By THO Contributor, Samantha Ellard 

Following the 2021 NATO Summit, tensions between Russia and NATO continue to accelerate. Although tensions exist in non-summit times, the unification of NATO Allies heightens pre-existing issues. After the 2021 Sea Breeze military training operations, Russia performed unprovoked and signal-sending attacks against a British ship in the region. The reaction follows the 2021 NATO Summit communique, signed by all Allies, issuing strong terms of condemnation and reiteration of opposition, regarding Russian movements and threats. The situation comes into greater light when one explores the divergence in the relationship between Russia and NATO. The shared history between NATO and Russia, as well as the Soviet Union, deepen the implications of the military trainings and the meaning for their relations moving forward. NATO’s path moving forward has several stakeholders, and the United States plays a key role in moving forward to create a cooperative unit creating thoughtful policies generating mutual solutions.  

In 1949, NATO was formed to combat the rise of the Soviet Union while the Warsaw Pact was formed by the Soviet Union in 1955, and included communist countries under Soviet control, in response to the western-alliance. The two equivalent organizations focused on military objectives and strategies to put forth their goals, and protect their agenda. Throughout the Cold War, the institutions competed in an arms race for their purpose of a collective defense against emerging threats, but the Warsaw Pact met their demise after the fall of the union. This left NATO as one of the most powerful military organizations with significant influence and relationships, setting the stage for a new international order.

Russia’s power since the collapse of the Soviet Union has grown and their attempts to recreate the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and to extend it has continued. As NATO’s mission transitioned after the Cold War to a political narrative with new goals and objectives, Russia simultaneously transitioned from the prospect of joining NATO. 

NATO and Russia’s paths continue to cross geo-politically, militarily and technologically. International issues that have added to existing aggression and tension include controlling the Arctic, illegal annexation of Crimea, misinformation, ransomware, and hacking against foreign entities and governments. 

In the Arctic, Russia has begun reactivating Soviet-era bases and “strengthened its presence in remote Arctic areas such as the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, an air base near the Taimyr Peninsula, while also building more icebreakers, including nuclear powered ones” (Jordan, et. al, 2021). Russian involvement in the Arctic extends to  transatlantic partners since the potential for conflict and competition over valuable resources. Russia’s movement in the Arctic is a serious source of concern for the environmental stability and the potential of an “Arctic scramble” for NATO (Lanteigne, 2019). The expansion emboldens Russia’s Soviet-past to widen their influence into a relatively untouched region; Russia continues to strive for power and superiority, and diving into a region with little notability is a prime source for their goal of power. The Arctic puts to the test the transatlantic relationships and their ability to combat detrimental policies. Put simply, Russia poses a threat to international security due to their unchecked and extreme tactics to demonstrate dominance in international discord. Consistent unity by NATO to confront this is a key necessity, as strategically used throughout the Cold War. 

Russia’s further implications on the NATO Alliance relates to the partnerships between Member-States. The US-Turkey partnership is not at its lowest point yet the shadow of Russia looms overhead with the recent purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, a defense system intended to shoot down American F-35. Russians selling these to the Turkish military is no coincidence as their purpose is to dwindle American foreign relations and leverage their own. Undoubtedly, this has the potential to impact the trust and mutual cooperation in the American-Turkish relationship, but the implications to NATO are of concern. 

There is no short answer to explain the historical context to Russia’s present day policies; however, the policies are appearing to be power plays to shift the Western Alliance’s place in international affairs. The geo-political expansion and aggression pushes NATO to serious questions about what the entity can effectively do to combat Russian aggression without beginning a war. Therefore, Russia is attempting to alter NATO’s ability to hold countries accountable, but Russia’s success doing so is yet to be seen. The two examples of the Arctic and the sale of S-400 missiles highlight a rivalry for Russia’s eagerness for international supremacy and puppeteering the movement of the world. 

Like any historically tumultuous relationship, making amends for a prosperous future is the ideal outcome; however, it is no secret that that outcome is far away. Considering the history entangling the Russian and Western Allies, it is in the best interest of all to create a dynamic relationship that creates a safe, secure and sustainable future. There is no playbook to mend this relationship, but focusing on mutual issues is a place to start: COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations of vulnerable or isolated populations; direct threat of climate change to agriculture, vulnerable regions, wildfires; extraterrestrial exploration; and educational/cultural exchanges. 

The seeds for a cooperative relationship, despite the communique and previous tension, are always viable for future benefits into an unknown international sphere, and it is paramount to keep in mind.