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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 95-103

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Russia in NATO?

James A. Baker III

In 1993 I proposed that NATO draw up a clear road map for expanding the alliance eastward to include not only the states of Central and Eastern Europe but also a democratic Russia. "Otherwise, the most successful alliance in history is destined to follow the threat that created it into the dustbin of history." 1 The alliance did, of course, expand eastward and survive. Today, following the admission of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, nine other countries either have asked for membership consideration or have signaled an interest. By engaging in air missions and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, NATO has enlarged its military mission to include out-of-area operations in a region whose troubles did not directly threaten the members' security, but did threaten European stability. Now, with the invocation of the North Atlantic Treaty's mutual defense obligations under Article 5 in response to the September terrorist attacks on the United States, the alliance is serving a more important role in Western security than at any other time since the end of the Cold War.

Russia, however, still waits outside the door. The idea that Russia could even be eligible for membership has been met with opposition and indifference, mainly because Russia has never been ripe for membership--because it has embraced democracy and free markets only rhetorically, without creating the institutions or exercising the political will necessary to commit itself fully. Accordingly, unwilling to consider marriage, the West has offered cohabitation arrangements--first the Partnership for Peace, then the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council--that have served useful functions without offering a satisfactory long-term solution. Then in 1997, over strong [End Page 95] Russian objections, NATO admitted three former allies of the Soviet Union, without making it clear that Russia, too, would be eligible for membership if it embraced democracy and free markets. Meanwhile, Russia's historic distrust of NATO and of the United States, which had dampened at the beginning of the 1990s, flared back alive when NATO, a defensive alliance, took up arms in an offensive action against Russia's Slavic kinsmen and political allies in the 1999 Kosovo conflict. When the fighting ended, 96 percent of Russians either agreed or totally agreed with the proposition that "NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia is a crime against humanity," and 77 percent either agreed or totally agreed that "[t]here is nothing stopping NATO from getting involved in Russia as it did in Yugoslavia." 2 Those propositions are wrong, of course, but the poll results demonstrated the depth of Russian public antipathy toward the intervention. As the old millennium ended and the new one began, the never-strong possibility of Russian membership in NATO appeared to be dead.

Times have changed. Both Russia and the United States have new presidents. Russian president Vladimir Putin revived the NATO issue in a news conference in July, shortly before he met with President George W. Bush. "Putin challenged the Western alliance to either enroll Russia or disband, calling NATO a Cold War relic that will only continue to sow the seeds of suspicion in Europe as long as it excludes its onetime archenemy." 3 Bush also reportedly had "asked advisers ... about the wisdom of such an approach." The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States are almost certain to accelerate discussion of the issue.

How Can Russia Join NATO?

The affirmative case for Russian eligibility for NATO membership is fairly straightforward and easy to make. The alliance has at least two implicit and at least five explicit criteria for admission. The first implicit requirement is that the candidate be a member of the Atlantic community--that is to say, the West. The second is that the candidate share important security concerns with the other members. Russia surely qualifies on both counts. Since the end of the Cold War, it has repeatedly declared its identification and wish to align with the West, a region that, for NATO's purposes, already extends eastward to Greece and Turkey. As...


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