NATO-Russia Council Meeting Yields Little Progress

Based on Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s remarks in a press conference on Wednesday that followed the nearly 4-hour meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (link to transcript below), while reiterating its position that it will not countenance limiting any future expansion of the alliance, NATO apparently stated a willingness to work with Russia on “reciprocal actions around risk reduction and transparency, improved communication, and arms control.” Of course, this is better than nothing and may keep the parties talking which could maybe lead ultimately to some meaningful agreement that would satisfy Russia’s security concerns. However, it should be kept in mind that First Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented earlier in the week that Russia’s security concerns about NATO and Ukraine are a separate issue, with strategic stability matters of important but secondary concern at the moment.

Another proposal, according to NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, was that NATO and Russia restore their respective delegations in Brussels and Moscow. Russia has, of this writing, acknowledged the proposal but not responded to it. It’s no surprise that Russia would not be impressed with this idea since it would merely take the two parties back to a status quo that Moscow made clear had not been working for a long time and that it consequently viewed as virtually useless.

Stoltenberg also suggested that Russia expressed a willingness to keep the dialogue going.

Aside from this, Sherman’s comments (and obnoxious State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s comments in his presser later in the day) had the tone that Russia is viewed as a naughty boy who is solely responsible for all the trouble and that the US-led west might humor him with a piece of stale candy if he agrees to stop being naughty – but the adults will only have so much patience with him if he doesn’t stop his shenanigans:

“Russia’s actions have caused this crisis, and it is on Russia to de-escalate tensions and give diplomacy the chance to succeed….It is Russia that has to make a stark choice: de-escalation and diplomacy or confrontation and consequences.  We expect and had expected that the Russian delegations at the SSD here at the NATO-Russia Council and tomorrow at the OSCE will have to report back to President Putin, who we all hope will choose peace and security.”

The mindset reflected here reminds me of an important point made in a post by Paul Robinson today called Why Russia Fears NATO. The point he makes is not only legitimate in and of itself, but as I’ve argued in my book and elsewhere, it is a crucial component of competent diplomacy. You have to be able to show cognitive empathy and try to understand your adversary’s perception of the world and perception of its interests – your agreement with it is not necessary and is not the point.

[M]aybe Russia is indeed “wrong” in its assessment of NATO, but that incorrect assessment is driving what it does, with serious consequences. Ignoring it because it’s wrong is simply stupid. Instead, you need to be thinking about why others think the way they do, wondering if it’s perhaps because you’ve done something that’s given them the wrong impression, and then doing something about it. Charging forward all guns blazing simply reinforces the incorrect assessment, causing a reaction that in the end hurts you.

In short, ignoring other people’s alleged wrongness harms one’s own interests as much as theirs.

All this assumes that the others actually are “wrong.” What if they’re not? Or what if, though wrong, there are good reasons for them to believe what they believe given the circumstances in which they find themselves? In short, what if the reason they misperceive you is because you’ve done and said things that lend themselves to misperception? In that case, ignoring the misperception is a huge mistake – instead, you need to address your own behaviour.

Transcript of Sherman’s comments here.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who represented Russia at the talks, asserted that NATO’s insistence that each country freely be allowed to choose which alliances it joins was an extreme position that was not in accordance with long-established principles of international law:

“The freedom of choosing ways to guarantee one’s security must not be exercised in such a way as to infringe on legitimate interests of others, and membership of military alliances should take into account the interests of security of others – these are direct requirements of international obligations that are stipulated by multiple international legal instruments.”

RT reported that Gushko also stated that NATO was in a Cold War mindset, bent on containing Russia:

“The US-led NATO military bloc has reverted to full Cold War strategy of “containment” towards Russia and seeks “full spectrum dominance,” Moscow’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told reporters on Wednesday.

The diplomat added that Moscow believes NATO’s behavior is creating a “unacceptable” threat to Russia that it will have to counter.”