NATO-Russia Relations: The Beginning


2013-06-20 by Richard Weitz

The end of the Cold War confrontation between Moscow and the West simultaneously created an environment favorable for improved Russian-Western relations and established conditions that made conflict likely.

On the one hand, the July 1991 dissolution of the integrated Warsaw Pact, held together by the Soviet military machine that vanished later that year, in the heart of Europe removed the threat from the east that for decades had generated distrust and hostility toward Russia in NATO countries. The end of Soviet communism also ended the ideological conflict between the Russian government and the Western democracies. Americans and Europeans saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform a former adversary into a stable, liberal democracy that would help maintain international security and stability.

On the other hand, Russia always appeared too unstable, too big, and too different from the existing members to warrant membership on its own.

Russia’s lack of influence on alliance decision making and the resulting imbalance of power in the West’s favor was bound to unnerve Russian leaders, especially as the alliance exploited its political-military preeminence in central Europe to incorporate new members and employ military force to address perceived threats to European stability, such as Russia’s Serb nationalist allies in the former Yugoslavia.

Formal ties between Russia and NATO developed soon after the Cold War, following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact in 1991.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved in the midst of the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council (NACC), a consultative body that included the NATO member states, the non-Soviet members of the Warsaw Pact, and the three Baltic states. During the session, Yeltsin sent a letter to the council implying that the new Russian Federation was interested in becoming an alliance member. Before the startled guests had time to assess the inquiry, Russian officials, perhaps fearing a negative response, chalked the incident up to a misunderstanding, claiming that they merely wished to participate in the forum, a request that was soon granted.  (In 1997, the NACC was renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.)

Clinton and Yeltsin were key players in shaping the Russian relationship with NATO.

The policies of the first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, toward NATO built on the improved ties that had developed between Moscow and the alliance under Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, believed that Russia could, through adopting cooperative policies, receive considerable economic assistance from Western countries as well as membership or some other affiliation with NATO, the EU, and other international institutions that excluded the Soviet Union.

During the late 1990s, however, the alliance’s decisions to offer membership to several East European countries and to intervene militarily in Kosovo without Russian approval set back relations for several years.

The Clinton administration wanted good Russia-Americans, but this objective conflicted with the goal of promoting democracy and stability in central and eastern Europe. The administration decided that this latter objective required offering Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and eventually other European countries full membership in NATO, despite Moscow’s strenuous objections. Ties improved somewhat under the Bush administration after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, when the Russian government supported the United States and other NATO members against the mutual threat of Islamist terrorism.

Russian-American divisions over the Anglo-American decision to invade Iraq were mitigated by the opposition of Germany, France, and several other important NATO governments to the intervention. Further waves of NATO enlargement, disputes over Russian policies towards Georgia and the other former Soviet republics, and the decision of the U.S. government to deploy BMD systems in east European countries close to Russian borders then led to a sharp downfall in relations, with the nadir reached following Russia’s war with Georgia.

The notion of further NATO enlargement—following the alliance’s founding in 1949, Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982—surfaced as soon as the Cold War concluded.

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic expressed particularly strong interest in joining NATO membership almost as soon as they escaped Soviet control. They saw alliance membership as a means to bolster their security against feared Russian revanchism as well as to promote their military, political, and economic integration with the West.

The leaders of the newly independent Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) also wanted to fortify their defenses against Russian policy makers who claimed special privileges in these countries due to their status as former Soviet republics and their large number of ethnic Russians, who often complained about mistreatment. The Baltic governments sought to distance themselves from Moscow by rallying influential supporters in Western countries to back their integration into NATO and other European institutions.

Like other NATO leaders, President Clinton initially resisted proposals to extend alliance membership to the new democracies of Central Europe. Western governments feared that inviting former Soviet allies into NATO could provoke a nationalist backlash among Russians and further weaken Russia’s friendly but already enfeebled government.

The Yeltsin administration was trying to defend its pro-Western polices against a parliamentary opposition that included Russian chauvinists, unreformed communists, and other groups that would try to exploit any further loss of Russian status and influence.

Yeltsin told Clinton and other Western leaders that granting membership to former Soviet bloc countries would present innumerable difficulties for him at home.  NATO leaders feared that the downfall of the Yeltsin government would see a roll-back of Russian political and economic reforms and a loss of Russian cooperation against terrorism, proliferation, and other mutual east-west threats.

Instead, NATO leaders launched the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Program at the Brussels Summit in January 1994. 

While not extending full membership, the PfP provided a framework under which NATO could work more closely with non-members countries, including Russia as well as those of East Central Europe and Eurasia, on a diverse range of mutual security concerns. PfP aimed to build trust amongst the former Soviet Union and NATO. It provided mechanisms through which NATO countries and their former Soviet bloc adversaries could pursue cooperative defense and security projects.

As a program of bilateral cooperation between NATO and each Partner country, PfP allowed each country to form individual relationships with NATO and determine their own priorities for cooperation.  Regular consultations are held between NATO and Partner countries to discuss issues ranging from defense and security to regional concerns and politics. Through the PfP, the non-member government and NATO jointly decide on a program of cooperative activities tailored to the specific priorities of the Partner country. These are specified in their Individual Partnership Programs, which cover a two-year period. Each bilateral partnership also includes a Framework Document that specifies a common set of mutual commitments.

Under the Framework Document, Allies are also obliged to consult with Partner countries if a direct threat is perceived that would jeopardize territorial integrity, political independence or security.

NATO pledges to assist the Partner to realize its specific objectives as well as consult with the Partner should it perceive a direct threat to its territorial integrity, political independence, or security. In turn, the Partner agrees to make its national defense planning and budgeting more transparent as well as to establish democratic control over armed forces and enhance its capacity to participate with NATO in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

The Partner government also commits to adhere to a number of liberal democratic principles in its domestic and foreign policies, including “to maintain the principles of international law; to fulfil obligations under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act and international disarmament and arms control agreements; to refrain from the threat or use of force against other states; to respect existing borders; and to settle disputes peacefully.”  In the case of their partnership with Russia, the allies also said they would follow the fundamental principle of “no vetoes, no surprises.”

Although Russia could not veto NATO actions, the allies pledged to consult with Moscow before making major decisions, such as regarding the Bosnian War, where NATO was employing military force for the first time in its history.

Russia’s enrollment in the Partnership for Peace Program signified an important step in strengthening the bond between Russia and the Western partners and bringing about peace in the post-Cold War world.   Russia was provided with a unique channel of consultation with the alliance on issues regarding nuclear disarmament and crisis with the former Yugoslavia .

The Partnership acknowledged Moscow as a major power, which it had not done with any other partners. Nonetheless, Russia still had to follow the standard framework of the Partnership which includes holding joint military exercises, respecting national borders and working towards mutual security.

This initial stage in their relationship culminated in the successful joint NATO-Russia peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, the May 1997 signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, and the concurrent creation of a NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council (PJC). 

In the Founding Act, Russia and NATO agreed to work towards comprehensive security in Europe based upon the allegiance to shared values and commitments in the interest of all states.  They committed to further develop the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to prevent the possibility of confrontation or isolation returning to Europe.

Relations will be based upon the shared commitments of outlined principles, which included development a strong, stable and enduring partnership to strengthen the security of the Euro-Atlantic region; acknowledgment of the significance of democracy and political pluralism as well as the respect for human rights, civil liberties and the development of free market economies; refraining from the use of treat or force against each other or another state; respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as rights for self-determination that are outlined in the Helsinki Final Act and various OSCE documents; transparency in creating and implementing defense policies and military principles; settlement of disputes through peaceful means in accordance to OSCE and UN policies; and support for peacekeeping operations carried out by OSCE or the UN Security Council. 

The Permanent Joint Council was created to serve as the principle venue for consultation between Russia and NATO and carry out the activities and aims of the Act.

The Council outlined three distinct activities that include consulting on political or security issues, developing joint initiatives agreed to by NATO and Russia, and making joint decisions on a case-by-case basis once consensus has been reached.  Russia and NATO made progress in strengthening their ties through the signing of the Founding Act and the creation of the Permanent Joint Council.  However, the document is not an international treaty and therefore not legally binding.  Diverging interpretations of the document resulted in frustrations on both sides.

The process became a damage-limitation exercise to compensate Russia for further NATO expansion.  While the principles of the document had ideal intentions, Russia remained more interested in the commitment from allies not to deploy nuclear weapons or station foreign forces in Central Europe than they did in exploring further more active cooperation with NATO.

In time, however, enlargement advocates within the U.S. administration were able to use President Clinton’s commitment to European peace and democracy to persuade him to support NATO’s gradual membership extension. 

The United States then worked with other governments favoring NATO enlargement to secure a formal decision at NATO’s Madrid Summit in 1997 to offer Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary full alliance membership. These three countries entered the alliance in March 1999.

Russian leaders found unpersuasive Western assertions that NATO’s enlargement represented no threat to Moscow because the alliance had transformed since the Cold War.

Instead of focusing on collective defense against a threat from Moscow, allied leaders claimed that NATO had become a collective security institution aiming to enhance security and stability throughout Europe. As compensation, the allies created a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council in May 1997, when Yeltsin and NATO Secretary General Javier Solana signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Formally, the PJC gave the Russian government a direct voice within NATO decision making. Informally, it aimed to meet Moscow’s demand to enjoy special status on the grounds that Russia was a more important European security actor than the other PFP members. NATO leaders reaffirmed their December 1996 statement that the alliance had “no intention, no plan and no reason” to install nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.

Nonetheless, while the American champions of increasing NATO’s membership and role in Europe proclaimed the need for the rubric of “democratic enlargement,” many Russians perceived NATO’s expanding presence around their borders as a continuation of the Cold War doctrine of containing Moscow’s foreign influence.

In 1994, the Baltic States applied for membership to NATO and became member states of the PFP.

President Yeltsin and other Russian leaders objected strenuously to proposals to offer NATO membership to the Baltic states. Russian leaders defined these former Soviet republics, which in the cases of Estonia and Latvia contained large numbers of ethnic Russians, as integral components of Russia’s security space rather than the frontiers of a new east-west wall dividing Russia from the West.

The question of NATO enlargement into the Baltic region would remain under consideration throughout the 1990s, but soon became overshadowed by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which would further strain relations between Russia and NATO.

In this three part series Dr. Weitz looks at the evolution of NATO-Russian relations since the emergence of the new Russia.

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