Russia-NATO military cooperation (Part 1: training and operations)

A few months ago, I started writing articles for the English-language version of the French publication DSI: Defense & Securite Internationale. Unfortunately, that publication has now been suspended. I’m going to put a couple of the pieces I did for them here, including some that were never published. They’re kind of long, so I’m going to break them up into parts. The first is on Russian cooperation with NATO and was written about six months ago. Today’s installment will cover joint training and operations, while subsequent parts will deal with defense industrial cooperation. I’ll be traveling over the next week, so it seems like a good time to put this up. I’ll complete the update on Russian naval construction in a week or so, after I return.


Moscow’s cooperation with NATO and its member states is accelerating, as the Russian government and military adjust their threat assessments to focus more on Russia’s unstable southern neighbors and on China. In recent years, Russia and NATO states have conducted joint anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. They have also reached agreements for extensive intelligence-sharing in the area of counter-terrorism. Russia has played a critical role in NATO operations in Afghanistan by allowing for the transit of both lethal and non-lethal cargoes to the region by both land and air routes. And Russian procurement of Western military equipment may gradually transition into joint research and development.

Joint Training

Through the mechanism of the NATO-Russia Council, the two sides have established several joint training initiatives and conducted a number of joint exercises. One of the earliest forms of cooperation has involved the establishment in 2002 of the Russia-NATO Center for Social Adaptation, with seven branch offices, which retrained more than 2000 former Russian military officers for civilian life. Currently active training projects include Russian participation in NATO exercises such as Combined Endeavor and Steadfast Joist. The Russian military also participates in multilateral and bilateral exercises with NATO member states, including naval exercises such as FRUKUS and BALTOPS. Russia and Italy are currently planning to hold naval and army exercises sometime in 2011.

Russia and NATO states have also conducted joint exercises on emergency civil response to terrorist acts and natural catastrophes. NATO forces participated in such exercises in Russia in 2002 and 2004, while Russian forces participated in NATO exercises in Italy in 2006 and Norway in 2009. Future joint emergency response exercises are planned.

Cooperation is gradually developing in the area of missile defense, where joint table-top theater missile defense exercises have taken place over the last decade in the United States, the Netherlands, and Russia. Although cooperation in this area was halted in 2008, it will be resumed in early 2012. The goal of these exercises is to develop an integrated approach to European missile defense, with both sides discussing the possibility of a Europe-wide missile defense system. This discussion reached the ministerial level at the April 2011 NATO summit in Berlin.

Finally, NATO and Russia have a long history of conducting joint maritime search and rescue exercises, including Sorbet Royal in 2005 and Bold Monarch in 2008. A Russian Black Sea Fleet submarine may participate in Bold Monarch 2011, which is being billed as the world’s largest submarine escape and rescue training event.

Operational Cooperation

Cooperation between Russia and NATO and its member states has increasingly moved beyond just training. In recent years, Russia has cooperated in a number of joint military and security operations with NATO and its member states. Most significantly, these include naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Russian assistance to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In addition, Russia routinely works with NATO states on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations in Europe and Eurasia.

Since 2008, the Russian navy has had a nearly constant presence in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Ships from three of the four major Russian fleets have participated in anti-piracy operations in the region, though in recent years the operation has been assigned to the Pacific Fleet. While the NATO anti-piracy operation in the region was only launched in late 2010, the area has been the site of the most significant international naval cooperation in the world in the last decade. International efforts have been coordinated through Combined Task Force 151 and through the European Union’s Operation Atalanta. While Russian ships have not formally joined any of these operations, they have coordinated their efforts in the region with those of the other participating states. In fact, when NATO froze cooperation with Russia in the aftermath of the Georgia war, cooperation between Russian and NATO member state naval units in the Gulf of Aden remained virtually the only avenue for military communication between Russia and NATO member states. As cooperation through other channels gradually resumed over the next year, anti-piracy operations remained a principal area of joint concern for Russia and NATO member states.

Since the spring of 2009, Russia has allowed the United States and NATO to transport goods across its territory in order to supply their operations in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Russia has allowed the transport of lethal cargo and military personnel via overflights of Russian territory. While this route was initially designed to serve as an alternative to the previously established route via Pakistan because of that country’s growing instability, it has since become critical to the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Fifty percent of all non-lethal goods destined for Afghanistan are now being transported via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and U.S. military planners hope to increase that ratio to 75 percent over the next year. While not all NDN shipments go through Russia, the majority do. Furthermore, NATO has negotiated an agreement with Russia to allow the shipment of lethal goods and personnel across Russian territory by land.

Russia has also worked with NATO member states’ forces to train Afghan forces, particularly in counter-narcotics operations, and is also helping to rebuild infrastructure in Afghanistan. Russia-NATO cooperation in counter-narcotics is much deeper, with Russian law enforcement officials having now conducted joint operations with personnel from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency not just in Afghanistan, but also in St. Petersburg.

Russia and NATO states cooperate closely in the area of counter-terrorism, mostly through intelligence-sharing agreements. In addition, Russian ships have repeatedly participated in NATO’s Active Endeavor counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean Sea. While Russian participation was suspended after the 2008 war in Georgia, it seems likely that Russian ships will return in the fall of 2011.