This past year saw a lot of speculation about whether Russia will ultimately join NATO. Prominent analysts and former politicians took to the pages of Western publications to voice their opinion on the desirability of Russian membership. The NATO Strategic Concept Expert Group, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, held a lively discussion on the issue, but the conclusions of the “wise men,” as the group is often called, were not included in the draft of the alliance’s new strategy.
In Russia, pro-Western liberals from the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) and even high-ranking officials are mulling the possibility. After the NATO summit in Lisbon, where the atmosphere was quite friendly toward Russia, two high-ranking Russian officials acknowledged that it’s possible that Russia could join NATO in the future. These were deputy chief of the Kremlin staff, Vladislav Surkov, and director of the Foreign Ministry’s policy planning department, Alexander Kramarenko.
Where could all of this be leading?
The fact that the possibility is being discussed at all signifies a major change in the international situation. NATO has clearly outlived itself. It has no new goals on the horizon. It has not become the world’s police officer, and the only remaining problem in its initial zone of responsibility – Europe – is unsettled relations with Moscow.
Putting Russian-NATO relations on a solid footing – which should start with the sides abandoning worn-out perceptions of each other – could give a new purpose to NATO as a regional organization.
Russia is gradually overcoming a perception of NATO as the main threat to its security. The current tenor of its relations with the alliance is just an echo from the past. It’s not clear when the echo will die out, and it is becoming more and more dissonant compared to other sounds in the world, especially in Asia.
The recent disturbance on the Korean Peninsula could be a mild prelude to very painful events. The deepest fault line runs between the United States and China, which the development logic is pushing into confrontation with each other. The outcome is unclear, but such a confrontation is becoming increasingly probable.
The results of such confrontation will be vitally important to Russia since it does not want being used as bargaining chip in U.S.-Chinese relations. Also, it must not allow itself to be pushed to the frontline of their confrontation on either side.
Against this backdrop, an institutional rapprochement between Russia and NATO would signify Russia’s movement toward an organization and a part of the world whose global importance is shrinking. Moreover, this could affect its relations with China, which will certainly suspect NATO and Russia of plotting against it, no matter what arguments Moscow may use to prove otherwise.
Actually, China would feel like Russia did when it learned of Ukraine’s intention to join NATO – all the more so given that the joint ballistic missile shield discussed at the Lisbon summit could be directed against China.
Only the prospect of significant gains could justify risking a major deterioration in political relations with a huge neighbor, which everyone expects to become even more influential in the world. But it is impossible to imagine NATO pledging to guarantee Russia’s security in either the east or the south.
If Russia joins NATO, it will be the one providing security, not receiving it, just as the United States currently provides security to its NATO allies. I know this all sounds incredibly unlikely now given the attitude of some new NATO members to Russia, but many events in the past 20 years seemed absolutely impossible until they happened.
The underlying principle of military-political alliances in the 21st century will most likely differ from the 20th century, when they were based on shared ideology or values. In the coming decades, alliances will probably be formed to achieve a concrete objective. As Donald Rumsfeld once said,
“The mission determines the coalition — the coalition must not determine the mission.” This phrase proved to be more lasting than his political career.
Should Russia take on additional commitments by becoming a formal member of an alliance, this would only constrain its ability to respond to surprise developments, which are certain to occur.
Had the possibility of Russia joining NATO been raised 10 or 15 years ago, the atmosphere would have been quite different. At that time, the alliance seemed to have no alternative in the sphere of security. Russia was ready to show restraint, and China was not a decisive factor. But it did not happen then, and now there are too many new circumstances to consider the possibility seriously.
The largely virtual NATO-Russia rivalry must be laid to rest, primarily so that the sides can stop spending time and effort on conflicts rooted in the past. This would facilitate economic progress, as it would rid commercial relations of undue suspicion.
But having Russia as a NATO member would do nothing to address the real security problems of the 21st century, which should be addressed in a new format, ideally a trilateral format involving Russia, China and the Untied States. Although they have different interests and approaches, they have the strategic weight necessary to deal with problems in Central Eurasia, Russia’s Far East and the Pacific region.
America’s European allies are unlikely to get involved in events so far from the Old World after extricating themselves from the Afghan quagmire. Russia may find it difficult to determine its role in such a format, but one thing is for sure: NATO, with its 20th-century guidelines and limited effectiveness, would only make things harder for Russia.