Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 10

One of Moscow’s leading security experts examines the Russia-NATO Founding Act and considers how the two sides can cooperate in future

By Sergei Oznobishchev

The months of waiting have concluded in the signing of the "Founding Act" between Russia and NATO. But the joy of those who described this event as a victory for both Russian and Western diplomacy may be premature. The signing of the Act is only one stage in an exercise in damage-control undertaken by the West in order not to lose Russia as a present and potential partner in the international arena. This consideration was perhaps the most important factor forming the West’s present political line toward Russia.

The signing of the act will reopen a door that was beginning to close to constructive cooperation between Russia and the West in the military and political spheres. The West’s determination to expand NATO eastward threatened to provoke what could without exaggeration be called the biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War. The resultant crisis in our relations was seen by many in Russia as a blow against the policy of partnership with the West. The issue of NATO expansion began to influence all decision-making in the areas of security, military policy and arms control. The exchange of arguments began to sound like a dialogue of the deaf. The arguments of both sides were simply and literally repeated at every meeting between experts or politicians.

Dripping water can wear down a stone. After several years, repeated rehearsal of the same arguments finally convinced the West that Russia was absolutely serious in its intentions and had no intention of giving in. Time began to play in our favor; meeting such impressive stubbornness, the West began to fear that it might lose Russia as a partner and comrade-in-arms in the international arena.

Russia’s relations with the West cannot be viewed outside the context of Western "guilt feelings" for NATO expansion. One of the first indications of this was German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s visit to Russia at the beginning of 1996 — the year of Russia’s presidential election. During a short meeting near Moscow, the chancellor, speaking on behalf of the leaders of the Western countries, assured Boris Yeltsin that the West would take no practical steps towards NATO expansion that year. In so doing, Kohl was clearly, if indirectly, letting Yeltsin understand that Western leaders understood that NATO’s eastward expansion could have a negative influence on political dynamics within Russia and undermine the positions of democratically-oriented parties and politicians there.

The Russo-American summit in Helsinki in March 1997 also played an important role in "damage-control." It was here that the U.S. president, speaking after consultation with the leaders of the other Western countries, promised to help Russia join a number of important international institutions. The Helsinki summit represented an attempt to compensate Russia materially for the moral costs which she would have to bear.

Had the West not suffered a "guilt complex" over NATO expansion, it would have taken many years for Russia to win such concessions. Specifically, we are speaking of offering Russia most favored nation status, supporting our country’s admission to the World Trade Organization and the Paris Club, and helping Russia join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The Group of Seven leading industrialized nations has, moreover, been transformed into the "Group of Eight" by allowing Russia to join it.

A decision was also made in Helsinki to implement a joint initiative to stimulate investment and economic growth in Russia. Support was expressed for the plan of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission to implement a regional initiative designed to attract direct foreign investment to Russia’s regions.

Western efforts to reaffirm Russia’s special status in world affairs were extremely important, if not crucial, for the pride of Russian politicians. This status was underlined in the final documents of the Helsinki summit, which recognized Russia and the U.S. as "powers with worldwide responsibilities."

The signing of the Founding Act between Russia and NATO in May 1997 offered conclusive proof of this thesis. The very existence of such a document was the consequence of Western diplomacy’s search for a way out of the impasse which it had created in its relations with Russia.

A formal agreement between Russia and NATO was the only way out the impasse, given that the West continued to insist that NATO’s expansion was inevitable even as Russian politicians, who agreed on little else, united in the view that expansion was unacceptable and must be resisted.

Why was this necessary, from Russia’s point of view?

First, and most importantly, Russian policy-makers believed that western actions were slowly but surely leading our relations to the brink, beyond which lay a return to rivalry and confrontation. In these conditions, Russian politicians began to see the need at least to try to stop slipping back, to establish, in the form of an agreement, at least the basic principles of relations between Russia and the West, to remove at least the main causes of concern in the security sphere.

Second, Russian policy-makers believed that if they took at least a few steps forward, this would enable Russia to begin a permanent dialogue with NATO, if not on an equal footing, then under respectable conditions. The idea of a regular dialogue, rather than one that takes place only in times of crisis, is embodied in the form of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. Russian politicians hope that this will make it possible to leave the regime of "emergency cooperation" behind and to devote our efforts not to trying to resolve existing conflicts but to preventing them from breaking out.

Third, the unfortunate reality of our relations in the nineties is that events occur that give rise to mistrust in each other’s verbal promises. At one time, Russia believed the West’s promises that it would not "extend NATO’s jurisdiction eastward by a single inch." Leading Western statesmen — James Baker, Helmut Kohl, Douglas Hurd, Francois Mitterrand — all broke the promises they gave to Mikhail Gorbachev in the early nineties. Excerpts from the transcripts of these conversations have been published in the press. The "binding document" upon which Moscow insisted at Helsinki was therefore extremely important for Russia.

In one way or another, the concerns of our military experts were removed. It is true that, as regards nuclear weapons, the West offered no new formulations or obligations that had not been repeated many times before. But even repetitions, set down in documentary form and signed by the highest-ranking officials, remain a political commodity in great demand.

And this is just one more piece of evidence that our relations have not yet made it safely through the possible "zone of turbulence," that we have not yet been able to form a stable and effective partnership to protect us from future crises in our relations. In our strategic calculations, both sides continue to see each other, if not as potential adversaries, then as sources of potential challenge and danger.

Analysis of a number of sections of the Founding Act leaves one, moreover, with a sense of melancholy amazement. Many provisions of the act quite unexpectedly turned out to be graphic evidence of how far we have managed to come in building partnership relations with one another. Repetition, for the ninth time, of our mutual obligations "to renounce the use or threat of force against one other" or calls for respect for the "sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states" might have sounded revolutionary during the Cold War. Now they provoke distressing thoughts of lost time (including the time spent discussing NATO expansion) and show only that each side continues to lack confidence in the other’s intentions.

The creation of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council is a clear and indubitable achievement, which unquestionably guarantees Russia broader possibilities of influencing decision-making in Europe. The act reminds us all of the existence of common challenges and threats and, what is especially important, directs the sides not simply to make joint decisions, but to back these up by joint actions to resist our common threats. It is hard to remember a time when such tasks were posed in documents between Russia and the West.

Much here will depend on how the Western nations act in the future. Assertions that the Founding Act can stop NATO’s eastward movement are myths. No, this document should be seen as an attempt to smooth over relations with Russia, as an operation in damage-control on the eve of alliance expansion.

A dangerous period is approaching — the time for interpreting the agreement. Members of Russia’s national-patriotic opposition have already launched a campaign against what they call the "betrayal of the interests of the Motherland." The document has done nothing to reduce anti-Western sentiment. This is, to a significant degree, a consequence of the dashed expectations of partnership with the West and of the active Western policy of recent times of ignoring Russia’s views.

The correct approach to the Russia-NATO agreement is to assess it realistically (so far, this has not been the established practice in Russian political circles). Excessive expectations and excessive criticism are both inappropriate. Perhaps we can agree that it is a pretty good result, given the present political climate and state of our relations with the West.

Despite the creation of a "buffer" in the form of the Russia-NATO document, the degree of confrontation or partnership in our relations will in large part depend upon how NATO expansion proceeds. Here, the presence of at least some of the following conditions in Western policy is vitally important: restraint on the part of the West in the next stages of NATO expansion ("freezing expansion"); actively proposing compensation for Russia for the expansion which has already taken place; viewing Russia as an equal partner; transparent and open modernization of NATO; coordination of this process with the building of a more general European security system (such as discussing the possibility of Russia’s acceptance into NATO on special conditions; renaming NATO; and so on).

Further development of "operation damage-control" is also vitally important: it would be desirable to create a whole series or even a network of cooperative projects, to serve as a positive example of the results of Russian-Western cooperation and give real content to any form of declarative partnership.

Failure to fulfill these conditions has so far led to a deterioration in our partnership. As a result of the "spring diplomatic breakthrough," a few possibilities have opened up to find a way out of the crisis in relations between Russia and the West. At the cost of titanic effort, the two sides succeeded in preserving the possibility for further constructive political interaction. Time will tell how well the two will succeed in putting their ideas into practice.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Sergei Oznobishchev is the director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.