The Cable

Russia Wants a Reset — but This Time With NATO

Russia wants to rekindle its frozen NATO relationship — just as Trump readies to take office.

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NATO and Russia haven’t been on the best of terms in recent years. But on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was willing to let bygones be bygones and start anew with its former Cold War adversary.

“We need to build normal relations with NATO and renew what we had before,” Andrei Kelin, the Foreign Ministry’s Department of European Cooperation head, told Russian news agency Interfax. Kelin did not reiterate the standard Russian claims of NATO aggression. Instead, he went on to say that being a member of club NATO was “rational” because of the political benefits of the alliance and the cash it saved smaller members on military spending.

It’s a surprising about-face given Russia’s penchant for vilifying NATO. In early November, for example, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said Russia would retaliate against NATO troop deployments in Eastern Europe.

But, as with many stories these days, this piece of NATO news could have something to do with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Russia’s Crimea grab, not-so-subtle Ukraine invasion, nuclear sabre-rattling, and the successive wave of sanctions have all pushed U.S.- and NATO-Russia relations to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. But Trump indicated he’s willing to turn things around with Russia, even facing a wave of domestic political backlash over Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election he just won (though Trump denies Russia tried to influence the election in any way).

On the campaign trail, Trump called NATO obsolete and suggested setting conditions on aiding the United States’ other 27 NATO allies despite its treaty obligations to do so. Trump also lavished praise onto Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying in September that Putin “has been a leader far more than our president [Barack Obama] has been.” More recently, the president-elect took to Twitter to praise Putin’s decision not to expel U.S. diplomats after President Obama booted Russian diplomats out of the United States. “I always knew he was very smart,” Trump said.

Trump has since quieted down on openly doubting NATO, while pro-NATO Republican lawmakers have picked up the slack on reassuring fellow alliance members. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg added his confidence in Trump to the mix, but all those assurances haven’t done much to soothe rattled allies, one former NATO diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told Foreign Policy. With Trump stepping into office in little over two weeks, “there’s a fear that the strength of the alliance is now in doubt,” the former diplomat said.

But while allies are fearful, Russia seems hopeful. Kelin’s comments may be the first litmus test for a NATO-Russia rapprochement when Trump steps into the Oval Office. “I think a statement like this is strategically timed just weeks before Trump takes office,” said Rachel Rizzo, a NATO expert at the Center for New American Security. “Russia wants to make it sound like they’re ready to rebuild normal relations with NATO, they’ve just been waiting for the West to meet them halfway,” she said.  

Whether “normal” for Russia is “normal” for NATO countries, however, is still to be seen.

Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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