Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Grand Tattoo military ceremony for Curtis Scaparrotti, outgoing NATO Commander, to honour his service. Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images.

Grand Tattoo military ceremony for Curtis Scaparrotti, outgoing NATO Commander, to honour his service. Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images.
On 14 April, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the outgoing Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations General, deplored the broken communication process with Russia and a lack of understanding of “each other’s signals”. Immediately afterwards, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko denounced the current deadlock with NATO, claiming cooperation had been discontinued and disagreements with the Atlantic Alliance were now “even deeper than before”.

Relations between NATO and the Kremlin have reached a dangerously abrasive stage, as the existing threat-reduction arrangements and confidence-building mechanisms with Russia are not working. Russia and NATO are talking past each other and substantive dialogue is not possible under current conditions.

This relationship breakdown, however, is not due to a collapse of dialogue with Moscow – and a greater volume of dialogue will not improve relations. Instead there has long been a problem with the dialogue itself: a change in its substance is necessary.

Russia claims that NATO is conducting a strategy of encirclement and interprets this as a fundamental threat to its own interests – broadly based on preserving a ‘sphere of influence’ against the expansion of NATO capabilities in the European shared neighbourhood, and to preserve a reported ‘right of ownership’ over Russia’s periphery.

Its agenda is to damage the post-Cold War security architecture in order to achieve its own security and foreign policy objectives in Europe and beyond. Moscow has an incentive to continue its path of sabre-rattling and to test the western pain threshold through both conventional and non-conventional provocation.

NATO disunity over the Russia challenge

This situation only serves to increase the risk of military and political miscalculation. Heightened tension is now the new normal in the relationship between Russia and NATO. As the distinction between peacetime and wartime activity is blurring, a failure to understand each other’s red lines could risk miscommunicating the other’s intentions, and the potential for tactical errors could lead to unintentional provocation and military escalation.

This is more dangerous with the breakdown of Cold War arms control agreements such as the INF treaty, but both sides at least agree that the risk of miscalculation is high and should be eased.

It is wrong, however, to assume dialogue alone and confidence-building measures with Russia will achieve anything concrete. NATO should abandon the assumption that the Kremlin wants to cooperate on reducing tension. Russia does not want war but can deal with tension, whereas NATO wants neither.

However, the lack of unity over the nature of the Russia challenge and what should constitute a common response means NATO members diverge when it comes to the place of Russia in the European security architecture, and how to best engage the Kremlin. As NATO’s internal unity also cannot be taken for granted anymore, this creates incoherence which can strengthen Russia’s willingness to test resolve.

Towards a ‘dialogue of differences’

A ‘dialogue of differences’ could break this impasse by examining new forms of engagement to establish where both sides differ as the basis for a less conflict-prone relationship, rather than seeking dialogue solely for the sake of it, or searching for where the two sides can agree. Two parallel tracks would be required – one with Russia, one without.

The dialogue with Russia should start by exploring the sources of antagonism as a premise to improving relations. This can remove the tendency of either side to be surprised when they encounter the other’s red lines or face irreconcilable foreign policy perceptions. It will not solve the differences themselves, but it will help see things more clearly.

The dialogue without Russia means NATO settling its internal differences on what it expects from relations with Moscow. The objective would be to reduce Russian opportunities to harm NATO’s interests and hopefully force the Kremlin to revise its cost-benefit analysis of carrying out hostile action. Simply determining the rules of the game – namely what is (un)acceptable Russian activity – would be a good place to start.

Whatever course of action NATO decides, the Russian leadership is likely to consider it a potential threat to its own national interests. But this should not lead to self-deterrence: when necessary, bolder action against Russia does not automatically mean escalation.

The risk of sleepwalking into a conflict with Russia is real. General Scapparotti is right when he points out communication with Russia has fallen beneath Cold War levels, a time when a failure to communicate was simply not allowed.

Targeted engagement over established red lines is needed to lay the ground on which future dialogue can take place on a sounder basis – ready for a time when Russia finally wants a better relationship with NATO.