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New Cold War between Russia and NATO?

Russian nation and Atlantic Alliance hold talks in Vienna
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

PHOTO/AFP  -   NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

The Russia-NATO Council, an instrument of dialogue between Russia and the West on issues such as European security, was convened on 12 January. The first stage was the Russia-US talks, which took place in Geneva on 10 January, and the third stage is taking place in Vienna on 13 January, as an OSCE meeting.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), said ahead of the talks that the bloc is ready to listen to Russia's concerns and begin "an open and reasonable dialogue on a wide range of issues, of course, focusing on the tensions in and around Ukraine". However, Stoltenberg ruled out any agreement on further NATO expansion, adding that "Russia has no veto" over that process and that "only Ukraine and 30 allies can decide when Ukraine becomes a member".

Moscow's security demands are directed at the West, separating the leadership from the US and European nations. Broadly speaking, Russia's position boils down to three key points: the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, the termination of the practice of deploying NATO conventional forces near Russia's borders and the creation of its military infrastructure there, and NATO's official refusal to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to the alliance.

Moscow adds that these measures will help remedy the serious security imbalance in Europe that emerged after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. This will go a long way towards easing military and political tension.

El presidente ruso, Vladímir Putin
PHOTO/AFP - Russian President Vladimir Putin
Ukraine, the focus of Russia-NATO tensions

To understand the current tensions between Russia and NATO, it is necessary to understand the important role that Ukraine plays on this geopolitical chessboard. Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Europe, has been embroiled in a bitter conflict in the east of the country since 2014, the so-called Donbas war, spilling over beyond its borders.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine established itself as an independent country, initially maintaining a good relationship with Russia, as it had been the largest and most influential Soviet republic in the USSR. Later, however, a rapprochement towards the West began to take place, to the point that in 2012 an association agreement was drawn up between Ukraine and the European Union, which made Russia uncomfortable and put pressure on it. When everything was ready for signature in November 2013, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych suspended the agreement. This sudden decision prompted hundreds of thousands of people to crowd into Kiev's Independence Square calling for a resumption of dialogue with the EU. 

This led to a series of protests and riots of a pro-European and nationalist nature, the so-called Euromaidan. Five days later, this crisis was exploited by Moscow, supporting pro-Russian armed groups, who seized the main institutions of the Crimean peninsula, which became de facto Russian-run. 

Tanques de las Fuerzas Armadas de Ucrania se ven durante los ejercicios en un lugar desconocido cerca de la frontera de Crimea anexada a Rusia
PHOTO/ Press Service of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine via REUTERS - Tanks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are seen during exercises at an unknown location near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea.

This event marked a critical moment in relations between Russia and the West, leading to Russia's expulsion from the G8, the group of the world's most industrialised countries. The EU reacted to the annexation of Crimea by enacting tough economic sanctions against Moscow, which remain in place.

However, what are the implications of the conflict? First, Russia and Ukraine share historical, ethnic and cultural ties. In the conflict regions the majority of the population speaks Russian rather than Ukrainian, and this is one of the reasons promoted by those who advocate Moscow's annexation of these Ukrainian regions. For their part, the EU and the US see Ukraine as a potential strategic and military ally, right on Russia's doorstep.

NATO, led by the US, promised that Ukraine and Georgia - another former Soviet republic - would be admitted to the Atlantic Alliance, which is Putin's main concern: preventing NATO from extending its influence into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Rusia, Sergei Lavrov
AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI - Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov

This is not a new request. Already during an annual press conference on 23 December 2021, he added: "Not a millimetre further east is what we were told in the 1990s. And what happened, we were blatantly deceived: there were 5 waves of NATO expansion (...). We are not a threat, we did not go to the US or UK borders, you came to ours".

So, can Russia demand the signing of a guarantee agreement banning countries from the former Soviet Union from joining NATO?

Speaking to DW, political scientist Alexandra Sitenko adds that since the countries of the former Soviet Union are sovereign and independent states, "it is up to them to decide on their foreign policy, (...) whether they prefer NATO or an alliance with Russia, for example".

"I think Putin knows that his demand cannot be met in that way, but that ultimate demand could lead to minor but still important concessions being made to Russia by NATO".