The reason for the foundation of NATO — to counter a perceived or real threat from Russia — remains as relevant as ever.
When heads of state and government, and military leaders, of the 29 countries that belong to NATO gather just outside of London Tuesday, discussions will focus on current and emerging security challenges. And one of those ever-present and unpredictable security challenges is Russia.
NATO was set up in 1949 as a military alliance between 10 European countries, the U.S. and Canada "to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom," the alliance says, "within the context of countering the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union."
Seventy years on, the USSR has long-since collapsed and the Cold War is over, yet the West's relations with Moscow remain as tense and complex as ever. Civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO are still suspended following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and the backing of a separatist uprising in east Ukraine — a move that prompted a military conflict that is still unresolved.
Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K., Sergei Skripal, have also put western nations on guard when it comes to an unpredictable nation under President Vladimir Putin. This year, the breakdown of Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia also prompted fears of a potential arms race between the old foes.
Sarah Raine, consulting senior fellow for geopolitics and strategy at the the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNBC that Russia is still a threat to NATO.
"Russia remains a threat both in conventional terms — as evidenced by its annexation of Crimea and its persistent probing of European air space — as well as in more hybrid terms, through, for example, its use of cyber proxies. But threats can and should be handled through a range of policy responses," she said Friday.
"It should be possible to remain clear about the threat Russia poses whilst also considering ways for NATO to engage with Russia on concerns of arms control."
NATO has reiterated its condemnation of Russian behavior of late but says that "channels of political and military communication remain open to exchange information on issues of concern, reduce misunderstandings and increase predictability."
Relations appear to be thawing somewhat between Russia and Ukraine, under the new leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky (the leaders are due to meet in Paris on December 9 with Germany and France acting as intermediaries). But NATO remains wary of Russia and says it has "responded to this changed security environment by enhancing its deterrence and defence posture, while remaining open to dialogue" although it notes that the alliance "does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia."
Enhancing its deterrence and defense posture has included the stationing of over 4,000 troops from NATO member countries in Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, designed to shore up its border.
From Russia's perspective, it has seen the deployment of NATO missile defense systems in Romania and Poland (although completion of this Aegis Ashore — a land-based missile defense system — site is delayed to 2020) as a provocative move and it has widely criticized the deployment of missile defense shields in its former backyard.
The prospect of Ukraine and Georgia, both of which used to be part of the former USSR, joining NATO (and even potentially the European Union) is also an unsavory prospect for Moscow which fears being surrounded by pro-Western former satellite states.
In September 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "NATO approaching our borders is a threat to Russia." That view was echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in late November, when he told Russia's Security Council that he was "seriously concerned about the NATO infrastructure approaching our borders, as well as the attempts to militarize outer space."
Tomas Valášek, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe whose research focuses on security and defense, said that Moscow has become an assertive power with more limited resources.
"Russia lags far behind China in both economic and soft power, but it has used its more limited resources very effectively" he wrote on Thursday.
"Moscow's general strategy has been to deter what it perceives as challenges to its political order and territory, assert itself as an indispensable power in solving the most pressing global security challenges, and dominate its immediate neighborhood, including the rapidly melting Arctic."
"To this end, Moscow has built up the military capacity to complicate NATO's ability to operate in the Black, Baltic, and North seas as well as in the North Atlantic and the Arctic," he noted.
At the end of the Cold War and collapse of the USSR in 1991, relations between NATO and Russia improved when the latter joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, a forum for dialogue. This was succeeded in 1997 by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which brings together NATO members and partner countries in the Euro-Atlantic area.
Relations with Russia were further strengthened in 1997 with the NATO-Russia Founding Act and then in 2002 with the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council, or NRC.
However, relations started to sour in 2008 following a five-day war between Russia, Georgia and Russian-backed self-proclamed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. NATO said that Russia's "disproportionate military action in Georgia in August 2008 led to the suspension of formal meetings of the NRC and cooperation in some areas, until spring 2009."
An independent report in 2009 commissioned by the EU blamed Georgia for starting the five-day war with Russia (albeit after provocations by Moscow) but said the latter's military response went beyond reasonable limits and that both sides had violated international law.
NATO's relations with Russia resumed in spring 2009, however, and before the Ukraine crisis in 2014, NATO and Russia cooperated in a number of security matters, from combating terrorism to arms control.
But all practical civilian and military cooperation under the NATO-Russia Council was suspended in April 2014, in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March that year and its part in the pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.