With the rift between NATO and Russia growing wider every day, there needs to be renewed focus on how both sides can create a new security architecture for a multipolar world. Against the backdrop of escalating NATO-Russian tensions, Russia Direct expert Nadezhda Arbatova analyzes how both sides can deal with growing security challenges around the world.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gestures while speaking during a media conference ahead of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

At an emergency meeting on April 1, NATO’s foreign ministers decided to suspend practical military and civilian cooperation with Russia in protest against the annexation of Crimea and the rapid build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. This effectively means Russia will no longer take part in joint military exercises and cease to cooperate in combating terrorism, piracy, and natural and man-made disasters.

Furthermore, the decision was taken by NATO to adopt additional measures to protect member countries in Eastern Europe, primarily at the insistence of the Baltic countries and Poland.

As for assistance to Ukraine, the NATO Council promised to take “immediate long-term measures to strengthen the country’s defense, including support for military reforms.” In particular, it is planned to provide Ukraine with recommendations on protecting infrastructure and to dispatch mobile groups of instructors.

Rivals in Europe, but not in Afghanistan

Importantly, NATO leaders left the door open to political dialogue with Russia and made an exception for joint operations on Afghanistan, which is the cornerstone of cooperation under the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).

Despite the extreme international tension, cooperation on transit from Afghanistan through Russia is guaranteed, since it is a commercial project. Supervision of transit operations is not within the scope of the Russia-NATO Council, but instead, falls instead within the competence of the Russian transport companies engaged to transport cargo. Hence, NATO’s decision to terminate practical cooperation with Russia through the NRC does not formally affect the Afghan transit routes.

However, NATO is also considering alternative routes through Pakistan.

In general, the restrictive measures announced by NATO are largely symbolic, except for two areas of cooperation: Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, the fight against international terrorism, which has stalled due to the low level of trust between the partners.

There is no doubt that curtailing cooperation on Afghanistan will seriously affect the interests of both partners, since 90 percent of the interaction between Russia and the alliance was related to Afghanistan, involving huge financial and material resources, as well as vital organizational tasks.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko

Earlier tension between NATO and Russia

Russian experts and politicians regret that the activity of the Russia-NATO Council, created in 2002 to achieve security in the Euro-Atlantic region, has been frozen at such a critical juncture in relations between the two partners.

Yet, it is not the first time that NATO leaders have used the tactic of freezing cooperation. During the crisis in the Caucasus of 2008, NATO countries accused Russia of using disproportionate force and announced the suspension of NRC meetings at all levels. In response, Russia decided to freeze a number of joint programs with the North-Atlantic alliance.

Cooperation was restored in March 2009. However, the post-crisis political rhetoric, which declared a partnership between NATO and Russia, could not outweigh the inherent contradictions on the most pressing issues of international and regional security, which became fully manifested in the conflict over Ukraine. It seems that relations between Russia and NATO are locked in a vicious circle, from Kosovo to Georgia to Ukraine circle, with no exit in sight.

Three geopolitical challenges for a new world

It seems that the causes of the tension between NATO and Russia, which today has reached unprecedented levels since the end of the Cold War, are firmly rooted in the post-Cold War period of international relations.

Typically, large-scale wars in Europe ended with a peace conference, such as the Peace of Westphalia or Yalta, both of which established a new order and new rules of behavior in international relations. But the end of the Cold War did not lead to a new system of European security to fill the void.

The collapse of the “Eastern bloc” convinced the West that nothing needed to be changed, although the 1990s demonstrated convincingly that the challenges to European security had changed dramatically and the new problems could not be solved on the basis of the old system.

Generally speaking, it suited the West that the new order could not satisfy post-crisis Russia. The attempts to transform various elements did not produce any significant results. As a result, the existing system of European security still needs to address three fundamental contradictions of our time.

Challenge #1: Territorial integrity or the right to self-determination?

The first issue to address is the contradiction between the principle of territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination. The Helsinki Act of 1975, in recognizing the right of nations to self-determination, undoubtedly gave preference to the principle of territorial integrity, due to the high risk of global conflict that stemmed from the military-political standoff between East and West.

Remarkably, the Helsinki principles were not legally binding, but no one ever thought of violating them under the threat of global conflict. After the end of bipolarity, they began to be applied selectively in accordance with political preferences and the interests of international players.

In this connection, the question arises: has the order of priority of these principles shifted? The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union showed that the most immediate threat to peace in Europe comes less from an act of aggression than from the separation of ethnic minorities, sufficiently numerous to demand autonomy, which in turn could (and did) lead to conflicts and wars.

NATO has basically completed its militarily assimilation of the territories neighboring Russia. Source: Reuters

Moreover, the problem of armed separatism today is not limited to the post-Soviet space: It is relevant to many countries in Western Europe, too. By some estimates, there are now more than 200 separatist movements across the continent.

If the principle of countries’ territorial integrity still retains its former value, then how are we to deal with the precedents of Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea? Are they exceptions to the rule established by the Helsinki Act? And under what conditions do national minorities have the right to self-determination?

It is evident that a policy of genocide by a titular nation against a national minority and mass violations of human rights can provide grounds for independence. However, the question of who will be the arbiter of such disputes and impartially determine the facts of genocide and human rights violations, free of double standards, is far from trivial.

And another question arises: Do oppressed nations have the right to seek independence by force and, if so, under what conditions? If nations have the right to seek independence peacefully, should a time frame be set for the achievement of this goal?

Challenge #2: National sovereignty vs. humanitarian intervention

The second challenge is the contradiction between the right of nations to sovereignty and non-interference of external forces in their internal affairs and the right of nations to humanitarian intervention.

When in 1999 NATO countries cited the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo as justification for their military intervention against Yugoslavia, they did not for a moment imagine that someone else might apply the same principle. The conflict in South Ossetia showed that it was possible.

In July 2009, the UN General Assembly raised the question of the legitimacy of the international community’s humanitarian intervention in countries where human rights had been violated.

Significantly, Russia, which qualified the conflict in South Ossetia as a humanitarian catastrophe, opposed the concept under discussion, perceiving there to be a connection between “humanitarian intervention” and the concept of “limited sovereignty,” which suggested the possibility of external interference, including by force, in countries’ internal affairs under humanitarian pretexts.

In addition, on March 17, 2011, when the UN Security Council voted in favor of Resolution 1973, Russia was among the abstentions (alongside Germany, Brazil, India, and China). Then President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia had made a conscious decision not to wield its veto, because it did not consider the resolution to be wrong.

The declared goal of the operation by coalition forces in Libya in 2011 was to “ensure a no-fly zone” and “protect civilians” from Gaddafi's forces. Unfortunately, the Libyan campaign plunged the country into total chaos and discredited the very idea of humanitarian operations.

The NATO-Russia Council held a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Dec.3-4. Source: Reuters

It is worth noting that UN-sanctioned humanitarian interventions in their purest form have been few and far between. However, the aim of peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement, and the preventive deployment of peacekeepers is to avert humanitarian catastrophes (mass violations of human rights, genocide, ethnic cleansing, civil war, natural disasters and calamities).

Russia explained its actions in Crimea as preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. The main question in the debate on humanitarian intervention seems to be who should define (and how) the parameters of a humanitarian catastrophe, the decision-making procedure for intervention, and the mechanism of military involvement to prevent it.

Clearly, only the UN Security Council, acting in accordance with the UN Charter, could be conferred with such powers. However, the U.S. has repeatedly taken unilateral decisions on humanitarian intervention, forming so-called “coalitions of the willing” from among its allies.

Challenge #3: National security vs. expanding military blocks

The third challenge is the contradiction between the right of nations to freely choose the organizations that ensure their security and the right of nations to resist the expansion of military alliances, if perceived as a threat to national security. In both the conflict in Georgia and the current crisis in Ukraine, this contradiction played no minor role.

The post-bipolar architecture of European security is a chaotic jumble of old and new institutions, with no clear dividing line between them in terms of roles and functions, which presupposes competition between institutions and partners, and leads not only to paralysis of the entire system of security, but to the emergence of new conflicts.

To break this vicious circle, Russia and NATO must do what was not done in the post-Cold War period: Hold a “Helsinki+” peace conference to frame a set of mutually acceptable rules of conduct in the new multipolar world.