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NATO and Russia: towards a new Cold War.

Posted By July 31, 2019 No Comments

Counter-terrorism as a struggle for leadership 

(The Third of Five Articles) 

Maxim Starchak is currently a Fellow at Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He has a PhD in Political Science, and an MA in International Relations from the Irkutsk State University in Russia. Please see a more complete biography at end of the article.

Before the Russian operations began mid-decade in Syria, military relations between Russia and NATO seemed to be becoming more collaborative by the joint struggle against the Islamic state. But challenges to cooperation in Syria and differences in values and aims turned out to be so great that the next stage of confrontation – the struggle for leadership in international security policy followed.  

Russia did not join the US led international coalition in Syria, which according to the official Russian position had no legal grounds because there was no approval either from Damascus or from the United Nations Security Council for the American presence. In reality, Russia was not prepared to enter the US coalition and operate under American orders. Right after Russia launched the military operation in Syria, NATO Secretary-General expressed concern that Russia acted more in support of the Syrian regime, not striking targets of the Islamic state as much as the Syrian opposition.xxxvi  

Despite the fact that by the 20th of October 2015 the military establishment of Russia and the US has agreed the memorandum on  operations air safety over Syria, the US and NATO decided not to share intelligence with Russia. There was no trust, so two groups, the group led by the Russia, and the international coalition led by the United States, vying for the role of ‘safeguarding’, began to fight ISIS separately at the same time. Thus, it can be said that Russian operations in Syria have only increased the tension between Russia and NATO. 

 The first direct post-Cold War confrontation of forces of NATO and Russia happened when 24th November 2015 a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down the Russian Su-24M bomber, flown in Turkish airspace. Actions of Turkey, a NATO member, created a threat of a military conflict between Russia and NATO since Article 5 of the NATO Alliance, when invoked, requires other member NATO states to come to the military aid of the aggrieved member. Violations of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft during the Syria military operation had happened before this episode. Turkey warned Russia that it would react to these violations. But Russia did not take these threats seriously. Russia had violated the airspace of NATO member states several times in the recent past, but the armed forces of those states did not shoot down Russian planes thus not provoking a military or political conflict.xxxvii  Russia obviously provokes NATO from time to time, but responding to a provocation with a military response would be the worst manifestation of the Cold War politics.  

During the Cold War, mutual boundary violations occurred by the dozen, The Soviet Union somewhat easily and carelessly shot down the perpetrators. It did not make anyone happy, but those were the rules of the game for both sides. Most cases involving military aircraft of the NATO countries happened before the Cuban missile crisis. After that, one can ignore what happened in 1976, when the Soviet air defenses shot down a Turkish fighter-bomber, flown to the Soviet airspace. 

An emergency meeting the NATO Council after the 2015 incident confirmed full security guarantees for Turkey. To give further support to the security of Turkey, the Alliance increased Turkey’s security in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, by supplying Turkey air- reconnaissance AWACS aircraft and Patriot air defense missiles.xxxviii 

These steps elevated the conflict from Russian-Turkish relations to the level of Russia-NATO relations, thereby broadening the existing confrontation. In response Russia sent more air defense systems and fighters to Syria. Fortunately, the specific situation involving Turkey did not escalate further. 

Although ISIS had no military aircraft, Russia directly responded to NATO and continued the conflict escalation in Syria, thereby increasing the risk of another military confrontation with NATO. In particular, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saw the transfer of Russian missiles to Syria and to the Mediterranean Sea as a part of the Russian scenario of the concentrating air defense forces around the NATO countries.xxxix 

So, if the Baltic region is actively used for a demonstration of force by both parties, it had already become an area of strategic deterrence as well. The Mediterranean was different, becoming a place where active military campaigns in Syria collide. In the Mediterranean the United States positioned a fleet of ships led by two aircraft carriers. Each ship has 95 aircraft, 60% of which are offensive. And they have been used to attack terrorists in Syria. The US Navy’s fleet in the Mediterranean often has 15 ships, and, according to representatives of the Department of Defense, aims to maintain power balance with US military and its allies in the region.xl 

Of course the expansion of the military presence of Russia and the United States in the region led to some provocations. In October 2015, the Chief the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Andrey Kartapolov announced the creation a full-fledged military base in Syria.xli However, in the end Russia created in Syria, two permanent military bases: the air base in Hmeymin and naval base in Tartus. This resulted in yet another round of confrontation between Russia and the West. The US cut off contacts with Russia on a Syrian truce, giving up hopes of restoring a ceasefire, as a Russian-Syrian aerial bombing campaign intensified its focus on destroying hospitals and like support institutions. Russia had also deployed an S-300 anti-air missile battery in Syria. In 2017 the United States began to bomb Syria and risked facing Russian aircraft and/or the S300 system each time. 

Not surprisingly then, in June 2016 in the Mediterranean Sea there was an incident between the Russian patrol ship “Yaroslav Mudrii” and the American destroyer USS Gravely. The Russian Defense Ministry and the Pentagon mutually accused each other in the “unsafe and unprofessional” actions. xlii 

After the arrival of the Russian aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov” in the Mediterranean Sea in October 2016, confrontation incidents increased both in the Mediterranean and elsewhere and began to occur with regularity. For example in 2017, Royal Navy and RAF tracked the “Admiral Kuznetsov” as it passed close to UK territorial waters on its way home.xliii 

The confrontation has gone so far that even terrorist attacks in France and the attack on the Russian Airbus A321 in Egypt did not unite the conflicting parties, even for a short time. At the same time, the US made it clear that they would maintain their requirements, but were ready to take Russia into the international coalition, if it stopped supporting the current regime in Syria. That was unacceptable to Russia, Russian diplomatic sources said.xliv 

Rejection of a coalition with Russia in a struggle against ISIS looks like the worst manifestation of the spirit of the Cold War to some. It would seem that cooperation in the fight against ISIS will not affect the position of the West on Russian sanctions and the Ukrainian crisis. Winston Churchill believed that the Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of communism,xlv but, nevertheless, the struggle with even greater evil prevailed and there was anti-Hitler coalition which brought to the common victory in World War II. Now the situation is much worse. The problem is that Russia was perceived to be the aggressor now.  Russia became the same enemy as ISIS, and President Barack Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly in 2014xlvi only confirmed this. 

Later Russian officials many times talked about the terrorist attacks in Europe as an obvious need for cooperation with Russia on this issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it is impossible to fight terrorism on one’s own, and that cooperation with Russia is the way to success in this fight.xlvii In 2017, in an address to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, he urged NATO to work in conjunction with Moscow to fight terrorism.xlviii Such statements calling for anti-terrorism co-operation are seen by some as an attempt to divert attention from the Ukrainian problem and thereby legitimize Russian policy. It seems clear that the Russian government wants the country to come out from the isolation, wants the world to accept the fact that Russia plays an important and decisive role in European and international security. 

Restoration of cooperation while keeping previous agreements will be interpreted as a victory of Russian foreign policy. When the administration of the alliance offers to convene the NATO-Russia Council, it plays on the side of Russia. In fact, such NATO actions show that, in spite of the Crimea and South-East Ukraine, relations are being slowly restored, or at least some recovery is possible. But, having the cooperation with NATO restored, Russia is unlikely to change its policy. Possible cooperation on terrorism or on agreements on military security in the air will not bring back Russia-NATO relations to the times of strategic partnership  As well as it will not make the Russian policy more predictable and the European Region safer. The old problems of NATO’s eastward expansion and missile defence development are in no way resolved and the current policy of Russia in no way fills the strategic partnership divide Russia and NATO.  


Maxim Starchak, in addition to his PhD in Political Science, and an MA in International Relations,  passed postgraduate courses in MGIMO (University) of the MFA of Russia, CTBTO Preparatory Commission in Vienna, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. In 2013-2015 he was a Research Fellow and Editor of the “Security Index” journal at PIR Center; also in 2013-2014 a Research Fellow at the Military Economy Department of the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy. During 2011-2014, he was an expert at the Eurasia Heritage Foundation. In 2011- 2013, he was a Research Fellow at Institute for US and Canadian Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Strategic Estimates and Forecasts, which founded an International Expert Council on cooperation in the Arctic. In 2011 he was Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Big game: politics, business, security in Central Asia”. In 2009-2013, Expert on the “Security Index in Central Asia” project, at the Institute of Political Solutions (Kazakhstan). In 2010-2012, Head of Analytical Directorate at the Foundation for advanced studies “Bastion’. In 2008-2010, a Council Member of the Siberian Centre for security and nuclear nonproliferation. In 2007-2010, Coordinator of the Russian Youth Association for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. In 2006-2011, Vice President, Head of the Research Group on International Security and Conflicts at Russian Political Science Association. In 2006, he was also the co-founder of Youth Department at Russian Political Science Association.

In 2013-2014, he was author and editor of PIR Center White Paper “Towards nuclear disarmament: NTP article VI and Implementation of the 2010 Review Conference Decisions”. In 2014-2015, Executive Editor of the
Conference Proceedings of III & IV Moscow Conference on International Security of the Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation. In 2014-2015, Working Group Member from Russia for preparation of the BRICS Think Tanks Council report (section “international peace and security).

Since 2010 he has been a permanent member of the Expert Council of the annual all-Russian essay competition on NATO-Russian relations of the NATO Information Office in Moscow and Information Centre for International Security. He has received academic and public awards and grants from: MGIMO-University, Moscow State University, Institute of Oriental Studies, JSC “Rosatom”, Eurasian Development Bank, Russian Political Science Association, Federation for Peace and Conciliation, National Committee on BRICS Research, NATO Information Office and EU Delegation in Moscow.

Current Interests/Research:

·         Russian defence policy;

·         NATO-Russia relations; and

·         nuclear disarmament and arms control.