Don't Isolate Us: A Russian View of NATO Expansion

Don't Isolate Us: A Russian View of NATO Expansion

Mini Teaser: There was and is a wide consensus within the Russian political establishment that NATO expansion contradicts basic Russian national interests. The few dissenting voices in the Russian media and academic circles are marginal.

by Author(s): Alexey Pushkov

Russia's arguments against NATO expansion are well known. Moscow warns that NATO enlargement would create new dividing lines in Europe. If NATO military structures were to approach Russian borders and its troops were to appear on the territories of new member-states, Russia would be forced to adjust to these challenges to its security. New tensions caused by enlargement would spoil the post-Cold War political climate in Europe, destroy mutual trust, revive old fears, and throw the relationship between Russia and the West back into the past.

Until recently there was a tendency in the West--mostly in the United States--to downplay the significance of these arguments. Many American observers assumed that Boris Yeltsin and his government voiced opposition to NATO expansion mainly for domestic political reasons and in reaction to pre-election pressures from Communists and nationalists in the Russian Duma. The logic was that if Yeltsin won the summer 1996 presidential elections he would be sufficiently relieved of these pressures and become more receptive to the logic of Western assurances.

This assumption was wrong. There was and is a wide consensus within the Russian political establishment that NATO expansion contradicts basic Russian national interests. The few dissenting voices in the Russian media and academic circles are marginal. Even Anatoly Chubais, a well-known adept of liberal economic reforms and currently Yeltsin's chief of staff, noted at his February 2 press conference in Davos that opposition to NATO expansion was the only point on which he agreed with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Will Compensation Work?

When it became apparent that Russia was serious about opposing the expansion of the alliance, Washington offered to open official consultations that would lead, as President Clinton foreshadowed in his October 1996 speech in Detroit, to a formal agreement--a charter--between Russia and NATO. In December, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov accepted the offer, but stressed that such promises would not change Russia's opposition to the planned expansion. Nor would Moscow sign an agreement or charter unless it was a binding one, containing clear guarantees and obligations.

As a result, the U.S. and Russian positions on this issue are still far apart. It is clear that NATO will formally offer membership to several former Warsaw Pact countries at the alliance summit in Madrid on July 7-8. And the Clinton administration opposes a binding agreement with Russia--a treaty rather than a charter--that would alleviate fully Moscow's concerns. Recent events have confirmed the impasse. Speaking on February 11 before the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recognized that the United States "must address Russia's legitimate concerns", but said there was little the United States could do to end Russian opposition to an enlarged alliance--themes repeated and broadened during her subsequent visits to Rome, Paris, London, and Moscow. Meanwhile, the Kremlin voiced concern over the possibility of the Baltic states joining NATO, and characterized Secretary-General Javier Solana's visit to four southern former Soviet Republics as being directed against Russia's "special ties" with them.

In this context, the Yeltsin-Clinton summit scheduled for March 20-21 in Helsinki will be of critical importance, though chances for a real solution to the problem do not seem good. A five-power summit to discuss Europe's future security system, proposed recently by French President Jacques Chirac with German backing, could offer another opportunity to establish the broad lines of an agreement between NATO and Russia; but whether it will take place--or succeed--remains to be seen.

A current popular assumption in Washington holds that Russia will finally agree to NATO enlargement and accept a non-binding charter in exchange for compensations in other areas. This was Richard Holbrooke's position in his debate with Michael Mandelbaum at the Council on Foreign Relations in December: Yeltsin and his associates knew that enlargement was going to happen and were deploying a managed reticence in order to get the best bargain possible. These compensations are said to include a favorable revision of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), the possibility of increased bilateral economic assistance, and a permanent G-7 seat for Moscow, as advocated by France and Germany.

What counts most for Moscow, however, is the nature of the special relationship with NATO itself. While other gestures would alleviate the growing tension between Russia and the West, the compensatory approach misses the point. The new Russia, which parted decisively from the USSR's domestic and foreign policy heritage, strongly believes that it has every right to comprehensive inclusion in modern Europe--economically, politically, and with regard to its security dimensions as well. What Russia seeks is an arrangement that would assure its full participation in European affairs, rather than its isolation from, or marginalization in, Europe. This is the crux of the matter.

Speaking recently on Russia-NATO relations, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott asserted that the key to a breakthrough is to "really show the Russians that this is not a NATO trick, a grab for a few countries, but really a sincere effort to secure political stability and promote prosperity in Europe for a long time." In Moscow, however, this key must amount to more than verbal assurances--it must mean Russian inclusion in the European security system now under construction. If Russia is to be included in this system, which is in everyone's best interest, the Russia-NATO equation must be defined specifically and not left to the rhetorical vagaries of a non-binding charter.

Preventing New Military Tensions

Until recently Moscow has shown restraint in formulating what specifically it would like to obtain from NATO, and has directed its efforts instead to the larger issue of opposing enlargement as such. The absence of a clear platform concerning direct relations with an enlarged NATO has been the source of a number of contradictory declarations by Russian officials. In this context, on January 6 President Yeltsin convened a top-level meeting on Russia's policy toward NATO, and appointed Mr. Primakov as chief coordinator over the elaboration of this policy. Subsequently, despite vows of confidentiality made between Primakov and Solana when they met in Moscow on January 20, the nature of Russian aspirations has become apparent thanks to the public comments of senior Russian officials.

First, Moscow has suggested that NATO rule out the deployment of nuclear weapons on the territories of the new East European member-states. The Kremlin took careful notice of the "three NOs" policy announced by Warren Christopher on December 10--that NATO countries have "no intention, no plan, and no reason" to deploy such weapons on new members' territory. Yet the reluctance of the United States to obligate itself formally on this score creates uneasiness in Moscow. "The American declaration does not remove the issue of nuclear weapons. There should be a formal obligation not to deploy such weapons, and not to engage in preparations for their deployment", says one top Russian diplomat.

The Americans argue that under no condition could NATO possibly offer such a commitment. But in refusing to do so what they overlook is that a binding agreement between NATO and Russia would be relevant only in times of peace. If serious military tension were to develop between the two sides, which is highly unlikely, any standing agreement would become irrelevant. In this case nuclear-capable aircraft and tactical missiles could be quickly transferred to NATO's eastern flank. An agreement on nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe is important not for military reasons, for Russia does not consider NATO a military threat, but because of its political and psychological impact. Nuclear arsenals confronting each other in Europe is a thing of the past. Even the remote possibility of a NATO nuclear missile deployment closer to Russian borders, or in Poland, which has a common border with Russia, would subvert the newly established, fragile sense of mutual trust in Europe. An official refusal to place such weapons in Eastern Europe should not be seen as a concession to Moscow, but as a precondition of any working relationship between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance. It must be codified and confirmed in a Russia-NATO agreement and removed once and for all from the European agenda.

Russia is also opposed to the stationing of NATO troops on the territories of future member-states, and to the spread of NATO military infrastructures to these territories. As in the case of nuclear weapons, Moscow is assured that a forward deployment of NATO troops will not occur. But once again, verbal assurances alone do not suffice. On the eve of the reunification of Germany, Helmut Kohl promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO's military infrastructures would not move eastward into the territory of East Germany, a fact since confirmed by the former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Later, as the Warsaw Pact fell apart and new treaties were signed between the Soviet Union and East European states, Moscow was privately assured by their leaders that these states would not seek membership in NATO. All of these promises lay broken three years later.

Clearly, in considering its own security, Russia cannot rely on benign intentions and high-sounding promises alone. Governments change, as do interests. Only a binding agreement--one that addresses the issue of conventional forces, best achieved through a revised CFE Treaty, and that fixes new, reduced ceilings of men and conventional weaponry in Eastern Europe--can remove Russia's concerns as to the military aspects of NATO expansion.

A Real Voice For Russia

Differences over the military aspects of NATO enlargement, however, are not the only ones to be resolved. A Russia-NATO agreement should introduce a mechanism of political cooperation between NATO and Russia. Moscow cannot be satisfied by the present "16+1" formula, or the standing NATO offer of regularized political consultations. The workings of the contact group on Bosnia and the process by which the Dayton Accord was reached taught Russian diplomats that in the loose framework of "consultations" Moscow risks being relegated to outsider status, to be included only occasionally as a sign of courtesy but otherwise having no real role or standing in any significant decision making process.

In order to feel itself an integral part of the evolving European security system, Russia must have a real voice in that process. In early February, on his trip to the United States, Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin suggested creating a mechanism, possibly a NATO "Council of 17", which would include Russia and give it an equal say on all issues directly concerning its own security. This is problematic for Brussels, which is clearly unwilling to give Moscow any veto powers, but it would demonstrate that the expansion of the alliance is not directed against Russia, and it could radically improve the relationship between the two sides.

A Russia-NATO agreement should also establish a joint crisis-management mechanism that would facilitate Russia's participation in the decision making process, as well as in the planning and conduct of out-of-area peacekeeping operations. On the American side the experience of Russia-NATO cooperation over Bosnia in this regard is often cited as a promising precedent for future cooperation. The Bosnian experience, however, is not an ideal precedent from the Russian perspective. It is often forgotten that the whole operation was planned in Washington and Brussels, with no Russian participation. It can hardly be a model for future crisis management operations, especially those involving the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Finally, there is the extremely serious and delicate problem raised by the prospect of enlarging NATO to include states that have a protracted border with Russia, namely the Baltics and Ukraine. Moscow has warned Western leaders that the acceptance of those states into NATO, some of which display an open animosity toward Russia, would spark a serious crisis in relations between Russia and the West. Such a move is clearly unacceptable for Moscow, as it would bring NATO military structures to the northern Russian coastline and result in the strategic encirclement of the Kaliningrad region.

A realistic alternative to NATO membership for the Baltic states would be their acceptance into the European Union. It would confirm their European identity and would give them political guarantees of the security they are seeking. As for their eventual membership in NATO, this might well become less of a problem in the future should Russia and NATO reach a comprehensive, binding agreement along the lines sketched above. If NATO accepts Russia as a real partner, it would lead to profound changes in the alliance and in its military doctrine, as well as in Russia's attitude toward the alliance. If Russia were to approach a status close to that of a NATO member-state, the acceptance of the Baltics would not provoke the kind of response in Moscow that it now does.

The Need for a Binding Agreement

A non-binding charter or declaration of intent that lacks the elements outlined above will accomplish little, and the reason is clear: Anything less will lack the power to put an end to old, mostly bad, habits on both sides.

First, the militaries on both sides would still derive their strategic and operative planning from old assumptions and old doctrines. On the NATO side, moreover, the predisposition to see Russia as a potential enemy would likely be strengthened as new members with strong and fresh anti-Russian feelings join the alliance. The Russian military, meanwhile, would have to plan not on the basis of intentions but on the enhanced military, intelligence, and logistical capabilities of the other side. Worse, Russia's present conventional military disadvantage would incline it to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons in planning its defenses--just as NATO did in similar circumstances starting in the late 1950s.

Second, a charter void of contractual obligations would be impossible to sell to the Russian Federal Assembly and political establishment. That means, in turn, that the State Duma, facing the prospect of a foreign military alliance approaching Russian borders, would not ratify the start-ii treaty, and any prospect for a start-iii agreement would be nil. Nor would the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Open Skies agreement win Duma support. And ongoing negotiations to revise the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to mutual satisfaction would stall as well.

These demurrals and setbacks could generate a reciprocal reaction in the U.S. Congress that could lead to the collapse of the whole system of bilateral arms control and reduction agreements reached during the last ten years. As long as Russia's economy remains weak, no extensive new arms race will resume, but by conserving their huge nuclear arsenals Russia and the United States would enter into a gray zone of heightened strategic insecurity. The deterioration of Russia's nuclear command and control systems, of which Russian Defense Minster Igor Rodionov recently warned, would create still additional dangers.

Still other problems might come from an asymmetrical interpretation of a non-binding charter in Russia and in the West. If NATO countries were to consider such a charter a serious declaration while most Russians were to regard it as a meaningless piece of paper, a serious disruption of mutual trust could result. The West might accuse Moscow of violating the spirit of the charter; Moscow would respond by accusing the West of anti-Russian motives in the process of expansion and of holding out the prospect for another round of enlargement ever closer to Russia. Under such circumstances, clearly, there would be no way to escape a revived animosity--even a new Cold War.

Why Take Russia Into Account?

It is true that Russia cannot stop NATO expansion or deny the East Europeans their right to join the alliance. That being the case, some ask, why strain so hard in the first place to take Russia into account, let alone to allow Moscow a veto over NATO enlargement? The answer is that the implications of enlargement--if it is not accompanied by a compromise with Russia--are very serious ones.

In addition to the disruption of the present security arrangements between Russia and the United States, the political fallout could include a deterioration of the larger bilateral relationship; a Russian policy toward China, Iran, and Iraq that would disregard American interests and concerns; a more frequent invocation by Russia of its veto in the UN Security Council; a more assertive Russia in the former space of the Soviet Union. In short it could mean a Russia that, while not directly challenging the U.S. role in Europe, might become a "loose cannon" of world politics.

A progressive rapprochement with the West is by far the most reasonable and natural path for future Russian diplomacy. Yet this depends not only on Russia's own will, but also on the will of its Western partners. If Russia finds that the door to the West is closed, if it finds itself cut off from Europe, it will have to look for alternatives. Such a development is in neither the Russian, American, or European interest, but this is where the present NATO policy toward Russia, unless seriously reconsidered, will inescapably lead.

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