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NATO Must Free Itself from Its Promises to Russia

Why should the alliance be bound by agreements Russia flouts?
March 29, 2022
NATO Must Free Itself from Its Promises to Russia
President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June 2021. (Photo by Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)

It has been a quarter century since NATO committed itself to playing nice with Russia. In May 1997, President Bill Clinton flew to Madrid to sign the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a compromise that cleared the path for NATO enlargement into the former Warsaw Pact while granting concessions for Russian security concerns. (East Germany had already merged into NATO with German reunification.) Those concessions, granted at a time when the Russian threat was minimal, have made it difficult or impossible for NATO to defend the Baltic states, which joined NATO in 2004. Now that the enormity and urgency of the Russian threat is clear, the reasons for NATO to abide by the NATO-Russia Founding Act are withering away.

When Clinton signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, domestic critics, especially conservative Republicans, charged that the agreement was a result of a Russian “veto” over NATO policy—a point which, while over-wrought, contained a nugget of truth. NATO did not need Russia’s blessing for enlargement. No written or unwritten pledge restricted the “open door” policy. The Clinton administration, however, was determined to maintain friendly relations with Russia, especially under President Boris Yeltsin, who referred to his American counterpart as “my friend.” Yeltsin also wanted to lead his country toward (at least partial) liberalization and better relations with the United States and Western Europe, but he was handicapped in his efforts by the Russian Duma, dominated by anti-Western and anti-NATO Communists and nationalists/fascists.

The NATO-Russia Founding Act had three main purposes. First, it intended to make the enlargement process easier through Russian cooperation, notably through the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council, a consultative body designed to promote open communication.

Second, to reassure Russia as its former satellites joined NATO, the alliance also agreed not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members and promised “in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces [emphases added].” Reciprocally, “Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.” Both sides committed to “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents.” This was back when “convergence” was all the rage, and almost everyone assumed that warm relations between the United States and Russia would lead to democratization. As Clinton told Yeltsin, NATO enlargement would “say to the world that there really is a new NATO, and there really is a new Russia,” to which Yeltsin responded, “I agree.”

The agreement also allowed Yeltsin to defend his faltering administration against claims that Russia had been bullied and railroaded by boasting that he had influenced NATO policy. Lacking leverage to stop post-Communist countries from joining the alliance, Yeltsin used the promise of liberalization in Russia to extract concessions from NATO. After all, Russian aggression against Eastern Europe seemed far-fetched in 1997, and a more liberal, democratic Russia would only pose less of a threat in the future—or so was the theory. As the existing NATO countries were slashing defense budgets and reaping the “peace dividend,” there was little opposition to granting concessions about where and how the alliance would deploy forces it never planned to need. That was then.

In retrospect, Vladimir Putin announced his intention to abrogate the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 2007, though of course, not in so many words. Two months after his bellicose speech at 2007 the Munich Security Conference, Russia conducted the first state-sponsored cyberattack against Estonia. The next year, Russia invaded Georgia, one-fifth of which remains under Russian occupation. Five years after that, Russia annexed Crimea and launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. A year after that, the Russian military returned to the Middle East for the first time in half a century to save Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal regime. All throughout, the Russian secret security agencies conducted a series of assassinations and assassination attempts on NATO soil, including with banned radiological and chemical weapons, and cyberattacks against Western companies.

If, despite repeated hostility and aggression, the “current and foreseeable security environment” from 1997 still existed in January 2022, it ended in February, when Putin decided to try to force Ukraine to abandon its independence with a war the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II. Russia is in violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, has been for years, and has no intention of returning into compliance. It is time to accept this reality and act accordingly.

The Trump administration appeared to be inching away from the 1997 diplomatic resolution inadvertently. In 2019, the administration reached an agreement to rotate 1,000 troops through bases in Poland, thereby modestly strengthening NATO’s eastern flank without breaking the letter of the Act. The following year, President Trump erratically ordered the relocation of 12,000 American troops from Germany to Poland, and the Polish Ministry of Defense confirmed that it would have been the first move towards a permanent American base in Poland, but President Joe Biden froze the move upon taking office, so NATO remains in compliance with the agreement even as Russia flouts it.

NATO’s compliance leaves Eastern European members, especially the Baltic states, exposed to Russia. Russian anti-access, area-denial systems in Kaliningrad make the defense of the Baltics through ground reinforcement nearly impossible. (Naval reinforcement would be easier if Sweden and Finland were to join the alliance). The growing Russian military presence in Belarus has added an additional challenge to Baltic defense. In the event of a Russian attack, the domestic laws of NATO states and the state of European infrastructure would delay the deployment of forces from west to east for months. The only way NATO could defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from a Russian invasion might be gambling on thermonuclear war, but Russia also benefits from a superior arsenal of theater nuclear weapons. To prevent a thermonuclear nightmare, the United States should, as soon as possible, deploy permanent forces to NATO’s eastern-flank.

As Putin uses nuclear blackmail, it is important to strengthen NATO’s own nuclear deterrence. This means including Eastern Europeans, especially Poland, in NATO’s nuclear-arms sharing program and deploying missiles to Poland and the Baltics. The United States has long maintained “dual key” programs whereby, in the case of all-out war, allied pilots would deliver American nuclear weapons, as long as both countries agreed. Poland makes a strong case for its inclusion in such a program.

The NATO-Russia Founding Act was the product of hope. As the Russian proverb says, “Hope dies last,” and the hope of a free Russia still lives. When that hope becomes reality, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, or something like it, will be worth reviving. In the meantime, however, NATO should no longer consider itself bound by the quarter-century-old compromise, and it should move quickly and decisively to strengthen collective security without regard to what happened in 1997.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.