RUSSIA and NATO - George Washington University February 1997


Introduction: The Evolution of the Discussion
on NATO-Russia Relations

What are the prospects for a structured, constructive Russia-NATO relationship? This question has emerged suddenly as a major issue in Western countries since the end of 1996, when NATO became committed to enlarging its membership and simultaneously negotiating a charter for structuring relations with Moscow.

Russian relations with NATO had always been adversarial during the first four decades of NATO's existence; indeed, the threat of Soviet Russian power was the immediate motivation for creating NATO in 1949. Thus, it was widely assumed that NATO's very essence lay in opposition to Soviet Russian power. It came as a surprise after 1990 that a constructive NATO-Russia relationship could be contemplated. For many people, that very thought negated the essence of what NATO was all about.

From another standpoint, the Atlantic alliance antedated NATO by two generations, and the anti-Soviet configuration of the alliance from 1949 to 1989 was only one of the phases in the development of the Atlantic grouping. NATO provided the Atlantic grouping its first experience in absorbing former enemies: it incorporated Italy and Germany, which a few years earlier had been enemies of the Western allies. The first secretary general of NATO, Lord Ismay, described this as one of the three purposes of NATO, the other two being keeping America in and keeping Soviet Russia out. This provided a considerably wider perspective on NATO's history and purpose than opposition to Soviet Russia alone. From this perspective, it made sense that, when European Communism collapsed in the years 1989-1991, the question arose of incorporating the ex-enemy countries into the Atlantic alliance.

The Central and Eastern European countries began vying after 1989 for a position similar to post-1945 Germany and Italy: that is, a position as countries that had formerly been counted as enemies but now were being reconstructed and integrated as allies. The first to speak of joining NATO was Hungary in February 1990, soon followed by virtually all of the other countries up to the Soviet border. At the same time, they all sought to strengthen and institutionalize the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, nowadays OSCE). They argued that an expanded NATO could serve as the military-defense underpinning for an effective CSCE and for a pan-European security system from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

Later in 1990 the Russian Republic also began exploring, in a tentative way as a subordinate part of the Soviet Union, whether it might be integrated into the NATO-West. When the Russian Federation gained genuine sovereign power, on December 20, 1991, its President, Boris Yeltsin, sent NATO a message which included this statement: "Today we are raising a question of Russia's membership in NATO, but we are prepared to regard this as a long-term objective."

NATO made no response to that Yeltsin overture. A few days later, Russia announced that the message had been mistranslated, and was supposed to have read, "today we are not raising a question of Russia's membership in NATO..." This change has been interpreted in the West in two opposite ways: as a retraction of a proposal that was never serious, and as a retreat from publicly standing for a position that was politically too risky in Russia in the absence of validation from the West. On February 24, 1992, after a meeting with the NATO Secretary General, Yeltsin's foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said that Russia would not press for NATO membership, because "effective mechanisms of international cooperation seem now to be more important than breathtaking ideas like Russia's quick incorporation into NATO."

In fact, NATO was not prepared in 1991-2 to respond favorably to the overtures for membership from any of the aspiring countries from Hungary to Russia. But it was clear that the overtures for membership from the smaller states had far more support within NATO than the overtures from Russia. The small states continued to knock constantly at the NATO door and wear down the resistance within NATO. Politically this was much easier for the small states to do than for Russia, since joining NATO was in keeping with defense of their national dignity and they had few other strategic choices, while in Russia it could seem humiliating and there was another choice -- Eurasianism -- that was favored by a strong nationalist and Communist opposition. That opposition was constantly saying that the West was never going to open its doors to Russia and was accusing the Yeltsin-Kozyrev regime of betraying the national interest out of an unrequited love for the West.

In all of the countries emerging from Communism, the new Westernizing leaderships criticized NATO for its lack of response to their desire to join. They all faced nationalistic and neo-Communist backlashes, which they often blamed on the absence of an energetic Western effort to integrate them in the 1989-1992 period.

In most of the small countries, the backlash reached the point of a return to power of reformed or "neo" Communist parties. Neo-Communism, however, has turned out -- in the absence of a return in Russia itself to Communist rule or imperial outreach -- not to have halted the Westernizing trend, and in many countries it has already proved only a temporary phase.

In Russia, too, the backlash brought nationalist and Communist movements to the fore, but the reformist leadership managed to survive in the Presidential elections of 1996. Meanwhile, from 1992 to 1995, that leadership made many concessions to the opposition, and there was some reaction in the entire elite against Atlanticism in Russian foreign policy. There was a sharp retreat by Yeltsin and Kozyrev from their initially warm pro-Westernism, a retreat which seemed to turn into a rout in the face of successes of the extreme nationalists in the 1993 parliamentary elections and the Communists in the 1995 elections. The latter elections led to the replacement of Kozyrev by Evgeny Primakov. In place of Kozyrev's focus on integration with the West, the new foreign minister propounded a doctrine of multipolarism, criticizing American attempts at unipolar domination of the world through NATO, and seeking partners such as China for balance vis-a-vis the West.

After 1993, the reaction against the perceived shortfall in helpful Western leadership was compounded in Russia by a reaction against the growing prospect that NATO would take in Russia's former military satellites but not Russia itself. Nearly all Russian political figures were against such a development. It was viewed as a danger on a number of levels:

• diplomatically, as something that would isolate Russia from Europe, by turning a Russia-less NATO into the venue for almost all European security decision-making, and by adding even more anti-Russian sentiments from the newcomers into the NATO milieu;

• geopolitically, as something that would take away Russia's remaining influence and bargaining power in European affairs;

• militarily, as a potential threat from a NATO that, in its habits, personnel, training, contingency plans, and collective thought processes, was still oriented in part against Russia, and would become more so if defense of the newcomers became a subject of planning;

• psychologically, as a stab in the back for a Russia which had peacefully walked away from its empire, and which, according to Gorbachev, had been promised that the West would not take advantage of its retreat in order to incorporate its former satellites into NATO;

• politically, as a disaster for the Westernizing elite which had led the walkaway from empire, and a validation of the nationalists' and Communists' charge that the Westernizers had sold out their nation's interests and positions of power due to love of the West.

From 1990 to 1992, the issue of NATO enlargement gradually came to be debated in internal NATO circles as well as in the more intense debates throughout Eastern Europe, but not yet in a significant way in the Western public, nor in government policy discussion. In 1993, NATO enlargement broke out into Western policy and public discussion. An article appeared in Foreign Affairs favoring NATO enlargement to Central-Eastern Europe, with a door left open for possible Russian membership in the future, and with an argument for viewing this as a step toward engagement with Russia rather than against Russia. Senator Richard Lugar took up this approach and gave it impetus in a major speech. The new Clinton Administration began to prepare an initiative for NATO enlargement.

The Administration conceived of NATO enlargement as a part of a warmer political commitment to all the post-Communist countries, Russia included. It was as if it were beginning a honeymoon with Russia; but it soon found that the honeymoon had already ended in 1992 as far as Russians were concerned. The Russian reaction to the idea of NATO expansion was by now sharply negative as long as Russia was not itself being considered for early membership.

On August 25, 1993, this seemed to change. Yeltsin made a joint declaration with President Walesa of Poland, accepting Polish entry into NATO as something that would not be anti-Russian as long as it was in a context of an overall European integration in which Russia was included. This, coupled with a similar declaration in Prague, was widely described in the West as a "green light" for the small countries to join NATO.

Yeltsin's declaration was sharply criticized in Russia as something that the West would use to expand NATO without providing for overall European integration. On October 1, Yeltsin sent a letter to Western leaders which sharply denounced the idea of expanding NATO without including Russia, and said that he wanted Russian relations with NATO to stay "a step ahead" of relations between NATO and the other ex-Communist countries. This was described in the West as "opposing NATO expansion." In the months following that, there was a growing tendency to describe any Russian insistence on its own inclusion as "opposition to NATO expansion." There was a gradual de facto redefinition of "NATO expansion" in Western discourse to mean simply expansion to the small states not Russia.

This redefinition was furthered by a growing emphasis on membership criteria in discussions of NATO expansion. This emphasis fostered a differentiation into classes of prospective members and partners.

In January 1994, the alliance adopted the Partnership for Peace -- a compromise, meant to include Russia on equal terms as a Partner while preparing the grounds for membership for willing Partner countries. The accompanying declarations established for the first time the goal of enlargement of NATO membership, in a way that was inclusive of Russia.

The Partnership provided an enhanced program of cooperation, primarily in the military rather than political field. This, ironically, also led to increasing differentiation. Some partner countries were more interested than others in military cooperation and in standardization of their military forces along NATO lines. Russia in particular held back from full participation, due to domestic pressures, to suspicions of NATO, and to arguments that the Partnership was only providing diplomatic cover for a process of expansion from which Russia was being excluded.

The Partnership for Peace temporarily calmed the discussion on NATO expansion in Russia, which had proceeded in late 1993 along lines of alarm about the plans of the West. However, it brought sharp criticism in the West itself, where it was widely described as an abandonment of expansion, a betrayal of the small countries, and a capitulation to Russia. The political attack was particularly sharp in America, since the Clinton Administration was the main author of the Partnership. The attacks by expansionists on the Partnership led them to a sharper anti-Russian tone. Some expansionists for the first time spoke of closing the door on Russia ever joining NATO. Most said that the door should be kept formally open but treated that as a public relations footnote. A minority, including to some extent the Administration, continued to speak of expansion of NATO as something that should proceed with a door fully open to Russia.

In December 1994, NATO decided to conduct an internal "Study on NATO Enlargement." This decision, which made NATO expansion a more concrete prospect, again set off alarm bells in Moscow. More and more, the Russian elite coalesced around opposition to expansion of a Russia-less NATO. Again, this was described in the West as opposition to NATO expansion per se.

On December 10, 1994, Yeltsin had a sharp exchange on this subject on Russian national television:

[Q.] Bill Clinton said today that NATO is open to everyone.

[Yeltsin] Yes, but he omitted to say: except Russia. And this is the whole crux of the matter. But to us, in a narrower circle, he said this. And so, it is not the same thing.

Yeltsin added that eventually Russia might become ready to join "the political part of NATO," and "then at least we shall not be kept apart from the issues which all European countries will be discussing if they all suddenly become members of NATO."

This indicated a partial shift in Russia's position. Russia was still against expansion of a Russia-less NATO. It was still for inclusion of Russia. But Yeltsin spoke only for eventual inclusion on the political side and structures of the alliance, not the military structures. Gone was the sentiment Yeltsin had expressed to James Baker in December 1991: that he wanted the CIS military to eventually "merge" with NATO, and that "it would be an important part of Russia's security to associate with the only military alliance in Europe." [James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy, New York, Putnam, 1995, p. 572.] And gone was the trust in the West that might have once led Russians to hope that a step by NATO in Russia's direction would be a step toward including not excluding Russia. Yeltsin's tone on NATO had become cautious and negative.

In September 1995, NATO released the results of its "Study on NATO Enlargement." This further concretized the goal of enlargement on a basis of membership criteria that Russia was regarded as being far from meeting, including a one-way adaptation to NATO strategic policy. It continued formally to hold the door open to eventual Russian membership, but treated an external NATO-Russia partnership as the main line of work in relations with Russia. It spoke of admitting countries individually or in classes, while urging that new member countries pledge not to veto further accessions. It added to the sense that expansion meant differentiation and division, at least for the interim for small countries, possibly forever for Russia. Moscow once again went through a cycle of bitter discussion of the ongoing process of enlargement of a Russia-less NATO.

In October 1996, President Clinton proposed -- and in December 1996, NATO adopted -- a two-track decision:

1. To choose at NATO's July 1997 summit which countries to invite to begin negotiation of a protocol of accession to NATO, with a view to actual membership in 1999.

2. To negotiate a NATO-Russia Charter to regulate relations between NATO and Russia and provide enhanced structures for consultation and cooperation.

Russia once again objected bitterly, but there were open differences in the Russian leadership on how to respond. Foreign Minister Primakov responded with unchanging but resigned opposition to NATO expansion, while agreeing to open negotiations with NATO on the Charter. Ivan Rybkin, Lebed's replacement as the Secretary of the Security Council, proposed that Russia should instead join NATO as a "political member". This was little noticed in the West, except to be described as a sign of a softer Russian line on NATO expansion. Foreign Minister Primakov, arguing that it would be used in the West as a sign of Russian weakness and a cover for going ahead with expansion, suggested that Rybkin should not speak on this subject. However, Rybkin continued to express his view, which showed continuity with his earlier comments, as speaker of the Duma, that if Russia joined NATO it would provide a realm of peace and security from Vancouver to Vladivostok. He got support from Yuri Baturin, the Secretary of the Defense Council.

Prime Minister Chernomyrdin called for the same goal of political membership in NATO at the beginning of February 1997, just days before his meetings with Vice President Gore. He embedded it in a context of strong language against expansion of a Russia-less NATO, thus avoiding the imputation of any soft line. Western reporting generally mentioned only the hard line not the overture. Meanwhile negotiations on the Charter went ahead, with Primakov representing Russia. The overtures for membership were not engaged by the West.

In the days before his Summit with President Clinton in March 1997, Yeltsin spoke bitterly against NATO expansion, and even dismissed the idea of Russian entry into NATO unless NATO became a political not a military organization. However, in the same days, Boris Berezovsky, Rybkin's Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, gave an impassioned appeal in Germany (printed as an article in the Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1997) for including Russia in NATO. He put the issue in the context of the revival of the Westernizing-reformist trend in the Russian government which was made possible by Yeltsin's victory in the 1996 elections. His language was akin to that of the Yeltsin and Kozyrev of 1991.

It is possible that much of the Russian leadership has come full circle back to the 1991 view, but it speaks with far greater caution than in 1991. The West, in turn, has scarcely noticed its overtures. In 1991, the Russian overtures raised eyebrows and were perceived as calls for positive friendship, even if the West was not ready to respond. In 1996-7, the Russian overtures to join NATO, when mentioned at all, were mostly described either as a soft line on NATO expansion elsewhere or as a hard-line extension of Russian demands in the Charter negotiations for a veto over NATO decisions.

The question of decision-making vetoes is a real problem for NATO, not only with Russia if it were to become a member, but also in two other, more immanent venues: with Russia in the Charter negotiations, and with small countries if they are made members.

The difficulty of decision-making with too many members was one of the main obstacles to NATO enlargement from the start in 1990. While NATO has legal flexibility to make decisions without consensus and occasionally has done so, NATO's habit and rhetorical doctrine is to make decisions by consensus, giving each member a de facto veto. Under this system, each new membership would mean a new veto-wielder and a new level of difficulty in decision-making.

NATO's 1995 "Study on NATO Enlargement" dealt with this in an inconclusive way, reinterpreting consensus to emphasize the moral obligation of members to coalesce on a decision rather than the practical obligation of NATO to wait for such coalescence. It urged aspiring members to familiarize themselves with NATO's "smooth," "effective," "quick" process of consensus-formation and decision. The adjectives were more aspiration than reality, in light of recurrent problems of obstruction from three member countries and intermittent problems from the others.

There remains a concern in NATO circles that decision-making could grind to a halt if there were too many more members; this is discussed as the "n + 1 country problem." The implication is that, at a certain point in the process of adding new members, a more flexible decision procedure will be needed in which the unit-veto is softened or dropped. For now, this is being left as a problem to be dealt with down the road. Meanwhile, it is hoped that it will not create too many problems to take in a few new members, as long as they have met strict enough criteria to provide some basis for thinking that they might behave well and avoid using or abusing the veto.

This solution would not work for Russian membership, since Russia is not trusted to avoid using the veto. The issue of softening the unit-veto would have to become immediate, or else the idea of Russian membership would have to be dropped. In practice, the latter is the choice that has been made by the West: the idea of Russian membership has been dropped.

This leaves the question of the consultation-and-cooperation arrangements which are being negotiated as part of the NATO-Russia Charter. Here NATO is proposing a secondary Council of 17 alongside the actual NATO Council of 16. Russia speaks of "consensus" or an equal veto for itself in the 17, while the West speaks of "consultation" and "a voice not a veto" in the 17. Russians have argued that mere consultation would give it less of a voice than Luxembourg, since every member inside the NATO 16 gets a veto to make the others listen to it, and since once the NATO 16 has negotiated to a consensus among all of its members, it has little space left for compromise with a Russia that does not have a veto. A former U.S. National Security Council staff member has described the dilemma this way:

The consensus culture in NATO works based on United States leadership. We lead by the power of the pen, but then the others usually follow. We try to arrive at a consensus, and to get each country to agree or at least not veto. We have difficulty with including Russia because we doubt that we can include it in this consensus culture...

The crux of the problem that the Charter is to address is that enlargement does tend to exclude Russia from national security decision-making in Europe. Thus the need to work through a cooperative decision-making process. It is not made easier when Russians speak of wanting a "blocking" power; this is the wrong emphasis.

Putting these objectives together -- a Charter in which Russia has a voice not a veto, while every actual member of NATO is still treated as having a veto, and such membership is extended to more countries, countries with terrible memories and fears of Russia, yet Russia's voice is hoped to be substantial and satisfying -- the result is a dilemma which appears irreconcilable. The dilemma might be softened in the future, if NATO were to adapt to more flexible, less veto-ridden procedures in the course of a second round of enlargement. However, such a second enlargement, nearing Russian borders, would -- unless an organic voice for Russia in NATO were agreed simultaneously -- alienate Russia very sharply, rendering the entire question moot.

The negotiations on the Charter, as structured by the West, have a spectrum of options that fall basically along a single axis: how many decisions are to be made jointly, with a Russian right of veto, how many with consultations leaving both sides free to go their separate ways and act independently. There is also a question of how many self-denying pledges the West will make in advance to Russia; this too is a kind of Russian veto. Given this structure, the negotiations have inherently been mostly zero-sum, a compromise of adversarial interests rather than an upgrading of common interests. The main question asked at each stage has been who has made what concessions to whom rather than what mutual advantages are being realized. This is a sign that the question is far from satisfactorily solved.

There is some potential for upgrading of common interests through the intended NATO-Russia Council and mutual involvement in planning functions. However, there is a problem of scale and phasing in this; the upgrading may be too little, too late to prevent the enlargement from meanwhile driving Russia away. Vicious circles may push out virtuous circles.

In March 1997, a Clinton-Yeltsin Summit in Helsinki seemed to ensure that Russia would sign the Charter. In the West, this was described as an accommodation by Russia to the inevitable reality of NATO enlargement to the east. In Russia, there was discussion of accommodating to this reality in a dual sense, first by trying to get the best bargain possible from NATO, second by "also going east" and building balancing alliances with China, India, Iraq, Iran and Belarus.

Sharp differences remained after Helsinki over the Charter's provisions on the rights of former Soviet republics to join NATO and the limits on NATO military activities in former Warsaw Pact countries. Clinton and Yeltsin gave opposite statements on the basic terms of the Charter, Yeltsin saying that the NATO-Russia Council would work by consensus, Clinton saying that Russia would get a voice not a veto.

Clinton's critics called Helsinki a "new Yalta," dividing up Europe and consigning the Baltics and other states to the Russian sphere of influence. Yeltsin's critics called it a "new Versailles," subjecting Russia, like Weimar Germany, to bullying by the victorious powers. Some of them also called it a "new Munich," paving the way for the advance of NATO forces toward Russian borders as the old Munich paved the way for Hitler's forces.

The basic issue will remain alive in the years ahead. It has a special urgency while the Charter is being negotiated, but it will continue with us afterwards. The Charter may keep the two sides engaged, but it cannot end the dissatisfaction on either side. It will soften the dividing line in Europe, but also codify it. It will lay the grounds for a further stage of drifting apart as well as for a further stage of cooperation. The two opposite trends in NATO-Russia relations -- integration and redivision -- will both keep moving forward. The outcome of this race will remain in doubt until a deeper resolution of the tension is found. As such, the discussions in this book on the options for the Charter and beyond are likely to retain a policy significance for a long time to come.

Ira L. Straus

The structuring of the options for the Charter inherently emphasizes compromise between adversarial interests, not synthesis or upgrading of interests.