Despite long-standing opposition to NATO, Russia cooperated with the Western defense alliance on a number of military, political and humanitarian projects. But Russia says it feels threatened by NATO's eastward expansion and the prospect of possible Georgian and Ukrainian membership in the alliance. In the aftermath of recent hostilities in Georgia, Moscow has now frozen relations with NATO in a number of areas to protest Western support for Tbilisi. VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Fedynsky looks at the status of the troubled relationship and its implications for Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership.
On Monday, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said his country has no need for any illusions of partnership with NATO, adding it is only natural that Moscow does not like the eastward expansion of the alliance.
Mr. Medvedev says cooperation is above all in the interest of NATO countries, not Russia. The Kremlin leader says that if they break up cooperation, nothing bad will happen to Russia, which he says is prepared to terminate the relationship entirely.
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, was recalled for consultations with top Kremlin leaders, including President Medvedev. Speaking Tuesday at a news conference at the Interfax News Agency in Moscow, Rogozin said NATO appeared frozen in a Cold War Stone Age. He went on to announce what he termed as "the modernization" of Russian-NATO relations, which includes termination or suspension activities related to military affairs.
Rogozin says visits to Russia by senior NATO military officials will be suspended, NATO naval vessels will not be allowed to visit Russian ports, and joint military exercises will be halted.
Rogozin also noted temporary suspension of visits by NATO military experts and instructors, as well as work to develop a legal basis for the NATO-Russian relationship and operational compatibility of each other's forces. He said the suspensions would last at least through the end of the year.
At the same time, Rogozin said Moscow will not halt its political dialogue with NATO, and will also continue cooperating in such areas as drug interdiction, detection of explosives at airports, the struggle against terrorism, natural disaster assistance, and other humanitarian endeavors.
Independent Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer told VOA that Moscow's move against NATO could actually refocus the attention of the alliance, which could work against Russian interests.
"We could see a serious strengthening of NATO actually performing its core mission of standing against the Russians and trying to roll back Russian influence in the former CIS. That's going to be the main issue," Felgenhauer said.
Russia is expressing concern about what it says is an increasing number of NATO navy ships in the Black Sea. Dmitri Rogozin suggests those ships could be delivering weapons, but concedes they may indeed be delivering humanitarian assistance for Georgia, including, in his dismissive terminology, "toilet paper for Saakashvili."
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas and a destroyer, the USS McFaul, docked Tuesday in the Georgian port of Batumi. They were initially scheduled to dock farther north in Poti, where Russia has since established a troop presence. U.S. officials say the vessels have brought blankets, hygiene supplies, baby food and infant care materials for people displaced by hostilities.
The deputy head of Russia's General Staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, says the Black Sea has become a bit crowded.
Nogovitsyn says Russia is not planning to add any of its naval groups to the Black Sea, though he says there are enough resources to do so.
Analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes that NATO does not pose a military threat to Russia but that its rulers fear the alliance for self-serving reasons.
"The worst scenario for the Russian ruling elite is the introduction of Western principles of responsible government, fair elections, and rule of law and so on, which will actually undermine the position of our corrupt elite. And they don't want that," Felgenhauer said. "They were very much frightened by the so-called colored revolutions, democratic revolutions in Georgia and in Ukraine in '03 and '04."
Russian NATO envoy Rogozin says poor relations between Russia and the alliance over Georgia remind him of tensions in Europe on the eve of World War I. He also compares Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and thus triggered World War I. Rogozin made the statement Tuesday in at least two different forums - in an interview with Russia's RBK business daily and at his Interfax news conference, where he said the stakes today are much greater than merely Russian cooperation with the West.
He says there is another issue that shows how fragile the world is, when one person, such as Mr. Saakashvili, can take it upon himself to become a provocateur and upset the global system. Rogozin accuses the Georgian leader of trying to grab the laurels of fame by provoking great nations into war just as Gavrilo Princip did.
Rogozin expresses hope that scenario will not come to pass, adding however, that Russian relations with NATO are complex.
Pavel Felgenhauer says the implication of Rogozin's statement is the prospect of World War III and a possible nuclear exchange. Felgenhauer notes, however, that all sides at the start of World War I thought hostilities would be brief and victorious, while the threat of nuclear annihilation today prompts everyone to avoid escalation.
"And that is well understood here [Russia]. So there is more talk aimed at Western public opinion to frighten people who would agree, 'OK, we can give away Georgia, we don't know nothing much about Georgia, it's far off. Let the Russians have Georgia if that can help avoid a World War.' So I believe this is basically propaganda aimed at Western public opinion," Felgenhauer said.
Pavel Felgenhauer says Russian leadership is prepared for worsening relations with NATO and is counting on a divided response in Old Europe, and on China and other rising Asian powers to help create a multi-polar world that is more to the liking of the Kremlin. That, he says, would inflict a strategic defeat upon the United States, which would end any hopes that Georgia and Ukraine have for NATO membership.