As Georgia Recedes, NATO Eases Stance on Russia

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Dmitry Astakhov / Kremlin / RIA Novosti / Reuters

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

As Cold Wars go, NATO's season of half-hearted saber-rattling at Russia over its summer offensive in Georgia was decidedly brief, and tepid. It was with a palpable sense of relief — at least in the capitals of Western Europe — that the Alliance moved this week to bury the hatchet with Moscow, agreeing at NATO summit to resume relations with Russia that had been bedeviled by Moscow's military showdown with Georgia. The move reflects a victory for Western European skepticism over what is viewed as the overly confrontational approach to Russia adopted by Washington, made possible by the waning influence of the Bush Administration and spurred by a global economic crisis demanding maximum international cooperation. But it may also mark the onset of a more assertive European Union taking the leading role previously reserved for the U.S. in defining the continent's post-Cold War relations with Russia.

Russia was unabashedly smug about the outcome of the NATO summit that ended Wednesday in Brussels, where it was agreed to resume high-level relations with Moscow. Even though the NATO agreement specified a "measured and phased approach" to restoring ties — and insisted Moscow fulfill pledges to withdraw its forces in Georgia to pre-conflict positions — it was the Europeans' eclipse of Washington's harder line that Russian officials found most encouraging. (See pictures of Russia's military campaign in Georgia)

"The resumption of NATO relations with Russia is unconditional, which we can only applaud," said Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, blithely ignoring the many qualifiers and caveats the Alliance had outlined before relations with Moscow could be fully normalized. "I personally do not see the difference between formal and informal sittings, except that you don't have coffee in an informal meeting but you still can order one."

Beverage protocols aside, Moscow was even more encouraged by the failure of the Bush Administration's final effort to persuade NATO to fast-track membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Russia is fiercely opposed to what it sees as the Alliance's "encroachment" into the territories of the old Russian empire, and when the U.S. had pushed in April for the adoption of a formal membership process for the two countries, the effort was rebuffed by France, Germany and Italy, among others. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried again last week week, with a round of intense lobbying ahead of what would be her valedictory NATO summit, but once again the Europeans pushed back firmly. The summit's final communique simply reaffirmed in principle that Georgia and the Ukraine would become NATO members at some point in the future, but in the absence of any time-frame, specific conditions or procedures, opponents of the move have plenty of room for maneuver.

"With the Bush administration now the lamest of lame ducks, the NATO agreement reflect desires in Europe to avoid offending Russia — especially on topics like Georgian and Ukrainian membership that many European leaders feel is an unnecessary provocation of Moscow," comments Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "The U.S. didn't really push too hard on the membership issue, because it knew it couldn't win."

There was one key setback for Russia, though: The NATO communiqué endorsed U.S. deployment of its anti-missile system on Czech and Polish soil. Moscow views such deployments as a direct strategic challenge, and has vowed to counter them by deploying new missiles of its own near Poland. Although the Russian position enjoys some sympathy in Western Europe — France's President Nicolas Sarkozy only last month complained the U.S. missile defense system would "bring nothing to security" but would "complicate things" with Russia — there was no sign of that view in the final text agreed by NATO foreign ministers.

Russia is looking to the post-Georgia strategic environment, and the change of administration in Washington, as a moment to press forward with its own initiatives to reengineer the European security system along post-Cold War lines, eclipsing NATO, which is, after all, an institution based on Cold War strategic rivalry. On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to allude to skepticism Obama has expressed about the missile shield's effectiveness by calling on the new administration "to take constructive, reasonable stance, to show willingness to compromise on the most difficult issues." Moscow has also initiated a Europe-wide security conference to be held next year to discuss the continent's security frameworks, although there's unlikely to be any enthusiasm in Western Europe for moving beyond NATO as Russia would like. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was "crystal clear that the present security structure should remain intact," and that "there is not a glimmer of chance that in whatever discussion NATO could or would be negotiated away".

Be that as it may, the European Union is divided between pragmatists and hard-liners on how to deal with Moscow. "Like it or not, Russia is Europe's neighbor, and it only makes sense to seek the best diplomatic and trade relations with your influential neighbors," says Laure Delcourt, a specialist on EU-Russian relations and head of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "Europe also has strategic interests with Russia the U.S. doesn't: it's overly dependent on Russian energy."

And, says Wilson, economic concerns are reshaping the strategic environment. "The arrival and deepening of the global economic crisis has superseded a lot of things spoken about since August, and is making compromise a lot easier all around," he says. "People realize cooperation today will largely determine who the big winners and losers are tomorrow."