On the eve of the NATO summit in Madrid, to be held on June 28-30, Julianne Smith, U.S. Permanent Representative to the alliance, announced that Russia’s actions in Ukraine had violated the NATO‒Russia Founding Act. Building on this, she added that the West no longer considers it imperative to adhere to the provisions of the document that has shaped Moscow‒Brussels relations over the last quarter century. However, the fate of the Founding Act will finally be decided in Madrid.
Ironically, Julianne Smith’s statement came just after the Act’s 25th anniversary. It all started on May 27, 1997 in the Elysee Palace in Paris, where Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leaders of NATO’s then 16 member states and Alliance Secretary General Javier Solana signed a document intended to turn Moscow and Brussels into strategic partners. Exactly five years later, on May 28, 2002, the new Russian leader Vladimir Putin visited Rome to sign a declaration establishing the NATO‒Russia Council. This was how the platform for implementing the provisions of the Founding Act was established.
The 1997 document contains plenty of fine words about abandoning the practices of using force against each other, about respect for sovereignty and independence as well as about the mutual desire to establish a pan-European security system. In practical terms, the most important provision may well be the alliance’s permanent commitment not to deploy additional substantial combat forces on the territory of its new members and Russia’s commitment to be restrained in the deployment of its conventional armed forces in Europe.
As hopes of turning Moscow and Brussels into strategic partners melted away year by year, the sides began to pay more attention to formal matters. What’s the meaning of the word “permanent”? What are “substantial combat forces”? The West assumed that “substantial strength” should be measured starting from a brigade—therefore, NATO, responding to the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, decided to deploy four new battalions in the Baltics and Poland on a rotational basis so as not to formally violate the Founding Act. Moscow protested the decision, but it was reluctant to take the initiative to terminate the Act either. Experts argued about who violated the Founding Act first, but these disputes are—in the end—becoming a thing of the past. At the Madrid summit, the alliance will most likely abandon all formal self-limitations, putting this into official wordings, and it will solely be guided by its own ideas about the “Russian threat.” This means that we will observe permanent brigades and divisions, rather than just battalions, on NATO’s eastern flank.
Moscow and Brussels will still have to communicate, since it is in the interests of both sides to reduce the risk of a direct military clash. Paradoxically, perhaps, NATO could muster courage to launch a new dialogue with Russia after the Madrid summit, which will fix the unbreakable unity of the alliance and adopt a new utterly anti-Russian strategy.
The atmosphere of 1997 has faded into oblivion. However, Moscow communicated with both Washington and Brussels even in the more distant and far less romantic times of the Warsaw Pact, ultimately arriving at mutually acceptable solutions to many difficult problems.
From our partner RIAC