NATO Enlargement and Russia: Discerning Fact from Fiction

Posted in Russia , NATO | 15-Sep-14 | Author: Michael Rühle,

The crisis in Ukraine, which culminated in Russia's annexation of the Crimea, marked a new low in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)– Russia relations. While this relationship had been deteriorating for quite some time, Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis revealed a geopolitical agenda that caught many observers by surprise. In the course of just a few weeks, Russia emerged as a revisionist power, changing borders by threat of force, thus denying a neighboring country the ability to determine its own alignments. The assumption that Russia had accepted certain ground rules of behavior among European states turned out to be wrong. The crisis also put to rest another assumption held in the West: the idea that, while Russia was opposed to NATO membership for its immediate neighbors, it was much more open-minded about their deepening relations with the European Union. The issue in the Ukraine crisis was Russia's loss of influence over a critically important neighboring country, not a quarrel about a specific institutional framework. Worse, even though the crisis was sparked by the European Union's neighborhood policy, which confronted Ukraine with a choice that was bound to amplify that country's well-known internal divisions, NATO remained the proverbial ''elephant in the room.'' Most of those who rushed to defend Moscow's behavior argued that Russia had to act in order to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Ukraine’s eventual association with the EU—the real issue at stake— was, in the event, almost eclipsed by the shadow cast by NATO’s enlargement and all that it seemed to represent: Russia’s humiliation by a triumphant West, broken Western promises, and a determination by the West to further undermine Russia’s power and influence—even in neighboring countries. In the Ukraine crisis, history returned with a vengeance.

Many commentators were quick to argue that the return of tensions between Russia and the West had given NATO a new sense of purpose. However, such a view fails to take the internal makeup of the Atlantic Alliance fully into account. While NATO did, indeed, show a remarkable degree of unity— avoiding alarmist rhetoric and rapidly providing visible military reassurance to its Eastern members— it is far from clear that this healthy initial response will ultimately lead to a new, consensual approach vis-a`-vis Russia. If Russia’s behavior does not become even more erratic, it is safe to assume that many Allies will soon seek to reestablish the cooperative relationship they deem so important. Given past experience, the debate on how to reengage with Russia could become rather heated. What is, therefore, essential is for the Allies to agree at least on some basic parameters and not allow this debate to get bogged down by peripheral concerns.

This article seeks to contribute to this debate by looking at three areas of NATO–Russia relations. First, it examines the argument that the West promised Russia not to enlarge NATO. Second, it looks at NATO’s enlargement policy as a permanent challenge to Russia’s status and interests. Finally, it offers some reflections on the way ahead for the NATO– Russia relationship, including NATO’s enlargement process.


Addressing the Russian Parliament on April 18, 2014, to justify the annexation of the Crimea, President Putin stressed the humiliation that Russia had suffered as a result of the many promises broken by the West, including the promise not to enlarge NATO beyond the borders of a reunified Germany. Over the past 20 years, numerous references to this alleged promise have been made by both Russian and by Western observers.

This narrative of broken Western promises is far more than a historical footnote. Interpreting events since 1990 has become a central element of the political discourse between Russia and the West. For Russia, this narrative is essential to justify its current policies, be they vis-a`-vis Ukraine or elsewhere. The image of a country whose sincere attempts to integrate with the West were rejected resonates deeply with Russian and Western audiences alike. The image of Russia as the underdog that only seeks to right historical wrongs imposed by flawed Western policies is part of the discourse within Russia as well as within Western circles. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the ‘‘broken promises’’ narrative has resurfaced in the context of the Ukraine crisis. Dwelling on the past remains the most convenient tool to distract from the present.

Is there any truth to these claims? Until recently, historians examining this question had to rely on interviews with the political actors of the period in question, as well as on the considerable number of published memoirs. However, over the past few years, countless records and minutes of meetings of the political protagonists have been released, allowing a more nuanced assessment of the events that took place between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the Soviet acceptance of a reunified Germany in NATO in July 1990. Yet even these additional sources do not change the fundamental conclusion: there have never been political or legally binding commitments of the West not to extend NATO beyond the borders of a reunified Germany nor has a concrete invitation ever been extended to Russia to join NATO. A closer look at the specific political situation at the time nevertheless helps clarify how such myths were able to emerge.

The key to understanding the events lies in the unique political situation in which the political actors of both East and West found themselves in 1990—it shaped their ideas about the future European order. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies had long spun out of control, the Baltic countries were demanding independence, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were showing signs of upheaval. The Berlin Wall had fallen; Germany was on the path to reunification. However, the Soviet Union still existed, as did the Warsaw Pact, whose Central and Eastern European member countries did not talk about joining NATO but, rather, about the ‘‘dissolution of the two blocks.’’ NATO membership for these countries thus seemed utterly farfetched. Washington, in fact, was worried whether NATO— the central legitimizing framework for the United States to be considered a ‘‘European power’’—was still seen as desirable by its West European members. The debate about the enlargement of NATO initially evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In those negotiations, Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet concerns about the reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by offering Russia generous financial aid and by the ‘‘2 þ 4 Treaty,’’ which ruled out the stationing of foreign NATO troops on the territory of the former GDR. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.

These conversations left some Soviet politicians with the impression that NATO enlargement, which started with the admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999, had been a breach of these Western commitments. Some statements of Western politicians—particularly the German foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, and his American counterpart James A. Baker—can, indeed, be interpreted as a general rejection of any NATO enlargement beyond East Germany. However, it should be noted that these statements were made in the context of the negotiations on German reunification and that the Soviet interlocutors never specified their con- cerns. In the crucial 2 þ 4 negotiations, which finally led Gorbachev to accept a unified Germany in NATO in July 1990, the issue was never raised. As former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadse later put it, the idea of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact dissolving and NATO taking in former Warsaw Pact members was beyond the imagination of the protagonists at the time.

And there is more. Even if one were to assume that Genscher and others had, indeed, sought to forestall NATO’s future enlargement with a view to respecting Soviet security interests, they could never have done so. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in the summer of 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union only half a year later created a completely new situation— the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were finally able to assert their sovereignty and define their own foreign and security policy goals. As these goals centered on integration with the West, any categorical refusal of NATO to respond would have meant the de facto continuation of Europe’s division along former cold war lines. The right to choose one’s alliances, enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Charter, would have been denied—an approach that the West could never have sustained, politically or morally.


What about the other way to come to terms with Moscow, namely by admitting Russia into NATO? According to Article 10 of the Washington Treaty, the Allies ‘‘can invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area’’ to accede to the Treaty. This means that, in principle, Russia could be invited to join NATO. Indeed, proposals to bring Russia into NATO were part and parcel of the enlargement debate throughout the 1990s. Those who advocated such an approach argued that only the possibility of Russia’s eventual accession could prevent NATO enlargement from isolating Russia and from inviting a new cold war. Despite their inherent logic, however, these proposals were too sweeping to take fully into account the difficulties of the task. Above all, they gave short shrift to the interests of those countries that were seeking NATO membership in order to be protected from Russia. Accordingly, while the potential drawbacks of NATO enlargement were seriously debated, the alternative of extending enlargement to cover Russia did not receive the same amount of attention. Russia’s preference was to preclude NATO enlargement altogether—a goal that Moscow sought to achieve by repeatedly suggesting a U.S.–Russia condominium over Central and Eastern Europe.

The issue of Russia’s NATO membership briefly returned in the aftermath of 9/11. As Putin’s Russia had sided with the U.S. ‘‘War on Terror,’’ some observers felt that a new security paradigm warranted another look at the membership question.7 Around that same time, Putin complained to Western interlocutors about Russia’s absence from Western political and economic structures and suggested a ‘French’’ model for Russian membership, which would extend to NATO’s political but not military structures. However, like Boris Yeltsin’s statements on previous occasions, suggestions advanced by Russia about its joining NATO appeared ill-conceived and superficial, expressing a general frustration about the country’s isolation rather than a genuine commitment to NATO’s wider purposes. There has always been doubt about whether Russia is really aware of what NATO membership means. Leaving aside the question of whether Russia would fulfill certain membership criteria, such as democratic control of the armed forces, its willingness to subject national political interests to decision making by consensus always appeared as unlikely as the willingness of the Russian military establishment to join an integrated multinational structure. Moreover, portraying NATO as a hostile alliance remains part and parcel of Russian domestic politics. In sum, NATO membership for Russia never appeared feasible. Such demands will continue to resurface from time to time, yet, after Crimea, they will have even less traction than before.


Does all this mean that the West never had any obligations vis-a`-vis Russia? Did the enlargement policy of Western institutions therefore proceed without taking Russian interests into account? Again, the facts tell a different story. However, they also demonstrate that the twin goals of admitting Central and Eastern European countries into NATO while, at the same time, developing a ‘‘strategic partnership’’ with Russia were far less compatible in practice than in theory.

When the NATO enlargement debate started in earnest around 1993, it did so with considerable controversy. Many observers agreed with George F. Kennan’s characterization of opening NATO’s doors as ‘‘the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,’’8 as it would antagonize Russia, thus jeopardizing the positive achievements of the end of the cold war. Without recalling the entire list of pros and cons, it is no exaggeration to state that, ever since the beginning of NATO’s post–cold war enlargement process, the prime concern of the West was how to reconcile this process with Russian interests. Hence, NATO sought early on to establish special relations with Russia. The NATO-Russia Founding Act, which established the Permanent Joint Council as a new, dedicated framework for consultation and cooperation, took years to negotiate and was signed in May 1997—even before the first countries of Central Europe were invited to join NATO. In 2002, as the Allies were preparing the next major round of NATO enlargement, the NATO-Russia Council was established, giving the relationship more focus and structure. The need to avoid antagonizing Russia was also evident in the way NATO enlargement was accomplished in the military realm. As early as 1996, the Allies declared that in the current circumstances they had ‘‘no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.’’ These statements were incorporated into the NATO-Russia Founding Act, together with similar references about substantial combat forces and infrastructure. This ‘‘soft’’ military approach to the enlargement process was supposed to signal to Russia that it was not at risk of military ‘‘encirclement,’’ the goal being the integration of Central and Eastern Europe into an Atlantic security space. In other words, the method was the message.

Russia never interpreted these developments as benignly as NATO wanted. For Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act was merely ‘‘damage limitation’’: as Russia had no means to stop NATO enlargement, it might as well take whatever the Allies were willing to offer, even at the risk of appearing to acquiesce in the enlargement process. The fundamental contradiction of all NATO-Russia bodies—that Russia was at the table and could co-decide, but could not veto, on key issues—could not be overcome. Russia had little choice but to sit in a Council that was chaired by the secretary general of an institution of which Russia was not even a member. Unsurprisingly, military-to-military cooperation remained hamstrung as well, with almost all proposals in this area coming from NATO.

However, these institutional weaknesses paled against the background of real political conflicts. NATO’s military intervention in the Kosovo crisis was interpreted in Moscow as a geopolitical coup by a West that was bent on marginalizing Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. NATO’s missile defense approach, although directed at third countries, was interpreted by Moscow as an attempt to undermine Russia’s nuclear second strike capability. Worse, the ‘‘Orange Revolution’’ in Ukraine and the ‘‘Rose Revolution’’ in Georgia brought to power elites who envisioned the future of their respective countries in the EU and NATO. To this day, Russia avoids public debate about why so many of Russia’s neighbors seek to orient themselves toward the West. Instead, the domestic political discourse centers on conspiracy theories according to which Western agents are staging political upheavals in neighboring countries in an attempt to weaken Russia.

Against this background, Western arguments about the benevolence of NATO enlargement never had much traction. Statements by Western politicians that NATO enlargement was also in Russia’s interest appeared both na ??ve and arrogant, for they presupposed that considerations of power, status, and influence were no longer important. Above all, appealing to Russia to acknowledge the benign nature of NATO’s enlargement misses a most essential point: NATO enlargement—as well as the enlargement of the European Union—is designed as a continental unification project and thus does not have an ‘‘end point’’ that could be convincingly defined in intellectual terms or morally justified. In other words, precisely because the two organizations’ respective enlargement processes are not intended as anti-Russian projects, they are open-ended and can hardly be perceived by Russia as anything but a permanent assault on its global and regional power and influence. 


As NATO seeks to reestablish a workable relationship with Russia, three areas will require particular attention.

First, the military posture of NATO will need to change. Even if Russia may not constitute a direct threat to NATO, the Alliance’s threat analyses will have to be revised in light of Russian actions in the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, NATO may have to review its political declarations, made in the context of negotiating the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, about seeing no need for the deployment of substantial combat forces or military infrastructure on the territory of its Eastern member states. These statements were made to address Russian sensitivities and NATO has painstakingly adhered to them. However, they were made under the condition that Russia would also show military restraint. Reviewing these political statements will not necessarily result in substantial numbers of permanently deployed NATO combat forces in Central and Eastern Europe. However, it is essential to send a credible signal of reassurance to those Allies that are geographically most exposed. Such changes in NATO’s defense posture will be more than a military message. The commitment to collective defense is also an expression of the will to maintain a distinct political order. Hence, irrespective of their specific military collective defense arrangements, the Allies need to convey the message that matters most: that Europe and North America consider themselves to be one single security space. Russia will seek to characterize each change in NATO’s posture as a breach of previously made commitments or as provocative. NATO should not be seen as dithering on this score.

Second, the West and Russia need to keep talking about the enlargement policies of NATO and the EU. The contradictions are obvious: if recent events were to slow the enlargement processes, Moscow might view this as a vindication of its approach to halt any further Western ‘‘encroachment’’ by the judicious use of—or threat of using—military force. At the same time, it would hold membership aspirants hostage to Russian (mis)perceptions of NATO and NATO enlargement, thus contravening the logic of the free choice of alignments. On the other hand, pushing enlargement forward in order to not be seen as backing down in the face of Russian pressure will prevent any serious thought being given to alternatives to full membership at the very time when such alternatives need to be examined. Ironically, Russia itself has rendered some of these alternatives obsolete: the flagrant violation of the 1994 Budapest agreement, which aimed at safeguarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity through assurances by the United States, the United Kindgom, and Russia, has invalidated plans that sought to work around the dilemma that NATO membership for Ukraine might have created. No country in Russia’s neighborhood will any longer regard such arrangements as reliably ensuring its security. Still, as President Obama has made clear, Ukrainian membership in NATO is currently not on the agenda, which means that a security arrangement has to be found that will satisfy Ukraineas well as Russia, even if it may fall short of Ukrainian ambitions. An alternative approach of this sort would also help avoid a situation the NATO Allies have long been wary of: the prospect of a new member importing unresolved issues into the Alliance, thus rendering it ineffective.

Third, NATO’s broader cooperation with Russia is likely to become more conditioned and focused on reciprocal behavior. While the main elements of the European security architecture, such as the OSCE or the NATO-Russia Founding Act, will remain in place, cooperation simply for the sake of cooperation appears to be increasingly hollow. However, where common interests are at stake, such as with respect to the Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan, cooperation should be pursued and protected from dissonances in other areas. Whether such a selective approach will work is impossible to predict. It is worth recalling that the now-defunct ‘‘reset’’ policy of the Obama administration had sought to implement such a selective ‘‘win–win’’ agenda, yet ultimately faltered because disagreements over fundamental issues, such as Syria or missile defense, inhibited progress in other areas. NATO–Russia cooperation may soon run into similar problems: NATO’s support to Ukraine in defense capacity building may burden ties with Moscow, as may Swedish and Finnish interest in NATO membership. Still, as long as Russia appears eager to avoid complete isolation, hope remains for continued cooperation in certain areas. Much of this cooperation will be reminiscent of cold war–type arms control and confidence-building measures. Even if current events do not lead to a new cold war, the need to revisit approaches that were developed during that period and that helped establish a degree of cooperation and predictability between the antagonists is obvious. Above all, cooperation under cold war conditions proceeded from the assumption that at least some of the protagonists’ interests were irreconcilable. Such an assumption could spare NATO–Russia cooperation further disillusionment.


The West will continue to seek cooperation with Russia. However, this cooperation will be focused, reciprocal, and less embellished with overblown rhetoric about a ‘‘strategic partnership.’’ It will, hopefully, also be free from myths. The assertion that the West had promised not to expand NATO to Eastern Europe and yet had consistently ignored Russian interests is one such myth. It perpetuates the false notion of Russian victimhood that provides Moscow with a convenient pretext to justify its policies. Above all, it also locks the NATO–Russia relationship into a sterile debate about the past, precisely at a time when thought should be given to the future. Even without the use and abuse of history, shaping this future will be difficult enough. 


Source: American Foreign Policy Interests.