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NATO and Russia: Reconciling Interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia?

About 70 policy-makers, diplomats, academics, experts and students from all over the North Caucasus Federal District – as well as Moscow, Brussels and Berlin – visited the city of Pyatigorsk June 6-8, 2013 for the conference, “New Challenges to Regional Security” organized by the NATO Information Office in Moscow and Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University.

The significance of the conference reached far beyond the region. Even James Appathurai, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy and NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, joined the conference from the NATO HQ in Brussels.

While Russian regional analysts and academics received an opportunity to share their insights and learn the Alliance’s vision on certain issues straight from the horse’s mouth, NATO officials were able to listen and directly reach out to those who deal daily with security problems on the ground.

The opening remarks by Robert Pszczel, Director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, and his Russian colleagues from the local branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted the need to seek common ground in tackling joint threats.  All recognized that this is an ordeal involving the contradictory interests of the two parties, different approaches and often mutually-accusatory rhetoric. The issue acquires additional sensitivity since the North Caucasus is a sovereign Russian territory and any talk about NATO engagement, let alone foreign activities, is deemed with extreme suspicion by the Russian side. So when it comes to fighting radical extremism in the North Caucasus the Russian position is two-fold: cooperation with the West is necessary since it is a global threat but no direct foreign involvement in any form is acceptable.

Against this background the keynote remarks of James Appathurai clarified certain points. The diplomat stressed the two irritants in the relations between NATO and Russia in the South Caucasus: Georgia’s aspirations to join the Alliance and the disputed status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While these stumbling blocs are unlikely to be removed any time soon, there are no other areas, including the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Moscow and Brussels come to loggerheads with one another, he opined. However, Appathurai suggested that the biggest cooperation opportunities for the two parties are in Central Asia, where an array of common challenges will arise after the NATO draw-down from Afghanistan.

The first panel analyzed the experience of security cooperation in the world’s key regions – the Middle East, the Balkans, the Central Asia and the Asian Pacific. Dr. Ivan Safranchuk from the Russian Diplomatic Academy argued that the lack of trust between NATO and Russia hampering a more robust cooperation in Central Asia stems not so much from Cold War inertia but rather is entailed in various conflicts where the parties took different sides: the 1999 war in Yugoslavia, 2008 conflict in Georgia, the current war in Syria, among other conflicts.  However Safranchuk reinforced his argument by discussing areas of mutual interest in Afghanistan – first and foremost terrorism and drug-trafficking.

Steffen Elgersma, another high-ranking official from the NATO Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, said that cooperation was possible in the so-called “high visibility events” such as the upcoming Sochi 2014 Olympics.  Speaking in the second panel which scrutinized security issues in the Southern Caucasus, he noted that NATO’s goals in the region were pragmatic and hence the number of joint initiatives of mutual interest with Russia outweighs points of contradiction.

Certainly, any discussion of Russia-NATO relations would fall short if the role of the major NATO contributor – the US – is not analyzed. The United States has been one of the most dynamic players in the region since the early 1990s and two presentations by Dr. Nana Gegelashvili, from the Institute of the USA and Canada Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, focused on major trends and policy problems of the last two decades.  Experts applauded the 2011 US initiative to list the “Caucasus Emirate” among the top terrorist groups and agreed it was a success in joint US-Russia efforts to fight global terror. However there is a lot more to be done in this regard.

The third section, where the floor was given to student presenters, echoed this sentiment. Students talked about the social, economic and spiritual challenges that fuel fundamentalist ideology and offered their solutions to address this. Surprisingly, student visions of the causes of extremism – and ways to combat terrorism in the region – were harsher than that of their adult colleagues.

Central Eurasia is one of the most volatile areas in relations between Russia and NATO. The media coverage and the feedback the conference received show it contributed significantly, at least at the academic level, to understanding that in times where the two parties are confronted with grave challenges, such as violent extremism, the security of one cannot be guaranteed at the expense of the other and greater interoperability is required.