Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 15

The Test of Wills over NATO

By Rossen Vassilev

The loss of an empire has forced a radical redefinition of Russianinterests in world politics, but Moscow is still resisting effortsto bring NATO, its Cold War enemy, right to its front door. Norare the Russians ready to abandon Eastern Europe, formerly thecrucial bulwark of Soviet influence in Europe, to the West. Theproposed eastward expansion of NATO has become a test of willsbetween the former adversaries, with the West trying to show thatit has the determination to take in new members despite Russianresistance.

In Russia, NATO expansion has turned into a bete noire, servingas an excuse for spreading anti-Western and anti-American sentiments.After NATO announced in December 1994 that it would admit newmembers from the East, President Yeltsin promised that Russiawill not allow such expansion to take place. Foreign MinisterPrimakov has reiterated in unmistakable terms that Russia willcontinue to oppose any enlargement of the alliance if it bringsthe bloc’s military infrastructure closer to its borders. Afterthe latest North Atlantic Cooperation Council session in Berlin,he strenuously denied Western reports that Moscow was relaxingits all-out opposition or that it might agree to NATO expansionprovided no foreign troops and nuclear weapons were stationedon the territories of the alliance’s new members. (1) If no compromisewith the West is found, the Russian foreign minister has threatenedcounter-measures, including forming a CIS-based military blocand suspending disarmament agreements. (2)

Even after the assurances given by Washington that NATO expansionwill not be at the expense of Russian interests, Moscow remainsopposed to such a move, demanding an "intensive dialogue"and "compromise" on this issue. The new defense minister,Igor Rodionov, has dismissed Western assurances as "justwords," insisting that Russia "must draw conclusionsfrom history." (3) While recognizing that they have no vetopower over NATO’s admission of new members from Eastern and CentralEurope, the Russians have demanded that their regional securityneeds be taken into account, especially in the Baltic states,where Moscow claims to have special interests due to the presenceof large Russian minorities. Presidential aide Dmitri Ryurikovhas bluntly declared that "Lithuania, Latvia, and especiallyEstonia have no chance of joining NATO until the Russian problemis resolved. (4)

So unhappy is Moscow with the idea of NATO expansion that Russianleaders have declared that they will seek to counter it by formingnew military-political alliances in Asia, including a "strategicpartnership" with China, and finding new allies in the MiddleEast and Latin America. Almost all of the Russian political andmilitary establishments are against the expansion of the Westernalliance. For example, Defense Minister Rodionov is claiming thatthis possibility represents Russia’s "main problem"in the West, since it could dangerously change the military-strategicbalance in Europe. (5) Sergei Kortunov, a foreign policy expertin the Russian government, has even suggested that Moscow shouldapply for membership in NATO in order to test Western claims thatthe alliance’s enlargement is not directed against Russia, aswell as to help start the long-promised conversion of the organizationinto a post-Cold War security structure. (6) Ironically, Kortunov’ssuggestion may have been inspired by Stalin’s tongue-in-cheekattempt in 1949 to apply for membership in the newly-founded NATOat the height of the Cold War.

Moscow threatens to link this issue to further progress in armscontrol. Duma chairman Gennady Seleznev has warned that NATO enlargementendangers the ratification of the START II treaty. He claims thatwhen the arms control agreement was signed in January 1993, therewas no mention of plans to admit the non-aligned states of Centraland Eastern Europe in NATO. Now that the prospect for NATO’s eastwardadvancement seems increasingly likely, the Russian Duma will haveto take a harder look at the changed circumstances before approvingthe new treaty. (7) Ambassador Grigori Berdennikov, head of theRussian delegation to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva,has also linked arms control to NATO expansion, which he claims"poisons the entire international climate." (8)

Russia has offered a series of face-saving compromises, some ofwhich are obviously designed to protect Yeltsin against criticismfrom hard-line nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who haswarned that NATO expansion will lead to war, or Gennady Zyuganov,who is no less strident in denouncing this move as a threat toRussian security. In a compromise offer, Moscow has indicatedthat its concerns may be alleviated if the new candidates forNATO membership could be admitted into the organization’s politicalwing, but not its integrated military structure.

However, NATO secretary-general Javier Solana has rejected thisproposal, insisting that there is no possibility of only "political"membership in the organization. When admitted to NATO, each newmember will share all rights and duties, including the full securityguarantees provided under the Washington Treaty. (9) The elevencountries applying for full NATO membership have themselves ruledout the option of being restricted to the political wing of theorganization with no military connections, a status comparableto that held by France since 1966.

Another indication of the seriousness of Russian apprehensionsconcerning NATO’s planned enlargement is the revival of the Brezhnev-eraproposal for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in Centraland Eastern Europe, which Moscow put forward at the G-7 nuclearsafety conference held in April. The Russians strongly hintedthat they might drop their opposition to NATO’s eastward expansionif the West agrees to this offer. (10) At the summit, Yeltsinalso called upon the other nuclear powers to base their nucleararms only on their own territory, (11) a proposal which, if accepted,would preclude the stationing of such weapons in the East andCentral European states applying for NATO membership. But theWest has rejected both initiatives, especially the latter proposalwhich would have required the U.S. to withdraw its forward-basednuclear systems deployed in Western Europe.

Having failed to persuade the West to either postpone or abandonaltogether plans for NATO expansion, Moscow is putting pressureon its former Soviet-bloc partners, trying to convince them thatjoining NATO will actually damage rather than guarantee theirsecurity interests. As part of their "preventive" diplomacy,Russian officials have publicly lashed out at those countriesin the region that aspire to join NATO, charging that this wouldlead to the redivision of Europe and the stationing of Westerntroops and tactical nuclear weapons in close proximity to Russianborders, thereby endangering Moscow’s national security.

Ivan Aboimov, Russia’s ambassador to Hungary, has claimed thatNATO enlargement would jeopardize regional security and createa new division in Europe. He noted that such a move would violatethe idea of an indivisible, all-European security system thatincludes Russia. He cautioned Hungary that this could force Moscowto take appropriate military counter-measures directed againstits former allies, including targeting them with nuclear weapons.(12) Marking the 55th anniversary of Hitler’s attack on the SovietUnion, Yeltsin warned that the expansion of the Western alliancein the East would lead to a new confrontation on the continent.(13)

The Baltic states have come under especially intense pressure.Mikhail Tarasov, a foreign policy aide to Prime Minister VictorChernomyrdin, has sharply criticized the Baltic states for theireagerness to become NATO members. On an official visit to Latviain April, Vladimir Lukin, the chairman of the Duma’s InternationalAffairs Committee, told his hosts that Latvia is unlikely to beadmitted into NATO in the near future and its efforts to jointhe organization are only aggravating relations with Russia. (14)

Professor Kiril Gusev, a prominent Russian political scientistand foreign policy commentator, has given Bulgaria, a former closeally of Moscow, Russia’s reasons for opposing NATO expansion aswell as a veiled warning: "NATO’s desire to expand eastwardviolates the idea of a united Europe, as well as the goals andpurposes of the OSCE. It aims to revive the notorious cordon sanitairesurrounding Russia in the past. But the expansion will not producethe psychological effects sought by the Western countries. A Slavicand Eastern Orthodox country like Bulgaria will feel like an alienbody in their midst." (15)

This campaign of pressure and intimidation has so far had limitedsuccess. Only a few countries like Belarus, Ukraine, and Bulgariahave rejected the idea of joining NATO so as not to offend theKremlin. For example, Bulgaria’s Socialist prime minister JeanVidenov has pointed out that he does not see Russia as a potentialthreat to his country’s national security and has warned thatNATO enlargement should be very carefully thought-out if it isnot to produce "a deficit in security or new tensions."(16)

But why is Moscow so adamantly opposed to NATO’s military expansion?The fear that it may find itself strategically isolated from itsformer regional allies and friends seems to be uppermost on Moscow’smind. In February, during his first official visit to a formerSoviet-bloc country, Primakov urged Slovak leaders to abandonplans for their country’s integration into NATO, claiming thatNATO expansion "would put Russia into a worse geopoliticaland military position, not to mention the psychological aspectsof the process." (17) Defense Minister Rodionov has warnedthat from bases in Central and Eastern Europe NATO’s warplanescould easily reach the Western areas of Russia. (18) Moscow hasalso expressed concern that Polish and Lithuanian membership inNATO would completely cut off the Russian enclave of Kaliningradon the Baltic coast. (19) Zhirinovsky has blasted the plannedexpansion as "a geopolitical and economic blockade of Russia,"(20) amounting to a new "Drang nach Osten" policy.

Russian leaders have complained that at the time of the breakupof the Warsaw Pact, the Bush administration gave Moscow assurancesthat NATO would not take advantage of this unilateral step. Butnow that the Soviet Union has disintegrated and Russia is in aweakened strategic position, this promise, along with assurancesthat NATO would become a political rather than military alliancewithin the new European security architecture, have been forgotten.The influential military commentator Pavel Felgengauer has decriedas politically naive Gorbachev’s failure to obtain a written commitmentthat NATO would not expand when he consented to German reunificationin 1990. For this reason, Felgengauer argues that any compromisewith NATO over the terms of its eastward extension should be inthe form of a negotiated agreement, because verbal assurancesthat NATO would not deploy troops and military bases near Russianborders could disappear later. (21)

This is how Lt. Gen. Vadim Makarevski (ret.), a doctor of militaryscience and NATO expert, explains Moscow’s misgivings regardingWestern actions and intentions vis-a-vis Russia: "From NATO’sviewpoint, this is the most appropriate moment for its expansion.The situation has changed radically in a direction unfavorableto Russia. Russian defense capabilities have declined to a considerabledegree. Taking into account our economic decline as well, somecircles in the West have decided that now is the time to forceus to our knees by means of a military pact extending right toour borders and dictating to us the rules of the game." Havingspelled out the Russian appraisal of the situation, the generalgoes on to warn the Western countries: "What they forgetis that in the past Russia had been in situations far worse thanthe present one, yet we have never surrendered." (22) Yeltsin’srecent comment that the West is trying to reinforce its globalhegemony by advancing "the NATO military machine to the East"is equally symptomatic of the depth of Russian paranoia. (23)

Such tirades confirm the correctness of Polish prime ministerWlodzimierz Cimoszewicz’s observation that Moscow’s problem is"not NATO’s expansion but NATO itself." (24) That thisis indeed so can be seen from persistent Russian efforts to promotethe OSCE as an alternative to NATO in the area of military security,including the recent Russian-French declaration that the OSCEshould serve as the basis for the new European security order.(25) Calling NATO a relic of the Cold War, Moscow has pointedout that plans for its expansion come at a time when some WestEuropean members are questioning its continued relevance for thefuture. All applicants to NATO are already members of the Partnershipfor Peace program, the Russians note, while none of them is underany military threat.


1. Itar-Tass, June 7, 1996; Izvestiya, June 8, 1996

2. Komsomolskaya pravda, June 11, 1996; Itar-Tass, July29, 1996

3. NTV’s Itogi, July 28, 1996

4. Moskovskii komsomolets, August 21, 1996

5. Krasnaya zvezda, July 25, 1996

6. Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 10, 1996

7. Itar-Tass, April 27, 1996

8. Itar-Tass, March 7, 1996

9. AFP, April 19, 1996

10. Itar-Tass, April 19, 1996

11. Interfax, April 20, 1996

12. Reuters, April 19, 1996

13. Itar-Tass, June 22, 1996

14. Itar-Tass, April 30, 1996

15. Duma, April 17, 1996

16. AFP, April 30, 1996

17. Reuters, March 1, 1996

18. Interfax, May 14, 1996

19. Krasnaya zvezda, July 25, 1996

20. Itar-Tass, July 11, 1996

21. Segodnya, June 5, 1996

22. Duma, April 17, 1996

23. Itar-Tass, May 29, 1996

24. DPA, April 14, 1996

25. UPI, April 19, 1996