In 1991, Russia signalled it wanted to join NATO. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the new Russian state, called NATO membership a “long-term political aim” of his country. Yeltsin was echoing calls made a year earlier when Mikhail Gorbachev proposed the Soviet Union join the North Atlantic Alliance. By 1994, Russia had officially signed up to the NATO Partnership for Peace programme, a military-to-military cooperation initiative aimed at former Soviet bloc countries, which US President Bill Clinton described as a “track that will lead to NATO membership”.
However, Western countries never really took the idea of Russian NATO membership seriously. It’s possible they were suspicious of attempts to dilute the effectiveness of the alliance (the Soviet Union had tried to join NATO in 1954, likely indeed as a way to neuter the organisation). The Kremlin, however, was by the mid-1990s convinced that NATO expansion was an aggressive attempt to permanently undermine Russian security. Was the whole thing a missed opportunity? If NATO had seriously considered Russian membership (even as a long-term goal) might history have taken a very different path?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Yvetta, who raised the point that in the 1990s there was indeed a debate about whether Russia might one day join NATO. But that was then. In today’s world (post-Crimean annexation) is the idea of Russian membership of NATO totally absurd?
To get a reaction, we put this question to James Kirchick, an American journalist, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of the book “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age”. What would he say?
For another perspective, we put the same question to Leonid Gozman, a Russian liberal politician and President of the all-Russian public movement Union of Right Forces. How would he respond?
I think we must, MUST have Russia in NATO. Russia must be a member of NATO because Russia is a part of European civilisation. It’s a specific part of European civilisation – it’s Eastern Christianity – and there are many other specific things. But, as our prominent monarch Yekaterina the Great said, Russia is a European power. And Russia is really a European power, if you have ever been in Russia you will have seen our cities – some of them are beautiful and some of them are ugly, but they are European cities. Moscow and St. Petersburg are European cities…
So, NATO is not just ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’. In my mind, NATO is a military alliance of European nations… So, from a [long-term] strategic point of view (not for now, because now we are closer to war than an alliance, unfortunately) we have a choice: either Russia is a member of NATO, or Russia is an enemy of Europe. Either, or. So, I prefer to see my country as a member of NATO.
Why is the idea of Russia joining NATO so far-fetched? Certainly, relations between Russia and the West haven’t been this strained since the Cold War. How did things get this bad? We had a comment from Maike who argues that NATO expansion is to blame. She thinks Russia was provoked into the annexation of Crimea by the possibility that Ukraine might one day join the EU and NATO.
How would Jame Kirchick respond?
Finally, what would Leonid Gozman say to the same question?
I disagree. I disagree with her. I think that, of course, both sides – I mean the EU and Russia – made some negative steps. But 80-90% of the problem is on our side. The main reason was there was a great crisis in Russia – an economic, political, and moral crisis – and Russian authorities tried to find an exit from this crisis by using nationalistic and terroristic rhetoric, so unfortunately our current leadership needs Europe and the United States as enemies, not as partners. They need them as enemies for domestic reasons, not for international reasons.
Could Russia ever join NATO? Why isn’t the possibility taken seriously? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!