Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee and NATO conducted joint exercises Vigilant Skies. This is a rare example of cooperation in the face of the deteriorating situation on the Syrian issue where the parties stick to the opposite positions.
What is NATO looking for in cooperation with Russia and Russia in cooperation with NATO?
The sore points in the relations between Russia and the West on the issue of Kosovo and NATO's eastward expansion have been replaced with new ones, such as missile defense in Europe and the Syrian situation. In the atmosphere of mutual distrust the parties intend to "please" each other in the near future with an ambitious exercise "Steadfast Jazz" under the auspices of NATO involving 9,000 troops from Poland and Latvia, and "West 2013," joint exercises between Russia and Belarus with participation of 13 thousands of troops. Everybody understands who plays the role of the imaginary enemy.
In this context, the joint Russia-NATO exercises Vigilant Sky 2013, the second exercise in the last two years held in late September, can be called "historical." The project entitled "Cooperative Airspace Initiative" was established three years ago and is designed for practicing joint exercises for detecting terrorist aircraft and forcing them to land. Under the scenario of the exercise, a commercial flight from Krakow heading to Oslo changed its course in the direction of Saint Petersburg and the air traffic controllers of the detection centers in Warsaw and Moscow tried to find out what happened and identify measures to eliminate the "terrorist threat" through the exchange of information, the Director of the NATO Information Center in Moscow Robert Pszczel told the "Voice of America."
He said that this year the scenario was even more complex as it included Russian, Polish and Turkish aircraft, and involved the information exchange, including through Norway. This was an international team coordinated from different centers, and the procedures were implemented while trying to improve coordination. Pszczel said that the exercises continued (with participation of Russia and a Turkish plane over the Black Sea), but it is clear that a real counter-terrorist system has been established. If, God forbid, a situation similar to the simulated conditions takes place, this experience would help make the sky safer, Pszczel added.
After the Russian Su-35 and Polish F-16 landed a "hijacked plane," Lt. Col. Radosław Kwiatkowski, head of the coordination center of air operations of NATO in Warsaw, called it a historic moment because Russia was joined by Polish soldiers. He told the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes that he had a feeling that the Russians also treated it as a positive development.
After the September 11 attacks in New York, Russia and NATO agreed to develop a special system that allowed controlling the air traffic map (150 kilometers from the border of each of the participating countries) in real time. The "Cooperative Airspace Initiative" was the only program that was not frozen by NATO after the military conflict in South Ossetia in 2008. The surveillance network currently consists of four dispatch services in NATO countries and Russia in four interconnected coordination centers in Warsaw and Moscow. The current task is to finalize the legal framework to allow the mission operating around the clock.
In addition, NATO officials want to involve military ground radar in addition to the space radar. A Polish Air Force colonel in charge of the exercise said that it was his dream to obtain information from primary tracking radars. He added that there was a need in more information sources.
NATO also wants Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the United States to join the program. According to Kwiatkowski, programs like Vigilant Skies could serve as an example of cooperation with Russia.
Indeed, Russia and NATO cooperate in the air trying to make it safer. However, Moscow and Brussels at the same time complain about mutual violations of air space by combat aircraft. It is obvious that there is no mutual trust. However, there is some interest in a dialogue. Recently, during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen took place. They discussed missile defense, the situation in Afghanistan, and the schedule of the NATO-Russia Council.
NATO is clearly looking for the purpose of its existence. The organization established on the basis of the confrontation of the USSR and Warsaw Pact saw this purpose in the expansion to the East. Now, many Western analysts say that neither Georgia nor Ukraine, nor anyone else interested in participation in the Alliance will be accepted because the risk of involvement of the governments of these countries in certain projects is too great. Turkey with its aggressive policies in the Middle East is more than enough. The next and the only project on the part of NATO is to engage Russia in cooperation in order to counter the growing threat from China, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The empirical evidence (strong disagreement on the Syrian issue) shows that if the alliance with Russia does not take place, NATO will break down into several parts. This is exacerbated by the economic crisis that reduced NATO's defense budget.
What are the interests of the Russian Federation in search of this cooperation? From the point of view of geopolitics the priority of the European integration over the Eurasian integration is not yet visible; therefore it can only be based on local initiatives such as Vigilant Sky. It is, first of all, the joint operations in Afghanistan. The Russian Federation is already conducting training of counter-narcotics personnel as well as personnel for Mi-17 helicopter fleet for respective services not only for Afghanistan but also Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia. Russia seeks to ensure that the process of planned NATO withdrawal in 2014 is transparent. "We will start with the following: if our strategic goals in relation to Afghanistan are the same, if NATO does not have its own agenda in the field of security, if it is not different from the one worked out by the international community, there will be possibilities for further cooperation," the Russian permanent representative to NATO Alexander Grushko told radio "Voice of Russia."
As you can see, the "ifs" are very strong, and the level of mistrust is high. Much will depend on the outcome of the Syrian conflict. The turns may be very dramatic - from breakthroughs to a strategic partnership to a new arms race.