Last week, NATO announced a suspension of cooperation with Russia, but the escalating confrontation with Moscow is for now far more imaginary than real.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels April 2, 2014. Photo: Reuters

A meeting of NATO foreign ministers took place on April 1 and 2 under the shadow of events in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Naturally, to condemn Russia’s actions became the first item of the agenda.

In justifying the undivided attention on relations with Moscow, NATO Secretary General Andreas Fogh Rasmussen said, "Russia's aggression against Ukraine is the gravest threat to European security in a generation."

In support of these words, the Alliance agreed to limit practical cooperation with Moscow by refusing to conduct joint operations or support joint projects and suspending the practice of mutual exchanges.

The refrain of the public speeches made at the meeting was the half-forgotten concept of "collective defense."

To ensure that no one had any doubt as to where the threat lay, the ministers placed the priority firmly on beefing up the defense capability of the countries of Central Europe.

According to Rasmussen, such policy must include components to intensify military planning, carry out exercises, and regroup military forces. In particular, the Secretary General announced a new program of electronic surveillance through the deployment of AWACS planes in Poland and Romania, as well as an expansion of NATO’s practice of patrolling Baltic airspace.

Strengthening cooperation between NATO and the post-Soviet countries

To reinforce further its containment policy the Alliance used a series of meetings with its external partners, primarily the sessions of joint commissions the NATO has with Ukraine and Georgia.

Following the consultations, Kiev was given assurances of support. First and foremost, NATO as a military alliance focused on the prospects for reforming Ukraine’s armed forces. Given the lamentable outcome of recent musters, when only six thousand out of 20,000 troops turned up at their respective military training grounds, the need for assistance is substantial.

NATO has a rich experience of facilitating military reforms, which the Georgian representatives at the meeting in Brussels could pass on to their Ukrainian colleagues. They also came to the NATO Headquaters with certain expectations. Prior to the meeting, the issue of granting Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan (MAP) as early as this fall was actively mooted.

Under these circumstances the praises of Georgian reforms by NATO officials, carried considerable weight. Due to the long-standing aversion of Russian diplomacy toward the Alliance’s enlargement policy, the very mentioning of Georgian accession prospects reflects the desire to demonstrate to Moscow the possible consequences of further confrontation.

Lastly, another way NATO could exert pressure on Russia, according to leaks in the European press, is through plans to expand cooperation with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova, all of which were discussed at the meeting.

If implemented, they will challenge Russia's aspirations to consolidate the post-Soviet space.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a NATO Enlargement Anniversary ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Photo: AP

What do these decisions mean for Moscow?

At first glance, these moves create the impression of a carefully integrated strategy of deterrence. The intention is obviously to demonstrate the resolve and unity of the Alliance in the face of Moscow's foreign policy ambitions.

The problem is that both elements are missing in NATO’s actions.

In fact, the measures taken against Russia are of a highly selective and limited nature. Showing considerable diplomatic flexibility, the General Secretary of the Alliance combined his statement on the termination of practical cooperation with Moscow with the hope that the decision would not affect cooperation on Afghanistan.

Moreover, in contrast to the Georgian crisis of 2008, the bloc did not completely freeze the Russia-NATO Council: Interaction at the level of ambassadors and ministers is set to continue. In other words, there is an obvious reluctance to close the door on dialogue with the Kremlin.

Symbolic threats?

The stated increase in the defense capability of Central Europe is either devoid of specifics or symbolic in nature. In some cases, the decisions simply legitimize existing practice. In particular, the announcement of the move to more than double the forces patrolling the airspace of the Baltic countries was merely a confirmation of the reiforcement, that was already made. But the plan sounded much less menacing, given that it had previously provided for four aircraft.

At the same time, Poland’s provocative desire to see 10,000 NATO troops stationed on its soil was virtually ignored.  The Alliance’s refusal to comment on the possible supply of arms to Ukraine was also revealing. Obviously, no such plans exist at present.

Neither did the prospect of MAP for Tbilisi completely revise the status quo. Even without it, Georgia is already a de facto participant in the Alliance. Its armed forces are organized according to NATO principles and standards, and are actively involved in its operations.

Suffice it to say that Georgia has the fifth largest contingent in Afghanistan. In this regard, strengthening its affiliation to the bloc will bring more moral comfort than practical benefit.

The cautious and restricted nature of the NATO decisions jars with the alarmist rhetoric, statements about the unprecedented nature of the Russian threat, and analogies with the Cold War era.

Why real confrontation between Russia and NATO is unthinkable

The current state of relations between Russia and the West is fundamentally different from the bipolar confrontation of yesteryear, and the events of recent months do not remotely draw the sides into a similar situation.

The face-off between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries was rooted in the firm belief on both sides that the other posed an existential threat. The unpleasant prospect of the struggle spilling over into direct armed conflict with catastrophic consequences suppressed all other less significant concerns and private interests.

The Cold War left little scope for political games, especially in Europe, where the stakes were so high that no one was willing to risk.

Today the situation is different: A direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO is not only impossible, it is unthinkable.

Despite all the contradictions, the parties do not see each other as antagonists. At the same time, in the absence of a perceived existential threat, there is room for compromise.

The opposing views this time around are much easier to settle. However, the less significant they are, the lower the interest in resolving them. Instead, it is tempting to deploy the tried-and-tested diplomatic technique of postponing the issue until a better day. Or, conversely, to inflate the differences to apocalyptic proportions.

No wonder that over the past two decades, NATO-Russia relations have been highly volatile. In fact, the parties have been mainly going through the motions of a real relationship.

Until quite recently, they were imitating a partnership, while now they are spoofing a confrontation.

2012 was an instructive year. For many months, the Russia-NATO Council hardly met at all at the ambassadorial level, and Russia could not decide whom to appoint as its permanent representative. Nevertheless, this detail went unnoticed outside a very narrow circle of experts.

The regional political landscape remains fairly stable, while the pause in dialogue has had little impact on European security.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Photo: AP

Who needs an imaginary confrontation?

In such conditions, there are greater opportunities for individual players to manipulate relations between Moscow and Brussels for their own purposes. The activity of a number of Central European countries (especially Poland, Romania, and the Baltic nations) on the eve of the NATO ministerial summit fits into this logic.

For them, confrontation with Russia creates an opportunity to raise their own profile in the Euro-Atlantic community. Against the backdrop of America’s ongoing reorientation toward other regions, these countries view the situation in Ukraine as a chance to regain the attention of their transatlantic partner.

Not for nothing are Poland and Romania keen to see U.S. forces stationed on their territory. For them, it is a pledge of support across a wide range of political issues, many of which are not directly related to Russia.

Similarly, for NATO itself, positioning Moscow as a serious threat serves to justify its preservation and consolidation.

In the last decade, the Alliance’s mandate was conditioned by operations outside its traditional zone of responsibility. With the mission in Afghanistan coming to a close, and most Western countries looking to save on defense, the value of such activity was greatly undermined. Against this backdrop, a return to the problem of territorial defense could prove useful.

The private motives of those who support an escalating confrontation with Russia should be assessed in the context of the West’s attempts (primarily the U.S.) to bring about a localization of the conflict with Moscow.

Throughout the period of destabilization in Kiev, which ran from November to March, both the Kremlin and its Western counterparts felt the need to demonstrate resolve in defending their positions and to draw red lines that the opposing side must not cross.

In doing so, they sought to justify making their interests part of the solution, both in Ukraine and the region as a whole. Overall, both sides dealt with this task.

What comes next?

Now the issue is to normalize relations in an atmosphere of mutual recognition on the part of Russia and the West of the new reality  — including or at least a temporary consolidation of pro-Western authorities in Kiev and the de facto incorporation of Crimea into Russia.

The last meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicates that the search for common ground has begun.

This process cannot proceed unidirectionally. Both sides clearly want to hold the discussion on their own terms and to force the other into concessions.

However, the desire to “push off the bottom” and recalibrate the relationship to find a new modus vivendi is also palpable, given that neither side can be excluded from the situation.

The outcome of the NATO ministerial meeting reflects the balance of interests of its members. They secured a compromise despite the significant divergence of interests.

Today’s fragile equilibrium is evidently short-lived, and the prospects for a revaluation of NATO’s position hinge on the pace of progress in the dialogue between Russia and the U.S. If the two countries can find a mutually acceptable approach to resolving the Ukrainian dilemma, the situational demand for an escalation will be neutralized.