NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance is ready to engage in top-level conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin again. “If the framework is right, I will meet with President Putin,” Stoltenberg said in an interview just days prior to Christmas, while also emphasizing the importance of bilateral talks during difficult times.

Potential Thawing Of NATO-Russia Relations On The Horizon?

Stoltenberg’s statements now are not only a paradigm shift but also of significant importance. After all, since 2014, relations between Moscow and NATO have completely hardened, with no high-level meetings at all being facilitated. NATO and its members continue to accuse Russia of having annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in violation of international law as well as of supporting the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a war that has cost thousands of lives to date.

Russia, on the other hand, criticizes the further expansion of NATO to the east since the end of the Cold War (to this day Russia claims the negotiations in those past times included the West’s pledge of not expanding into former Soviet territory) and the decision to deploy allied forces in the former Soviet republics as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

As a result, and on top of increased tensions, NATO has wholly ceased all practical cooperation with the Kremlin. At the political level, the NATO-Russia Council has been meeting again since 2016, however, these meetings are highly irregular and are only held at the ambassadorial level. Putin and Stoltenberg have never even come close to being present.

Stoltenberg’s Statement May Be Motivated By US Encouragement

Stoltenberg’s willingness to talk might not be a coincidence but linked to President Trump’s recent public encouragement during the NATO summit in London that a “very good relationship with Russia” ought to be possible and that NATO should always be in discussion with Russia.

Germany and France have long held a similar position. For example, the German government was one of the driving forces behind the revival of the NATO-Russia Council in 2016. Former German Foreign Minister (and former SPD chair) Gabriel welcomed Stoltenberg’s statements on Monday. In his view, NATO must display both: the ability to defend as well as the will to dialogue and foster disarmament.

Downsides Of Resumption Of NATO-Russia Talks

However, not everyone sees a revitalization of Russia relations as positive. Central and Eastern European countries, in particular, are likely to be critical of the development. And rightfully so. As long as the Ukraine conflict has not been resolved, a return to business as usual must be seen as a serious security concern for countries who have felt threatened by Russia for years and now feel Russia could even incur into their territory without facing severe consequences.

Fortunately, Stoltenberg concurs with the importance of dialogue even if it does not lead to significantly-improved relations. “Russia is our biggest neighbor, and it will stay that way,” he said. Even if relationships do not improve, one has to be able to manage and preserve the rather tricky relationship. Stoltenberg also announced that relations with Russia would probably also become part of the planned process of reflection on the political work of the alliance. President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have also recently spoken in favor of this process.

Stoltenberg did not state what a suitable framework for a meeting with Putin could look like. He met Putin previously during his time as Prime Minister of Norway. Since becoming NATO’s Secretary-General in late 2014, there have been no formal meetings between Putin and Stoltenberg but only with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

A meeting between Stoltenberg and Putin would thus be a great symbol of the potential for peace and a positive relationship between NATO and Russia; however, it remains questionable whether Russia is willing to change its current course in favor of a renewed relationship with an alliance whose initial reason for existence was to deter Moscow.

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