NATO Enlargement and Moscow


by Richard Weitz

Despite their differences over Yugoslavia, the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which vividly reminded Russian and Western officials of their shared security interests, led to a revival and restructuring of the NATO-Russian relationship.

At the May 2002 NATO summit in Rome, the allies issued a joint declaration, “NATO-Russian Relations: A New Quality.” They also created a NATO-Russia Council (NRC). Russian officials had become increasingly dissatisfied with the PJC, which they had come to dismiss as an institution suitable only for exchanging information rather than reaching common assessments and decisions. Consisting of all full alliance members plus Russia, the NRC, which operates on the basis of consensus, meets in various formats depending on the level of representation.

Routine meetings occur at the ambassador level, but sessions can also take at the levels of military representative, foreign or defense ministers, and sometimes at the level of heads of state and government, such as during summits. It formally treats all members as equal partners, discarding the PJC’s bilateral (and frequently confrontational) NATO+1 format. The NRC provides a mechanism for exchanging views regarding security issues, developing joint policies and programs, and undertaking concrete coordinated or common actions.

Since its creation, the NRC and its various subordinate working groups and committees have become the main arena for developing NATO-Russia relations.

The NRC adopts an annual work plan that lays out cooperative initiatives in a range of areas, including the fight against terrorism, defense reform, military-to-military cooperation, counter-narcotics training of Afghan and Central Asian personnel, theatre missile defense, crisis management, non-proliferation, airspace management, civil emergency planning, scientific cooperation, and environmental security.  In addition, the full council sessions, which are scheduled at least monthly, allow senior NATO and Russian representatives to exchange views on contemporary security issues.

Vladimir Putin 2007 in Munich: “The US has overstepped its national borders in almost all spheres” (Photo: Mörk).

Discussions have addressed such subjects as the situation in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Iraq, as well as exchanges on issues such as NATO’s transformation, energy security, missile defense and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.  Several working groups and committees meet regularly to develop cooperation on particular issues; annual meetings are held at the level of foreign and defense ministers as well as of chiefs of staff.

The NATO-Russia Council also aims to enhance cooperation on issues such as arms control, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, military-to-military cooperation, and crisis management.

The Russia NATO Action Plan on Terrorism was established in December 2004 to prevent terrorism and manage the consequences of any terrorist acts through improved intelligence sharing and other cooperative measures.

Improved mechanisms for intelligence sharing aim to identify likely terrorist targets and empower counter-missions. The Plan also aims to strengthen nonproliferation cooperation to deny terrorist’s access to WMD.   Through the Action Plan, Russia and NATO decided to intensify co-operation in Operation Active Endeavor, which aims to defend, deter, disrupt and protect against terrorism in the Mediterranean region.  Hungarian-Russian initiatives under the Plan were developed to strengthen civil emergency planning against terrorist acts.  Joint military training exercises have aimed to improve the interoperability of multinational military response teams.

President Putin and other Russian leaders spoke more favorably about the alliance, and Russia’s collaboration with NATO, following the NRC’s creation. 

Russia and NATO established a series of liaison offices to promote military transparency and cooperation. In 2002, NATO opened a Military Liaison Mission in Moscow. In April 2004, Russia and NATO signed agreements establishing a Russian Military Liaison Office at the NATO’s two major military commands, the Operational Command in Mons, Belgium, and the NATO Transformation Command in Norfolk, Virginia. In addition, the two parties agreed to assign additional personnel to the alliance’s existing Military Liaison Mission in Moscow.  The alliance has also established a NATO Information Office in the Russian capital that aims to promote Russian understanding of NATO’s changing role and the benefits of cooperating with the alliance.

Russian support for expanding security ties with NATO partly reflected an absence of institutional alternatives.

Since ten additional countries, mostly former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe, entered the European Union (EU) in May 2004, Russian officials have increasingly complained about the failure of that organization to offer Russia the same high level of security cooperation as NATO. Defense Minster Sergey Ivanov lamented the following year that “cooperation between Russia and the EU in the defense and security sphere is still in the embryonic stage, far lower than the level of our relations with individual NATO member countries, with China, or with India.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has observed that, “especially after its enlargement to 25 members, [the EU] has emerged as a new political bloc in the OSCE, and its position is evolving in a destructive direction under the influence of some of its new members.”   In February 2007, Lavrov reaffirmed that the NRC “still has a lot of potential as a mechanism of collective cooperation” provided participants respected its cooperative decision-making procedures. Lavrov also argued that the principles and procedures embodied in the NRC remained superior to those governing security relations between Russia and the EU.

The general post-9/11 resurgence in NATO-Russian cooperation lasted for several years, but had faded by the late 2000s.

Russian security experts have long held diverse and often ambivalent views regarding NATO—simultaneously seeking to cooperate with the alliance on concrete security issues while questioning why it still exists after the Cold War. In recent years, the predominant opinion has become distinctly negative.  At the February 2007 session of the Munich Security Conference, then Russian Defense Minister Ivanov said that Russia was prepared to continue cooperating with NATO, but he acknowledged that, “after two years of euphoria when Russia and NATO were staging joint military exercises and exchanging intelligence data”, the two parties “do not see many prospects in this area now.”

At the same conference, Ivanov warned that Russia would not support international decisions made without its participation, especially those that were “imposed on Russia.”

The recurring waves of NATO enlargement have generated the most longstanding Russian complaints.

Although the Yeltsin government resigned itself to the entry of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in 1999, the entry of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the three Baltic states in 2004 left bitter feelings despite the creation of the NRC and other steps adopted by NATO to assuage Russian sensitivities. Many Russian officials accused the alliance of violating alleged pledges made at the end of the Cold War not to exploit Moscow’s decision to permit Germany’s reunification within NATO and to withdraw Soviet troops from Eastern Europe.

For example, Defense Minister Ivanov told Der Spiegel in late November 2006 that the alliance had deceived Russia about its expansion plans. According to Ivanov, in 1990 Russian government representatives were told “that NATO would not expand its military structures in the direction of the Soviet Union. Then came the first wave of NATO expansion, followed by the second.” Ivanov also expressed bewilderment as to why NATO has been establishing such an extensive military infrastructure in the Baltic countries if the alliance no longer considered Moscow a potential adversary: “Does it intend to wage war against terrorism or influence operations in Afghanistan from there?”

Russian leaders eventually reconciled themselves to NATO’s granting full membership to its former Warsaw Pact allies and the Baltic states, but they have expressed indignation at suggestions that Georgia or Ukraine might also become members.

Shortly before NATO’s Riga summit in 2006, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Yury Balueyvsky, complained that, “We used to have NATO and Warsaw Pact, which confronted each other with large armed forces. We have no Warsaw Pact today, and Russian politics is predictable, understandable, and non-aggressive. Has the NATO bloc changed? It has only expanded.”

Vladimir Putin’s lightening speech at Munich Security Conference, Feb’07 from Rishabh Singla on Vimeo.

Putin laid out many Russian objections to NATO expansion at his speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.

He told the audience that,

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe.

On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?

Putin also repeated the Russian claim that NATO leaders promised they would never establish military bases in former Soviet bloc countries in return for the Russian decision to allow Germany’s unification within NATO and to dissolve the Warsaw Pact. He expressed further unease at the American decision to deploy troops in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Bulgaria and Romania, where he claimed the United States was establishing “so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each.”

These two countries have agreed to host as many as 5,000 American military personnel serving on rotational deployments.

Although every country has the right to decide its military and political affiliations, Putin raised the issue of “why is it necessary to put military infrastructure on our borders during this expansion?”