Russia-NATO: On the History of the Current Crisis

To produce an adequate analysis of a particular complex international issue—and even more so to try to resolve it if necessary—it is imperative to have complete objective information on this topic. This information should include both the background of the problem and possible scenarios for its future development. It is the foundation of the foreign policy stance, and specific actions are taken within the framework of this position, taking into account the reactions of other actors of world politics.

Recently, in Russian and foreign media as well as among experts there has been a heated debate on Russia-NATO relations and on numerous security issues in the Euro-Atlantic. The opinions couldn’t have been more divergent. One narrative is that Russia has officially considered joining the Alliance; another is that there were verbal or other types of agreements of non-expansion to the East; and a whole host of other viewpoints.

I served as First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia from 1994 to 1998, and I was Head of the Ministry from 1998 to 2004. That is why I am privy to some information about those aspects of Russia-NATO relations that have been my scope of responsibility. I would like to share several facts that—in my opinion—have a direct bearing on the current Moscow-Brussels interaction.

First, I have never heard of Russia ever officially requesting membership in NATO. There may have been some talk about it in a personal capacity, but not much else.

Second, in the post-Cold War era, Russia has always firmly opposed to NATO expansion, to the East in particular. Moscow’s arguments have long been well-known, and Russian representatives have repeatedly expounded them at all levels, all negotiations and all meetings.

The first round of NATO enlargement, namely the accession of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, was the subject of serious discussions in Moscow with the participation of the relevant ministries and agencies. In a nutshell, it can be stated that Russia did not have many response options to the enlargement. Moscow had two options: to lead a difficult political struggle to assure nations of the West of the advantages of the then unique opportunity to build a single security space in Europe with no dividing lines, or to opt for rigid ultimatums and unilateral measures with a focus on military and technical means of response to any undesirable actions of the Alliance.

I vividly remember our lengthy meetings with Yevgeny Primakov, which resulted in a preference for a political-diplomatic tool. At that time, it was generally agreed that Russia was not ready to resort to the military-technical option either politically or economically as well as militarily, and an attempt at its implementation could have had dire consequences for the country, which was then undergoing a deep internal political and social crisis.

Russia’s consolidated position was to launch negotiations on a new European security architecture that were to run in parallel to the ongoing process of NATO enlargement, which Russia could not stop at that time. This architecture could replace the military-political confrontation in the Euro-Atlantic that took shape during the Cold War. The talks culminated in the signing of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation in Paris on May 27, 1997. As an aside, neither party—to the present day—has expressed its wish to withdraw from this agreement, signed almost a quarter of a century ago.

At the same time, intensive negotiations were underway to adapt the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) concluded in Paris in 1990 to the new realities in Europe after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The Agreement on Adaptation of the CFE Treaty and the Charter for European Security were signed in Istanbul in November 1999 during the OSCE Summit. All these documents, which practically recognized the new political and military reality in Europe, created a legal framework for substantive negotiations on the establishment of a “common and comprehensive security model for Europe for the 21st century” based on the principle that “the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible”.

In 1998, NATO committed an act of aggression against Yugoslavia. It was NATO’s first unambiguous attempt to assume the role of the world’s policeman, which was to be reinforced by the United States’ policy of imposing a unipolar world order model in which Washington and its allies could decide the destinies of the world and other nations at their own discretion.

NATO’s aggression in Yugoslavia was a heavy blow to Russia-NATO relations, and all contacts between Moscow and Brussels were suspended for some time. Many European capitals saw a massive wave of demonstrations, condemning the military actions of the Alliance and demanding an end to the senseless bombing of Yugoslav cities. The war was eventually stopped, but NATO’s international standing was seriously undermined.

Russia most vigorously condemned NATO’s unlawful aggression in Yugoslavia. Our country made tremendous efforts to stop it and reach a political settlement of the conflict.

In this environment, contacts between Russia and NATO to develop a framework for further cooperation between the parties in the interests of European security were renewed. On May 22, 2002, the leaders of Russia and nineteen NATO member states signed the Rome Declaration, intended to “turn over a new leaf” in their relations in order to strengthen cooperation to collectively address common threats and security risks. The NATO-Russia Council was established for consultations and joint actions on a wide range of security issues in the Euro-Atlantic area. The Council, which included both political and military structures, was to become “the principal structure and venue for advancing the relationship between NATO and Russia”. It was hoped that the NRC would become a forum for discussing and agreeing on all European security issues that could either way affect the fundamental interests of both NATO countries and Russia.

The facts outlined above are only the general framework within which relations between Russia and NATO developed in the 1990s and at the beginning of this century. I can solemnly state that Russia has not taken any actions that threaten or could be interpreted as a threat to the security interests of the United States and its allies in Europe over these years. On the contrary, the Russian Federation has been invariably open to cooperation with Western partners, as it demonstrated, inter alia, after 9/11.

Unfortunately, this constructive line of interaction assumed by Moscow was apparently perceived as a manifestation of weakness by Western countries. Without any sensible explanations, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, waged—together with its allies—a bloody war in Iraq in 2003, expanded provocative actions along the perimeter of the Russian borders. Russian representatives have consistently pointed to all these facts, calling on Western partners for a meaningful dialogue.

It should be noted that Russia’s constructive policy has not received a proper response, which required Moscow to take the necessary measures to ensure the security of the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke frankly about all this in his Munich speech of 2007.

History cannot be written from an event that benefits one. Western experts often try to make it look like all the problems in Russia-NATO relations began solely after the military conflict in South Ossetia in 2008 and the political crisis in Ukraine in 2014.

I can reasonably argue that if these events had not been preceded by the deliberate policy of the United States and its allies to destroy the emerging fragile foundations of Russia-NATO relations, the conflicts in the South Caucasus and around Ukraine could have been avoided or at least their transition to the military phase could have been prevented. The U.S. and Europe are well aware of the fact that it was not Russia who provoked these conflicts, that in both cases they tried to present Moscow with a fait accompli, causing severe damage to its security interests.

As a result of Washington’s and its allies’ myopic policy, the U.S. and Europe are now facing the most acute and dangerous security crisis in decades, whereas Russia is again confronted with the same question it encountered in the mid-1990s, i.e., how to respond to NATO’s aggressive and wholly unilateral policy. Unfortunately, like almost three decades ago, the choice of options is still narrow, and one has to choose between a political-diplomatic and a military-technical response.

I do not feel in position to give any specific advice, especially since I do not have all the information necessary to do so. I am fully aware of the fact that critics of a political-diplomatic settlement can rightly say that previously such attempts have failed, and that the West understands only the language of Machtpolitik. There is no point in entering the disputes with such reasoning.

However, logic suggests that if a country strives for a long-term system of European security, its establishment should be accompanied by political agreements. These will be very difficult to achieve in the short term. The situation in Europe is even more complicated now than it was in the 1990s, and many things have to be started from scratch. Mutual distrust and suspicion, as well as the inertia of confrontation, will not be quick to overcome.

But nothing is impossible if there is a political will to move forward, thinking about long-term interests rather than immediate gains. Russia’s bargaining power is stronger today than it was 30 years ago, because unlike in the 1990s, our country has everything it needs to ensure its own security. It would be better for all if Russia’s national security eventually became an integral part of Europe’s comprehensive security in the 21st century.

From our partner RIAC

Igor Ivanov
Igor Ivanov
President of the Russian International Affairs Council. Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RF MFA). Russian Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.