Since 2014, NATO-Russia relations have hit their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Are we in a new Cold War and what are the prospects for conflict resolution in Ukraine? These and other questions Katarina Koleva discussed with Radoslava Stefanova, the Section Head for the Russia and Ukraine at NATO’s Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, since September 2010.  Prior to that, she was the Deputy Section Head of that same section, where she has worked since January 2004.  Before Ms. Stefanova joined NATO, she taught international and Transatlantic relations at the American University of Rome, which she joined after 8 months of field experience in Kosovo.

Ms. Stefanova is a graduate of the American University of Paris and holds graduate degrees in international affairs/strategic studies from Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International studies and in conflict analysis from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University. She was the keynote speaker at Carleton Model NATO 2018 Conference, an annual student-run conference/simulation hosted by Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) in Ottawa.


Q: As a person dealing with NATO-Russia relations, how would you describe the current situation? A new Cold War – is it a myth or reality?

Radoslava Stefanova: I do not think we are in a new Cold War. During the Cold War there was an important ideological confrontation. This is not the case now. The current tensions are about Russia’s efforts to challenge the current security order that was established after World War II and following the end of the Cold War. Russia was itself part of these efforts to reconstruct the peace, but in 2014, it unilaterally broke the rules it had earlier helped put in place. This is very destabilizing for Europe and the Euro-Atlantic security order. For organizations like NATO, it is important to uphold the principles that helped preserve the peace for almost seven decades. That is, of course, not easy in the current circumstances when you have a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which has repeatedly broken international law.

Q: The conflict in Ukraine has generated much debate about the use and effectiveness of hybrid warfare. What is NATO response to the hybrid threat?

Radoslava Stefanova: In order to avoid confusion we need to be clear about definitions. Most analysts use “hybrid warfare” to refer to the use of non-kinetic ways of achieving political or other objectives. This is not a new phenomenon. What has changed is the technology and the effect of globalization, which allow state and non-state actors to pursue strategic goals by using additional and more powerful means.

To ensure that its deterrence remains effective in such a context, NATO has done several things. It has integrated relevant aspects of hybrid warfare in its Readiness Action Plan adopted by Heads of State and Government at NATO’s Summit in Wales in 2014. These range from the kinetic spectrum of activities to cyber security and actions aimed at strengthening the resilience of member states and increasing their early warning and detection capabilities. NATO has also strengthened its cooperation with other like-minded organizations whose mandate covers wider aspects of the non-kinetic spectrum of hybrid warfare. First and foremost, this is the European Union (EU), with which NATO has agreed a set of specific measures for counteracting hybrid warfare more effectively. However, ultimately, dealing effectively with the entire spectrum of hybrid warfare activities is first and foremost a national responsibility.

Most recently, Allies expressed deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory in Salisbury, since NATO’s foundation. They expressed solidarity with the UK, offered their support in the conduct of the ongoing investigation, and called on Russia to address the UK’s questions including providing full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia’s response so far has demonstrated a clear disregard for international peace and security. Allies agreed that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements.

Q: You mentioned 2014 was a turning point in NATO-Russia relations. Based on your personal experience and everyday work, what has changed since then? Does any dialogue with Russia exist?

Radoslava Stefanova: Everything has changed. When I started working at NATO, I was working on NATO’s strategic partnership with Russia. We had the NATO-Russia Council, which was launched in 2002. It was a unique institution available only to Russia, which offered it a very wide-ranging framework of cooperation with the Alliance. It was built on certain principles and founding documents – what we call the Rome Declaration and on the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations and Cooperation. One of the key principles in those documents was not to threaten or use force against other countries, as well as a commitment to respect international law, in particular the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.

Russia breached these jointly agreed principles when it attacked Ukraine, a sovereign state, whose 1991 borders Russia had committed to respecting and guaranteeing. Russia also illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and began a wide-ranging destabilization of the Donbas region.  Russia increasingly engages in provocative military activities on our borders, practices military exercises with offensive scenarios and undermines or refuses to use the available arms control transparency mechanisms and confidence building measures.  The attack in Salisbury also adds to a pattern of reckless behaviour by Russia.  This is deeply destabilizing. Therefore, NATO’s relations with Russia are now dramatically different from the times when we were trying to build a strategic partnership with Russia.

Now we have to manage relations with a country which has demonstrated it has no respect for the European and Euro-Atlantic security order. To do that, it is also key to understand why Russia behaves the way it does, and this is also something that NATO is seized with on a regular basis. We also must ensure that our forces and capabilities are able to confront effectively the challenges presented by the current security environment.

Does that mean we have to isolate Russia? Of course not. But it is clear that we need to adjust our expectations and policy towards Russia. And we have done so at our Summits in Wales and Warsaw. As Russia has shown that it is able and willing to change international borders by force, effective deterrence is crucial.  To be effective and credible, deterrence must be visible. And for that to be the case, communication is important, including dialogue with Russia. We have to meet with Russian representatives in order to tell them about our concerns that Russia has violated the principles we had jointly agreed. We need to continue to underscore to Russia that what it is doing in Ukraine is unacceptable. It is also important for our military leaders to discuss directly with each other on-going military activities, to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or miscalculation and to avoid any accidents. For these reasons, dialogue with Russia is important, and we continue to meet with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council.

Q: Often, Russian officials claim that the Crimean annexation was a response to broader security concerns provoked by the US, the EU, and the NATO expansion closer to its borders. What do you think: are Russia’s actions offensive or defensive?

Radoslava Stefanova: Among the many principles that Russia has violated a key one goes back to 1975, the Helsinki Final Act, in which all signatories, including the (then) Soviet Union, agreed that sovereign nations are free to choose their own alliances. It is very telling that, when they were finally able to make their own decisions about their alliances, all members of the former Warsaw Pact decided it was in their best interest to join the EU and NATO. This is also what happened in Ukraine. Ukraine made its own democratic choice, which was even guaranteed by its former president, that it wants to be a member of the EU. When that promise was broken by him, due to Russian pressure, it led to persistent protests from the widest spectrum of Ukraine’s civil society. And what Russia did in response was to invade Ukraine, a sovereign nation, on false pretext, which was never verified by anyone, and to annex illegally a territory that it had previously committed to guaranteeing as Ukrainian.  So, the answer to this question is whether Russia has an attractive model to offer to other countries, which they would freely choose by their own volition. For the time being, even those in Russia’s immediate neighborhood often choose to belong to organizations such as the EU and NATO.  I think more introspection is needed here.

Q: Yet, would you agree that this action-reaction dynamic only escalates risks on both sides?

Radoslava Stefanova: No, NATO enlargement poses no threat to Russia or any other country. It is really not about Russia at all, it is a matter of principle, encoded in Article 10 of NATO’s founding Treaty. Every country that joins NATO undertakes to uphold its principles and policies. They are aimed at promoting stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy and common values.  NATO’s Open Door policy has helped spread stability and prosperity in Europe and Russia has benefited from that as well.

Given that NATO’s membership has more than doubled since its inception in 1949, and a number of countries continue to aspire for it, NATO clearly remains an attractive multinational model. Any decision to invite a country to join the Alliance is taken by the North Atlantic Council on the basis of consensus among all Allies. No third country has a say in such deliberations.  So, NATO enlargement is not a bargaining chip in our relations with Russia.  I really don’t think anyone other than democratically chosen governments can decide on their own countries’ sovereign choices. Russia has itself subscribed to these principles, as I mentioned earlier.

To illustrate the contrast, President Putin has personally argued in the UN that the Yalta Agreement was a good construction for a world equilibrium. I do not think that this something possible, acceptable or morally sustainable to argue in the twentieth-first century, where principles do matter and they do eventually prevail over the use of force. For this reason, Russia is increasingly isolated in its actions. It is under sanctions because of its illegal annexation of Crimea, a fact which the grand majority of the world’s nations does not and will not accept. A dictate on the part of powerful states is not how the world works anymore. Russia needs to catch up with how the world has evolved and it needs to do so without threatening other countries.

Q: Do you think a Russian military attack against the Baltics is a realistic scenario?

Radoslava Stefanova: We do not see an imminent military threat against NATO Allies. The Baltic states are NATO members and NATO has an iron-clad guarantee in its Article 5, which constitutes the core of our deterrence policy.  Since 2014, we decided it was necessary to strengthen our deterrence because of Russia’s actions. Our response has been measured and defensive, but it has also been firm and clear. I am convinced that Russia understands that any attack on any NATO member would trigger a response from the entire Alliance. That is exactly the point of successful deterrence.

Q: How do you see the prospects for conflict resolution in Ukraine – both with regard to Crimea and Donbass? Are we facing another frozen conflict in the post-Soviet space?

Radoslava Stefanova: The hope is that it is not another frozen conflict because, as I said, Russia is never going to get international recognition of what it has done in Crimea and the sanctions will remain in place until Moscow stops violating international law. But the problem, as you said, is beyond Crimea – in the Donbass where Russia continues to illegally destabilize the territory of another sovereign state. We do have a way forward to a peaceful resolution and these are the Minsk Agreements and their full implementation. In fact, Ukraine has taken some steps towards the implementation of the Agreements, but Russia has not, although it is a part of these agreements. Russia has committed to withdrawing its forces, heavy weapons and militants under its control from the Donbass, ensuring a ceasefire and creating a stable security environment. That would then allow for the holding of local elections under Ukrainian law, and in the presence of international observers. So, there is a path forward but Russia has so far shown no willingness to pursue it and this is the problem. So, it is difficult to predict how things will evolve but the mechanism is there. What is now needed is political will.

Q: What are your thoughts on the issue of deploying a UN peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine discussed at the Munich Security Conference?

Radoslava Stefanova: I think this is not a bad idea.  It is also not a Russian idea. The Ukrainians have been talking about this two years before president Putin declared he was interested in the issue.  Certainly, such a mission would have to ensure that OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) is able to operate freely throughout the territory of the contested area, including the Russian-Ukrainian border, as agreed in Minsk, and to fulfill its mandate unobstructed. This is not currently the case. The SMM is facing severe restrictions in the areas controlled by the militants; they have very sporadic, almost no access to the Russian-Ukrainian border. So, I think, under the right circumstances, a UN mission could be a good idea. Discussions are ongoing, and it would be good to see how they evolve. The idea has potential but how it is done, the details, they are important as well.

Q: What do you think countries like Canada can do? What should be their best strategy in contributing to resolving the conflict?

Radoslava Stefanova: I think countries like Canada are doing exactly what needs to be done – being active politically and ensuring their support for Ukraine – on a political level and on a practical level by providing a number of advisors to Ukraine, as well as trainers. All assistance for Ukraine is currently important. We have a situation where there is an aggressor and a victim of aggression and I think it is important for us to support the victim of the aggression. This is what Canada, as well as all other Allies, have been doing. Canada has also been very active in helping to strengthen NATO’s own deterrence by being a framework nation to the multinational battlegroup deployed in Latvia. I think this is very welcome and it needs to continue.

Q: What do you see as potential confidence-building measures for breaking the deadlock in the Minsk process?

Radoslava Stefanova: It is interesting that you mention confidence-building measures because Russia has walked away from most confidence-building mechanisms it had itself agreed to after the end of the Cold War. I mean the mechanisms available at the OSCE, such as the CFE Treaty (Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) which Russia “suspended” in 2007. Or, instruments such as the Vienna Document, in the framework of which Russia has never allowed a mandatory observation of its military activities. So, it would be great if Russia invested more efforts in risk reduction, confidence building and military transparency, more generally.

In terms of confidence building in its relationship with NATO, two things are needed to begin with: One, there must be progress in the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. And two, it would be good to increase the quality of our discussions on military transparency in the NATO-Russia Council and see a more substantive Russian engagement there as well. It has been positive that we were recently able to exchange briefings on respective exercises, but the information that has been provided has been very selective. So, continued discussions on these issues would help to improve predictability in our relations.

With regard to the Minsk Agreements, NATO as an organization is not directly involved. However, we follow the negotiations very closely and how they evolve has an impact on our relations with Russia. As I mentioned earlier, the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements would be an important step forward. Russia has a special responsibility in this regard.

Q: As a former NPSIA student, what would be your advice to students who want to pursue a career in conflict management and resolution?

Radoslava Stefanova: I think NPSIA is an excellent program and my advice would be to take advantage of the great resources that are there. This includes making the most of the courses and the excellent professors. I have a personal experience and fond memories of the professors I studied with– my thesis’s supervisors Fen Hampson and David Carment, but also David Long, and professor Piotr Dutkiewicz from EURUS. It is also important to combine the academic experience with some policy experience, although it depends on the specific career that you want to pursue. If it is a more academic profile, then I would say, focus on producing quality publications. If it is policy – then focus on getting relevant policy experience. Do not wait too long before getting a job.

Q: Thank you very much.

Radoslava Stefanova: My pleasure.


Featured Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons 




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