two heads of state, and that Medvedev and Putin--even if there are moments of rivalry--govern together.

Washington is so preoccupied with domestic politics right now, no one is talking about this three-way summit. Isn't this unusual?

It's not getting a lot of attention in the United States, mainly for the reason that you mentioned: Everything is focused on the midterm elections. But also, this Deauville summit was very much an initial conversation. It was a brainstorming session. The trick down the road will be to pocket any gains that were made in this summit and expand the conversation into a broader Russia-EU-NATO context, because as the NATO-Russia conversation moves ahead and the EU-Russia conversation moves ahead, it's very important for the EU and NATO to coordinate their policies vis-a-vis Russia.

So this was the beginning of a conversation that will continue next month at Lisbon, and it very much remains to be seen whether the West Europeans will be able to forge a consensus on outreach to Russia. I think the answer is no, because of discomfort in Central Europe, and the degree to which the EU and NATO can coordinate their policies toward Russia. Historically, the EU and NATO have, to some extent, lived on their own planets. Moving forward, it's important for those two institutions to communicate with each other much more regularly.

Will Russia be on the sidelines of the NATO summit?

NATO extended its invitation to Russia to meet in Lisbon with the alliance, and Medvedev, at the end of the Deauville summit, accepted. Russia has traditionally been wary of these NATO summits, because the summit takes place with twenty-eight card-carrying members and then, as an afterthought, they throw the door open to the Russians to make them feel as if they have a seat at the table when they don't. It's that issue that NATO, the EU, and the Russians are trying to figure out.

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