Original Contribution
30 April 2016

The 2009 Lavrov Treaty
A NATO-Russia Proposal Never Discussed in Substance

by Otfried Nassauer

When the crisis in Ukraine heated up during early 2014 and little green men took control over the Crimean peninsula while a few weeks later fighting broke out in the Eastern Ukraine, an irritating observation could be made. Rhetorical escalation of the crisis dominated over diplomatic attempts to contain it in both politics and the media. Russia and the West used ever more confrontantional rhetorics but did much less to consult and find a way out of the crisis. On April 1, 2014, NATO foreign ministers announced a decision "to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia. Our political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue, as necessary, at the Ambassadorial level and above, to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis". Similar to the 2008 crisis in Georgia NATO-Russia cooperation came de facto to a halt, being held hostage to an actual crisis. As a result, one of the potential institutional instruments to defuse a security related crisis in Europe was (again) taken out of the game. Finding a solution was left to the long neglected OSCE. 

Most interestingly nearly five years ago, on December 4, 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had suggested a possible solution. He tabled a draft for a limited NATO-Russia-treaty to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, trying to learn some lessons from the 2008 Georgian crisis. The two and a half page document centered around one main idea. Moscow and the NATO members should enter a legally binding obligation to consult each other whenever a serious crisis would come up. All nations party to the treaty should have the right to call for such consultations either individually or in combination with others.

No bad idea indeed. If adopted it could have offered a chance to clarify mutual misunderstandings and misperceptions whenever a crisis in European security was about to arise. It could help to defuse such a crisis. However, one could also read it as an effort to secure Russia an option to be heard and to have a say in situations critical to European security and her national interests. No matter what the intention was Lavrov's proposal was neither seriously discussed at the December 2009 NATO-Russia-Council meeting nor adopted in the months to come.

Why has a reasonable suggestion been so widely neglected? Why should nations in Europe not be obliged to consult before a crisis could result in longerterm confrontation, fighting or even a war?

We don’t know much about the fate of Lavrov's proposal. Some limited insight however is available from the U.S. diplomatic cables that Wikileaks leaked in 2010 covering the discussions until February 2010. Some cables mention Lavrov's draft treaty and how it was handled by NATO.

Lavrov’s proposal unfortunately coincided with another upcoming NATO-decision. At the end of 2009 and in early 2010 the Alliance was discussing possible changes to one of its military contingency plans: Eagle Guardian. While this plan already contained NATO military options in case of a crisis endangering Poland's security, it did not yet cope with the Baltic republics who acceeded NATO significantly later than Poland. Thus by the end of 2009 NATO was discussing an extension of Eagle Guardian to include the Baltic nations. Some NATO-members interpreted Lavrov's treaty proposal as a torpedo fired to sink the proposal to to include the Baltics in Eagle Guardian.

Others had different objections. While preparing for the first round of NATO enlargement the alliance had signed a politically but not legally binding commitment to not deploy permanently “significant combat forces” on the territory of its new member states. It was contained in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. However it had remained unclear what constituted such a “significant combat force”. Lavrov's proposed treaty contained such a definition which some NATO allies may have perceived as too much of a limitation to their flexibility to invite allied reinforcement forces to their territories in times of a crisis. Again others objected the idea of developing a definition for this term in the NATO Russia Council context, believing this would reduce Western options to put pressure on Moscow to implement its obligations under the Adapted CFE-Treaty. This treaty contained arrangements on limitations to the deployment of forces both on the Northern and Southern flank. Again others may have objected since they did not want to accept any treaty regulated limits to NATO’s flexibility to deploy alliance military forces, which at the time were perceived to be much more capable than Russia’s conventional military.

Since intra-alliance consensus is important to NATO’s modus operandi, Lavrov's proposal was never accepted by NATO and probably never seriously discussed with Russia. Some NATO nations did not even see any need to discuss it with Russia while arguing that Moscow might perceive any openness for a debate as a chance to explore whether NATO was willing to give Russia a veto over NATO decisions or accept limits to the sovereignty of its new members by placing restrictions on the basing of foreign military forces on their territory. Some members seemed to be willing to discuss certain elements of the draft, but others argued this would give Moscow too much of an opportunity to exploit divisions in NATO. Finally, Lavrov's core idea of creating a legally binding obligation to consult during times of an upcoming crisis in European security was not accepted.

To give readers a chance to make up their own mind whether NATO-Russia relations and European Security could have benefitted from such a treaty – here’s a link to the full draft treaty text in English and Russian language. 

The Warsaw Summit and Lavrovs “Significant Commbat Forces” –A Postscriptum

Resulting from the crisis in the Ukraine Polish and Baltic demands are currently under discussion to strengthen NATO’s military presence at the Northeastern flank by permanently basing a number of combat forces from other Allied countries in Polant and the Baltics either permanently or on a rotational basis. Thus Lavrov’s definition of “significant combat forces” might become relevant again in the discussions prior and after the July 2016 NATO Summit.

Is NATO going to deploy significant combat forces? Is Russia correct, when criticising  NATO for doing so by its own standards propsed to NATO by Lavrov? How does rotation affect the question and what constitutes permanent deployment?

Lavrovs proposed definition of “substantial combat forces” clearly orignated from discussions in the CFE-context. It read: 

“The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as of 27 May 1997, respectively, shall refrain from stationing on a permanent basis (including temporary deployment for more than 42 days during the calendar year) of their substantial combat forces (at the level of combat brigade (combat support brigade), air wing/air regiment, helicopter battalion/helicopter regiment or above, or having more than 41 battle tanks or 188 armoured combat vehicles, or 90 pieces of artillery of 100 millimeters caliber and above, or 24 combat aircraft, or 24 attack helicopters) on the territory of all the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997. In exceptional cases, when situations arise in which a threat to security of one or more Parties should be neutralized, such deployments can take place with the consent of all the Parties to this Agreement in the framework of the NRC.”

It might be useful to remember this definition as the Russian position in 2009, while discussing which steps NATO might take to strengthen its capabilities to defend the Baltics.

ist freier Journalist und leitet das Berliner Informationszentrum für Transatlantische Sicherheit - BITS