"Clearly the Russians have declared NATO as an adversary, so we have to begin to view Russia no longer as a partner but as more of an adversary than a partner," said Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of NATO.
In a question-and-answer session with a small group of reporters, Vershbow said Russia's annexation of Crimea and its apparent manipulation of unrest in eastern Ukraine have fundamentally changed the NATO-Russia relationship.
"In central Europe, clearly we have two different visions of what European security should be like," Vershbow, a former U.S. diplomat and onetime Pentagon official, said. "We still would defend the sovereignty and freedom of choice of Russia's neighbors, and Russia clearly is trying to re-impose hegemony and limit their sovereignty under the guise of a defense of the Russian world."
In April, NATO suspended all "practical civilian and military cooperation" with Russia, although Russia has maintained its diplomatic mission to NATO, which was established in 1998.
The crisis over Ukraine and its implications for U.S. and NATO relations with Russia has become a major point of concern for top Obama administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who spoke by phone Monday to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu about Russia's intentions in Ukraine. Aides said Hagel was assured that Russia has no intention of invading.
Hagel is scheduled to speak Friday at the WoodrowWilsonInternationalCenter for Scholars on European security in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the deepening chill in relations with Moscow.
Vershbow said NATO, created 65 years ago as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union, is considering new defensive measures aimed at deterring Russia from any aggression against NATO members along its border, such as the Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union, Vershbow said.
"We want to be sure that we can come to the aid of these countries if there were any, even indirect, threat very quickly before any facts on the ground can be established," he said.
To do that, NATO members will have to shorten the response time of its forces, he said.
Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said that among possible moves by NATO is deployment of more substantial numbers of allied combat forces to Eastern Europe, either permanently or on a rotational basis.
For the time being, he said, such defensive measures would be taken without violating the political pledge NATO made in 1997 when it established a new relationship with Moscow on terms aimed at offsetting Russian anger at the expansion of NATO to include Poland and other nations on Russia's periphery. At the time, NATO said it would not station nuclear weapons or substantial numbers of combat troops on the territory of those new members. For its part, Moscow pledged to respect the territorial integrity of other states.
Vershbow argued that Russia has violated its part of that agreement by its actions in Ukraine, and thus, "we would be within our rights now" to set aside the 1997 commitment by permanently stationing substantial numbers of combat troops in Poland or other NATO member nations in Eastern Europe. He said that question will be considered by leaders of NATO nations over the summer, culminating in a meeting in Wales in September of President Barack Obama and the heads of the 27 other members of the alliance.
Simon Saradzhyan, an expert on Russian security policy, said it's doubtful that Vershbow's view that Russia is now an adversary of the Western alliance will be embraced by NATO's other major powers. He said he doubts Germany and France, which have substantial economic and business ties to Russia, would do so.
If NATO were to officially designate Russia as an adversary, Moscow likely would retaliate by cutting off avenues of cooperation, including the use of Russian territory for the movement of war material in or out of Afghanistan, Saradzhyan said. He is assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at Harvard's BelferCenter for Science and International Affairs.