Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, 9 July 2001

NATO enlargement: Russia's attitudes

by Vladimir Baranovsky

There may be some differences in Russia's attitudes towards the next phase of NATO enlargement as compared to the previous one. In particular, there will most probably be a strong sensitivity on the fact of expanding onto post-Soviet territories. Also, this emotional reaction might be supported by strategic and security considerations, more concrete and specific than in the case of East Central Europe. However, this paper does not consider these differences as crucial. It is based on the assumption that Russia's attitude towards NATO enlargement, be it the previous or the next one, is only part of Russia's attitude towards, and Russia's perception of NATO as such.

Two factors seem essential in this respect. First, the alliance is still very often perceived as a challenge to Russia's security interests, even if only a potential one. Secondly, Moscow wants to prevent the central security role in Europe being played by a structure to which Russia does not and will not have direct access.

In the aftermath of the cold war there seemed to be two main scenarios concerning the future of NATO, and both looked as basically acceptable to Russia. One proceeded from the inevitable disappearance of the alliance that looked having lost its raison d'être, represented a kind of memorial inherited from the previous epoch and could at best continue for some time only due to political and bureaucratic inertia. Another one described NATO as the core of the future pan-European security system, with the Alliance to be radically transformed and to include Russia as sine qua non.

In reality none of these two scenarios was implemented. The developments in and around NATO followed a 'third way' and contained several components that were (and still are) perceived by Russia with considerable concern. First, this on-going scenario envisages the consolidation and growing role of NATO rather than its gradual erosion. Secondly, new military and political tasks are being ascribed to the Alliance in addition to the 'old' ones rather than instead of them. Thirdly, the Alliance, far from getting a lower profile, is carrying out a kind of a triple expansion – extending its functions, its membership and its zone of responsibility. Fourthly, instead of making the international law and the UN-based system the core elements of the post-bipolar world, NATO is perceived as disregarding them both and pretending to have an exclusive droit de regard with respect to what is going on in the world.

None of these characteristics might turn Russia very enthusiastic about the new dynamism of NATO. And when they all are considered together, this creates a critical mass of negative attitudes making Russia feel particularly depressed. Such political and even psychological frustrations represent the source of Russia's vigorous (although not always coherent) opposition to this trend. Noteworthy, this opposition has endured through almost the whole decade of the 90s and combined the logic of rational arguments with the acute emotional reaction.

The first wave of Russia's negativism towards NATO was provoked by the discussions on its eventual expansion onto East Central Europe. Noteworthy, Russia's official negativism was accompanied by a massive campaign against the enlargement of NATO. The scale of this campaign was unprecedented for the whole Russia's post-Soviet history. It was alleged that Russia saw the emergence of its first foreign policy consensus bringing together representatives of all major political forces – from communists to democrats and from liberally oriented enthusiasts of market reform to proponents of 'Russia's specific (i.e., 'not-like the-others') identity'. For Russia's fragmented political life this phenomenon is rare indeed – although it should be mentioned that the 'consensus' was build by those who had different (sometimes mutually exclusive) explanations of, and motives for their opposition to, NATO enlargement.

This, in turn, explained the internal weakness of Russia's opposition and the lack of coherence therein. Also, some arguments by no means looked convincing or in accordance with other elements of internationally oriented thinking. This was, for instance, the case of 'security argument' developed by many military and civilian strategists; indeed, insisting that the enlargement of NATO would inevitably threaten Russia's security looked both artificial and reproducing the logic of Cold War period. Criticizing plans of NATO enlargement also did not look very appropriate in the light of the generally recognized right of states to join any international structures (or to refrain from doing so).

Practical results of Russia's 'anti-enlargement' campaign also looked rather ambivalent. In East Central Europe, it was clearly perceived as a manifestation of Russia's 'Big Brother' syndrome and brought about increasing domestic support with respect to the policy line of joining NATO. It is not excluded that the voice of critics would have been better heard if Russia had followed a kind of 'do-as-you-wish' formula. In the West, some opponents to NATO enlargement also found themselves in an ambivalent position: while objecting to this prospect in principle, they would be against providing Russia with a veto right in this regard.

At the same time, Moscow's vehement opposition increased the importance of 'Russian question' in Western debates on NATO's future. They highlighted a number of themes that soon became ritual: that the enlargement of NATO is not aimed at, and should not result in, the emergence of new dividing lines in Europe; that in parallel with the extension its membership, NATO should offer a new partnership to Russia; that the latter should be actively involved in building a new European security architecture, and so on.

Whether Moscow was somehow disoriented by such developments or just decided, very pragmatically, to build upon these new themes remains an open question. In any case, Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement went in parallel with attempts to build relationship with the Alliance as a major pillar of the evolving European security architecture. This line proceeded from the idea of constructing 'special relationship' with NATO that would be deeper and more substantive than the Alliance's relations with any of its other partners. A dialogue between Russia and NATO did develop since mid-90s, although its political weight turned out rather limited. In fact, both sides were cautious with respect to an option of increasing its salience, albeit for different reasons: NATO did not want to make relations with Russia excessively 'privileged' whereas Moscow was reluctant to be regarded as accepting NATO enlargement by the very fact of flirting with the Alliance.

When it became clear that the expansion of NATO membership is inevitable, Russian government was actually faced with a very realistic danger of becoming the hostage of its own anti-NATO rhetoric and wide anti-enlargement campaign. Indeed, the enthusiasts of the latter were arguing in favour of reacting in the most energetic way, even at the expenses of rational considerations on Russia's own security and political interests. For instance, among the proposed 'counter-measures' were the following: building a CIS-based military alliance; re-deploying armed forces in the western areas of Russia; targeting East Central Europe with nuclear weapons; developing strategic partnership with anti-Western regimes and so on.

Moscow opted for another logic: disagreement over NATO enlargement should not be aggravated by other confrontational words and deeds; on the contrary, the enlargement might make a breakthrough towards constructive interaction even more imperative and urgent. This was confirmed by the decision to sign NATO-Russia Founding Act in May 1997 – the decision pushed through by then Foreign Minister Primakov against considerable domestic opposition.

Some analysts were (and still are) of highly negative opinion in this respect: Moscow should have refrained from undermining the coherence of its opposition, legitimizing the enlargement of NATO and providing this obsolete structure with new rationales for its continuation. Others believe that this did create pre-conditions for turning relations between Russia and NATO into one of central elements of the European system, or even the central one.

Testing this optimistic scenario turned out impossible. This option was seriously undermined: first, by the failure to provide the established Permanent Joint Council Russia-NATO with notable role; secondly (and most dramatically) by NATO's actions in Yugoslavia; and thirdly, by the adoption of a new strategic concept of NATO at its 50th anniversary summit in Washington.

The military operation of NATO against Yugoslavia in the context of developments in and around Kosovo produced the most traumatic impact on Russia's official and unofficial attitudes towards the Alliance. Indeed, it was the Kosovo phenomenon that has contributed to the consolidation of Russia's anti-NATO stand more than the whole vociferous anti-enlargement campaign. The air-strikes against Yugoslavia became the most convincing justification for Russia's negativism with respect to the prospect of establishing a NATO-centred Europe.

However, some elements of Russia's attitude towards NATO in the context of the Kosovo crisis were striking by the apparent lack of coherence. Russia strongly condemned NATO military operation – but in June 1999 Moscow endorsed the NATO-promoted logic of resolving the crisis in Kosovo. Moscow contributed to impose onto Belgrade the settlement designed by NATO – but it turned out very close to a serious conflict with NATO because of the famous 'march' of 200 Russian peacekeepers from Bosnia to Pristina (on 12 June 1999). The policy of NATO with respect to Kosovo caused the 'freezing' of Russia's relations with NATO – but during some time afterwards Kosovo was the only field of cooperative interaction of two sides, with all other activities being effectively interrupted and chances of re-launching them looking close to zero.

In an alternative interpretation, this all testified to a well-balanced combination of energetically articulated hostile rhetoric and careful preservation of channels for constructive interaction. Indeed, in 1999 NATO military campaign in the Balkans and Russia's aggressive reaction to it seemed to set a new long-term 'cold war-type' agenda for their future relations. There were serious grounds to apprehend their aggravating erosion, with the Kosovo factor becoming a constant irritant. Contrary to such expectations, the Kosovo syndrome in Russia's negativism towards NATO has turned out surprisingly short – much shorter than the scope of campaign against NATO aggression and the overall indignation both in Russian political class and in public opinion at large would allow to anticipate.

To a considerable extent this is due to domestic political changes in Russia and the possibility of a 'new start' for Russia's new leadership. Indeed, the decision (supposedly, taken against considerable domestic resistance) to 'defreeze' relations with NATO is especially impressive after all what was said about this alliance in the aftermath of Kosovo.

A number of facts deserve mentioning in this regard. First, the pace of positive changes looks extremely dynamic. In fact, by mid-2001 the NATO-Russia dialogue has practically resumed in full, and both sides have re-launched the programme of developing relationship that was stopped in connection with Kosovo. Secondly, the tone of Russia's comments on NATO has significantly changed; what was predominantly condemning and denouncing just two years ago is becoming more informative and unbiased nowadays; and even the most convinced anti-NATO activists prefer to remain noiseless rather than showing up. Thirdly, the level of officials and representatives meeting on behalf of two sides has become considerably higher. Finally, a prospect of further rapprochement is no longer excluded; although schemes arguing in favour of developing a kind of 'Russia-NATO axis' are not officially endorsed, it is noteworthy that some analysts started to raise the issue of possible Russian membership in NATO – which would have been absolutely inconceivable just very short time ago.

What is behind such developments? Three main interpretations could be offered in this context.

First of all, it is a manifestation of pragmatism that has become a key word of new Russian administration under President Putin. Russia would certainly prefer some alternatives to NATO, but if there are no political, financial and military means for promoting them and downgrading NATO, it is better to get accommodated to this situation rather than re-entering into exhausting confrontation with chances to succeed being close to nil. It is not a green light to anything NATO would like to do, but a deliberate decision not to get negatively over-excited with respect to what seems to happen anyway. At the same time, to the extent to which promoting bilateral relations with western countries and cooperative interaction with the West as a whole is considered to be in Russian interests, this line should not be damaged by maintaining the spirit of confrontation towards the structure where most of these countries are members.

Secondly, there is a need to put Russia's attitude towards NATO into appropriate context, without making it the central issue of the international agenda. Russia faces numerous challenges and have to deal with them seriously – without being diverted all the time by the issue of NATO. On the contrary, one might even think about using it as a leverage for promoting Russia's interests in other areas. Thus, it was noted by some observers that during the formative period of the new US administration, when its forthcoming policy towards Russia raised a lot of concerns in Moscow, the latter seemed to engage into considerably more intense dialogue with NATO officials than with those from Washington. Indeed, this could be viewed as a paradoxical pattern, when the erosion and the degradation of relations with the USA were counterbalanced by Moscow via rapprochement with the structure that was traditionally considered as created, inspired and controlled by the Americans.

Thirdly, the most serious test for the future relations between Russia and NATO will be connected with the next phase of the Alliance's enlargement. One might expect that Russia's negativism on eventual involvement of three Baltic states into NATO will be much stronger than in the case of East Central Europe. In contrast to the latter case, Russia's eventual arguments on security implications of such development could be considerably more coherent and substantive. Also, Moscow might expect that its reservations will have more chances to be taken into account – although Russia's right to draw a 'red line' will by no means be recognized by other international actors. In addition, the issue might turn out extremely sensitive in terms of Russia's domestic politics. In a worst case scenario, this all could develop into a very acute situation, more dangerous than in the case of the previous wave of NATO enlargement.

One way of preventing such crisis-prone development would be to change its context in a substantive, if not a radical way. Indeed, Russia's membership in NATO could be a fundamental solution, but it does not look a realistic prospect (at least for the time being). Another approach along the same line would be to ensure a very high level of relations between Russia and NATO. If achieved (or at least realistically designed) prior to the Baltic phase of enlargement, this would make Russian concerns on the latter irrelevant. From this point of view, Russia's current rapprochement with NATO will broaden Moscow's future options if and when the issue of Baltic states membership in the Alliance is put on the agenda.

To refrain from over-dramatizing the issue is also important in order to prevent a risk of becoming hostage of one's own propagandistic engagement. Interestingly enough, on the eve of NATO expansion onto the Baltic area Russia's mass media pay to this prospect considerably less attention than they did with respect to the case of East Central Europe just several years ago.

However, this all is by no means a guarantee against destabilizing developments. Failure to ensure a qualitative breakthrough might easily bring about the erosion of relations and even a new crisis in case of the forthcoming incorporation of three Baltic states into NATO. Russia still oscillates between instinctive residual hostility towards NATO and pragmatic considerations pushing towards developing positive interaction with the Alliance. Building a reliable cooperative pattern in Russia-NATO relations remains a formidable and challenging task. It is imperative that the enlargement would not put this prospect at risk.