Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

November 1998 (Vol. XXII No. 8)

NATO Eastward Expansion and Russian Security

By O.N. Mehrotra *

The United States of America (USA) and its military allies made various attempts and agreed on a mechanism of consultation between representatives of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Russia before taking the decision on expansion of NATO eastward in view of Russia’s objection to such a move. But they failed to nullify Russia’s national security concerns and apprehensions which emerged because of the proposed NATO expansion. In fact, it was difficult for the West to convince Moscow about the need of NATO expansion amidst the profound changes brought about in the nature of relations between Russia and its Western neighbours as well as the USA in the post-Cold War period. Though President Boris Yeltsin of Russia agreed to allow the expansion of NATO, Moscow has never missed an opportunity to express its disapproval on the expansion of NATO because it undermines Russia’s national security.

This was evident when on December 17, 1997, the Russian President approved the text of the National Security Blueprint of the Russian Federation, which noted, “The prospect of NATO expansion to the East is unacceptable to Russia since it represents a threat to its national security.”1 It further pointed out that NATO’s eastward expansion would “create the threat of a new split in the continent which could be extremely dangerous given the preservation in Europe of mobile strike grouping of troops and nuclear weapons and also the inadequate effectiveness of multilateral mechanisms for maintaining peace.”2 In fact, Russia wanted to develop multilateral mechanisms for maintaining peace and security at the global level through the United Nations and at the regional level through the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). For Russia, NATO is not an organisation that takes decisions objectively on the ways of maintenance of peace and security in a conflict situation. Moscow expressed its displeasure on NATO’s military decision to bomb Russians’ brother Slavs in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 without any legislative and public debate. Above all, Russians argued that when they allowed the reunification of Germany (and for the United Germany to remain in NATO) Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and other Western leaders had promised not to expand NATO eastwards.3

Moreover, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and in the post-Cold War period, it was widely felt that NATO had lost its raison d’ etre. The validity of the existence of NATO became more questionable with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the leadership of the US was not interested in dissolving NATO because it believed in the perpetuity of NATO which would not only guarantee European security against any military threat but also provide internal political, social and economic stability and prosperity to its members as well as those who were eager to cooperate in strengthening European security under NATO. With the failure of West European countries in resolving the Bosnian crisis which they had wanted to achieve without the intervention of the US, the American leadership gained more strength in offering convincing reasons for the existence and expansion of NATO. It may be recalled that when the issue of expansion of NATO was being considered, the Bosnian fragile peace could be worked out and established under the leadership of the US and the US-led NATO forces—with token contributions by some other non-NATO countries—that had already been stationed there for the observation of the Dayton Agreement on Bosnia.

It is generally argued that NATO is the only major organisation for maintenance of peace and security in the European continent because it could contain any possible policy of expansionism by Germany and Russia, by keeping the former within NATO and keeping out the latter. Notwithstanding Russian opposition to the expansion of NATO, the US leadership decided to expand NATO eastward without allowing the Russian veto to determine the policy and functioning of NATO. The main hurdle in the process of NATO expansion was removed when in Paris on May 27, 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of the 16 NATO countries signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security—the NATO–Russia Founding Act, in short. This paved the way for NATO to celebrate its 50th anniversary with the addition of three new members—Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic—in April 1999 as was unanimously decided by the leaders of NATO in their summit meeting held on July 7–8, 1997, in Madrid.

For Yeltsin, it was a hard decision to accede to the agreement on NATO’s eastward expansion because there was strong domestic opposition to such an accord—NATO expansion was considered a security threat to Russia and revived the Cold War memories. However, Yeltsin was left with no option but to accept the accord for maintaining cordial relations with the West in view of President Bill Clinton’s strong determination on expansion of NATO, notwithstanding the Russian objection and often issuing of empty threats. However, in his address at the signing ceremony, Yeltsin said that Russia still had a “negative attitude” to the alliance’s proposed expansion. Earlier, on May 8, he had warned that NATO’s expansionist plans had provoked the most serious dispute between Russia and the USA since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.4

“Although the US Administration repeatedly declared that a Win–Win–Win document had been signed—one from which the USA, Russia as well as Europe only stood to gain—some observers have a sneaking suspicion that agreements which benefit everyone and harm no one tend to be an exception in political reality.”5 In fact, NATO expansion was a victory for the USA because it was its own agenda which was supported by the new aspirants and the members of the alliance had generally not opposed the proposal. Apparently, Yeltsin was confused on the issue as is evident from his contradictory statements on the accord as well as his government’s reaction before the signing of the agreement. Though he called the expansion of NATO “a strategic mistake”, he said “the negative consequences of NATO’s enlargement will be reduced to the minimum through the NATO–Russia deal.” He also called the agreement a “victory for reason” and pledged that Russian nuclear weapons would no longer target the West. Later it was clarified by the Russian officials that the nuclear warheads would not be removed but “the missiles will be given zero flight mission.” That may be considered as a confidence building measure. However, the missiles can be targetted anywhere at a time of crisis.

That was not the first time that Yeltsin had created confusion by making a serious policy statement without realising its significance. Be that as it may, initially Russia took a fairly relaxed view of the expansion of NATO. When in late 1993 the idea of the Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme was suggested, the Russian leadership had not thought of the possibility of NATO expansion. In fact, the “PFP started out as simply a diplomatic device but was taken in hand by the NATO authorities to become more than initially intended, that is, a vehicle for enlargement.”6 The Russian leadership was keen on building bridges between Russia and the West, especially the USA, for not only securing economic assistance from, and developing economic cooperation with, the West but also to conclude nuclear arms control agreements. While the economic relations began to improve haltingly, US President George Bush and President Yeltsin signed the Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, popularly called START II, in Moscow on January 3, 1993. It was the most sweeping nuclear arms reduction treaty in history but is yet to be ratified by the Russian Parliament (the National Duma) which is dominated by Communists and nationalists who are against START II because it undermines Russian security interests.

While the Russians were generally suspicious of the ulterior designs of the US, fearing that they would be against Russian national interests, the ruling Russian leadership was leaning towards the US. In such a political scene, when in January 1994, the PFP Framework Document was published and the Partnership for Peace was actually launched, the anti-NATO campaign began to intensify in Russia. As far as the expansion or strengthening of NATO was concerned, the Russian leadership was also wary of such a development. Therefore, the Russian leadership expressed its concern over paragraph 3 of the document which calls for transparency in organising and planning national defence as well as military budgets.

The PFP was the first step in the direction of the expansion of NATO. Though Russia was reluctant to join the PFP, it was persuaded to do so. Now 44 countries (including NATO) are members of the PFP. They include all the former Soviet Republics, all the former members of the Warsaw Pact, only two former Yugoslav Republics, Slovenia and Macedonia and Albania, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. In other words, the US-led NATO can conduct military exercise with not only European countries but with the former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union also. No doubt, the Russian leadership was unhappy with such an arrangement but it became a reality and Moscow could not check it because all those who joined the PFP were sovereign, independent countries. Apparently, Moscow considered that such a development was not favourable to its own pre-eminent position in the region and it would help the former Soviet Republics to move closer to the US. It may also be considered as a setback to the Russian-led collective security arrangements with a majority of the former Soviet Republics.

Once the PFP was formalised, the issue of NATO expansion was raised by the US. The immediate reaction of Russia on the issue of NATO expansion was hostile but the Russian leadership could not oppose the proposal with conviction perhaps because of the economic and military weakness of the country and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower. Moreover, there was a lack of consensus on the issue within the government as was evident from various statements made by the Russian leaders. Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin did not apprehend any security threat to Russia on account of the expansion of NATO but he felt that the Russian people would not accept it; the Secretary of the Security Council, Ivan Rybkin, proposed that Russia become a member of NATO; but the Russian Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, warned that counter-measures would be taken if NATO expanded too quickly. Almost at the same time, the pro-West Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, cautioned against the danger of the rush to expand NATO by bringing in former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. But a few days later, on May 31, 1995, he signed two cooperation agreements with NATO which he had reportedly refused to sign in December 1994, pending clarification of plans to expand NATO, though he maintained that Russia still opposed eastward expansion by the alliance.7

President Yeltsin himself was also not consistent in his opposition to the enlargement of NATO. Sometimes he was very critical of such a proposal because it would undermine Russian security and lead to tension between Russia and NATO; at other times, he would not oppose the Western military alliance and even entertained the possibility of Russia joining NATO. In certain quarters it was believed that Russia was led into a “trap” to endorse the NATO expansion. In fact, Russian leaders sent mixed signals to the West about their opposition to the expansion of NATO eastward. Though they maintained that the expanded NATO would pose a threat to Russian national security and they were opposed to deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of the former Soviet allies, yet they would not oppose the enlargement of the alliance if the expansion was done slowly and no nuclear weapons were deployed on the territory of the new members of NATO. Taking a cue from the vacillating position of the Russian leaders on the issue of expansion of NATO, during his visit to Moscow in February 1996, Chancellor Kohl reportedly expressed his endorsement on postponing the issue for a long time and avoid talking about it at the moment.8 However, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, played hot and cold on the issue. On the one hand, he insisted that since NATO had made a commitment to take new members, it could not keep the new democracies waiting for ever and, on the other, he declared that any decision on the enlargement would be deferred until after the Russian Presidential elections scheduled for June.9 That was a clever move taken by the US.

In the meantime, Russia began to take certain steps and made some policy announcements with the objective to dissuade proponents of the expansion of NATO from taking such a measure. It was announced on April 2, 1996, that Russia and Belarus would form a Community of Sovereign Republics (CSR).10 Apparently Moscow wanted to convey a message to the West that there was a move on unity amongst some of the former Soviet Republics and thus a strong grouping of countries would emerge to challenge the expanded NATO. The West viewed it merely as a declaration in response to the move against the expansion of NATO and felt that such a grouping would not enhance the military capability of Russia. In fact, it would be considerably disadvantageous for Russia itself. At the same time, Russia’s threat to terminate arms control agreements and deploy nuclear weapons on new sites failed to dampen the West’s determination to expand NATO eastward.

On the heels of the announcement of the signing of the union treaty between Russia and Belarus, President Yeltsin went to China and with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, announced a new “strategic partnership between the two countries, spanning economic and security ties and intended to last into the 21st century.” The Presidents’ joint communique included an implied complaint against the USA and the West in general that “hegemonism, power politics and repeated impositions of pressures on other countries have continued to occur.” Yeltsin offered his unequivocal support for China’s claims on Taiwan and Tibet. In response, China not only recognised Russia’s position over Chechnya but also described as “impermissible” the eastern expansion of NATO. It may be recalled that previously China had left NATO issues to the parties involved. At the same time, Jiang backed Russia’s wish for admission to the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) body.11

The West was neither disturbed by the move of Russia to bring the former Soviet Republics together nor intimidated by the growing Sino–Russian strategic cooperation. They felt that these developments would not alter the global strategic equation. For them, Yeltsin and Zemin were interested in pronouncing their meetings as successful since Yeltsin was facing Presidential elections in June and China was experiencing a deterioration in relations with the USA. In reality, the Western leadership understood Russia’s weakness and was convinced that while initially the Russian leadership would certainly oppose any proposal which appeared as a threat to Russian security and interests, it would ultimately yield to Western pressure and persuasion. Thus, when President Yeltsin began to talk of a “Cold Peace” because of the expansion of NATO and threatened to take some aggressive measures to meet the challenge, the Western leadership avoided a confrontation with Russia. Apparently, they believed that Russia’s intimidating statements were merely rhetroic or empty threats. In reality, they were interested in avoiding a confrontation with Russia and not allowing the growth of Russian ultra-nationalism and anti-Western forces.

After Yeltsin was re-elected President of Russia in July 1996, the efforts for expansion of NATO were accelerated. Apparently, Russia indicated that it would reluctantly agree to allow expansion of NATO slowly, but not permit the Baltic countries to join NATO. However, there were two contentious issues to be resolved. One was the question of a firm commitment against deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members of NATO. And the second was Russia’s demand to grant it the veto power in the decision making procedure of NATO.

On both issues, the West confused the Russian leaders who were led to believe that the West had endorsed their demands. In Helsinki, a summit meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin was held on March 20–21, 1997, and it was reported that Russia won a pledge that nuclear weapons would not be stationed in new member states of NATO.12 On the other issue of Russia’s veto power in the decision making procedure of NATO, after the meeting between Yeltsin and Kohl which was held on April 17, President Yeltsin claimed that Chancellor Kohl supported Russia’s position on NATO expansion, agreeing that NATO and Russia would engage in “binding consultations” and that “decisions” would be taken “on the basis of consensus between all the states, including Russia.” Kohl, however, refused to confirm that he had offered such support. Instead, he declared that Germany did not “have a role of translator” between Russia and the West.13 Earlier, in February, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and sought to assuage Russian misgivings by proposing to limit NATO’s military potential and its forces close to the Russian border. She also proposed a joint NATO–Russian brigade for peace-keeping and crisis management missions.14 It may be noted that Primakov was an ardent opponent of the expansion of NATO eastward. He also went on a lecture tour to the proposed new East European members of NATO pleading with them not to join the military alliance.

Once the expansion of NATO became imminent, in spite of Russian objections, the major issue was regarding what should be the nature of Russia’s relations with the expanded NATO. The Western leadership realised that “the planned enlargement of NATO would be extremely burdened if Russia, as a major and potentially unstable power, were to be permanently excluded”.15 However, the Western leadership had refused the Russian demand of granting a veto power to Moscow in the decision-making process of NATO. The Russian leadership also insisted on barring the Baltic countries from becoming members of NATO and prohibiting deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of new members of the alliance. But the NATO members were opposed to the acceptance of any restrictions on its freedom.

President Clinton, though not opposed to the security partnership between NATO and Russia, was against the Russian policy of blocking the expansion of NATO for an indefinite period or until and unless NATO agreed to the Russian demands. Apparently, he felt that he had to set the time-table for expansion of NATO because unlimited delay in this would strengthen the opponent forces, not only of Russia but within NATO. Consequently, the agenda of expansion of NATO was laid down by Clinton. Thus, during Primakov’s visit to Brussels on December 11, 1996, NATO offered to negotiate with Russia on the structuring of a security partnership but it was made clear that the agreement on partnership was to be signed before the scheduled summit meeting of leaders of NATO in Madrid in July 1997. In other words, the Madrid Summit would take the decision on the expansion of NATO, irrespective of the signing of the security partnership between NATO and Russia, Primakov was told.

Once Russia reluctantly agreed to the expansion of NATO, the US decided not to allow Russia any substantial role in the structure and functioning of the alliance which Washington considers as a major instrument that provides it a concrete opportunity to play a pivotal role in the European security architecture. Apart from NATO, the other organisations, which form the European security architecture are the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union (EU), the West European Union (WEU) and the Euro–Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). Moscow wanted that the proposed agreement should be termed as a “treaty” but NATO opposed it on the ground that it would grant Russia a say in internal alliance matters. Moreover, unlike a treaty, an Act meant that the agreement did not require ratification by the legislatures of the various signatories. Initially, NATO favoured the term “Charter” which was opposed by Russia on the ground that it failed to entail the significance that it deserved. Finally, they agreed to term it the Founding Act. Incidentally a NATO–Ukraine Charter was signed on July 9, 1997, which, in contrast to the NATO–Russia Founding Act, was not oriented to safeguards against the alliance, but to a process of convergence.16

The Act merely declares that the alliance members have no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. But it does not foreclose the option of NATO to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new entrants to the military alliance. In fact, the Act has been written in extremely vague language which may be interpreted differently. Russia’s demand to have a say in any future military related decisions by NATO was denied by declaring respect for all countries’ “inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security”. The NATO–Russian Founding Act also laid out a number of common principles that both sides subscribe to, including working together to build a strong security partnership, refraining from threats of force against each other, openness on matters of military policy, support for the United Nations and the central OSCE documents and a general commitment to democracy, pluralism and market economy as well as respect for human rights and civil liberties.

The most significant provision of the accord was the creation of a Russia–NATO Permanent Joint Council. It will deal with various issues such as an intensive exchange of information on strategies, doctrines and military infrastructure. There is explicit reference to matters concerning nuclear safety, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, air defence, and problems such as the conversion of defence industries, terrorism and drug trafficking, air traffic safety and disaster relief. Other areas can also be included in the agenda for consultations by mutual agreement. In line with the Russian desire, it was agreed to review the national ceilings for soldiers and weapons laid down in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) signed in 1990. The first review of the treaty is to be taken in 2001 and at five-year intervals thereafter. However, the Founding Act that created the Joint Council or any other understanding between Russia and the United States along with other member nations of NATO failed to convince Moscow about the validity of NATO’s eastward expansion.

The issue of expansion of NATO raised many questions and objections. The major questions were: why did those countries seek membership of NATO? What were their security threat perceptions and would they be suitably neutralised by NATO? What was the cost of NATO expansion? The major objection to the expansion of NATO raised by Moscow was regarding why the Western military alliance should be expanded and not rationally dissolved with the end of Cold War. NATO was primarily established to contain the Soviet military threat of expansion westward. Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, does not pose any military threat to its Western neighbours, Moscow maintains. Consequently, Moscow argues that there seems to be no raison d’ etre for them to join a military alliance system which was created to meet the military threat from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Since the East and Central European countries have been engaged in the process of nation building, they need close economic, social and political relations with their Western neighbours and the US. Logically they should have become members of the EU but the EU insists on higher economic standards as a condition for becoming eligible for its membership. Apart from the problem of qualifying for the membership of the EU, perhaps those countries found that the US was willing to encourage them to join NATO. They argued that being small countries they felt that they could not raise their defence forces to meet a threat from the military might of some bigger neighbours, especially Russia. Incidentally, some Russian leaders still talk about re-establishing the former Soviet Empire. The NATO membership entails a sense of security for these countries against an aggrandisement policy of a stronger neighbour. It may help in the establishment of a stable democratic polity and strong market economy. It may also help resolve any territorial or ethnic disputes amongst themselves, they believe. Though almost all the East and Central European countries made efforts to become members of the military alliance, the US decided to admit only three into the organisation.

Be that as it may, the NATO eastward expansion will continue to plague Moscow–Washington relations in the near future. At present, Russia is an economically and militarily weak country and, therefore, it may not be in a position to influence the formulation of NATO’s policy. But NATO may find it difficult to take any major decision by disregarding Russia’s serious objections. It may be noted that the Yeltsin Administration has been expressing its displeasure on the expansion of NATO and this discontent should not be allowed to develop into tension or confrontation. In certain quarters it is felt that Washington could have established a new politico-security organisation of European countries which would have provided security guarantees to the East and Central European countries. But the US and some of its allies were not in favour of building a new military-security organisation in place of NATO. They argued that the member states of NATO and its aspirant member states believe in collective defence agreements or “hard” security guarantees which cannot be promoted by “soft security” organisations like the OSCE or EU,17 and in a hard security organisation, Russia has no place. Whatever justification may be offered in support of the expansion of NATO, it revives the bitter memories of the Cold War which may mar smooth development of cordial relations not only between Moscow and Washington but also between Russia and new members of NATO in the foreseeable future. Any move to admit the Baltic states into NATO may further heighten tension between Russia and the West but it appears from US pronouncements that it may not desist from taking such a step.



*: Senior Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.  Back.

Note 1: Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), British Broadcasting Corporation, London, Part 1, Su/3114, January 1, 1998, p. S2/1.  Back.

Note 2: Ibid., p. 6.  Back.

Note 3: See Frederick P.A. Hammersen, “The Disquieting Voice of Resentment,” Parameters, vol. XXXVIII, no. 2, Summer 1998, p. 41.  Back.

Note 4: See Keesing’s Record of World Events, vol. 43, no. 5, May 1997 p. 41665.  Back.

Note 5: Karl–Heinz Kamp, “The NATO–Russia Founding Act: Trojan Horse or Milestone of Reconciliation?” Aussen Politik, vol. 48, no.4, 1997, p. 315.  Back.

Note 6: “Q&A: Behind America’s Push to Enlarge NATO”, International Herald Tribune (IHT), March 3, 1995 as quoted in Istvan Szonyi, “The Partnership for Peace as a Process of Adaptation”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 11, no.1, March, 1998, p. 18.  Back.

Note 7: See Kessing’s Record of World Events, vol.42, Reference Supplement, 1996, pp. R120 and R 150.  Back.

Note 8: Ibid., vol.42, no.2, February 1996, p.40960.  Back.

Note 9: Kessing’s Record of World Events, no.3, March 1996, p.41026. See also p.41016.  Back.

Note 10: Kessing’s Record of World Events, no.4, April 1996, p. 41062.  Back.

Note 11: Ibid., p. 41048.  Back.

Note 12: See Kessing’s Record of World Events, vol.43, no.3, March 1997, p. 41569.  Back.

Note 13: Ibid., p. 41617.  Back.

Note 14: Kessing’s Record of World Events, no.2, March 1997, p. 41521.  Back.

Note 15: Kamp, n.5, p. 316.  Back.

Note 16: See Olga Alexandrova, “The NATO–Ukraine Charter: Kiev’s Euro–Atlantic Integration”, Aussen Politick, vol.48, no.4, 1997, pp. 325–334.  Back.

Note 17: See Arndt Freihrr Freytag von Loringhoven, “Regional Cooperation : Building Bridges as Europe Grows Together”, Aussen Politick, vol.49, 3rd Quarter, no.1, 1998, p. 12.  Back.