Three Birds with One Stone?
No. 1 2011 January/March
Konstantin Kosachev

Head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). He is also the Russian President’s Special Envoy for Relations with CIS Member-States and a Member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

Russia’s Failed Attempt to Join NATO

The possibility (advisability, feasibility, desirability, etc.) of Russia joining NATO has been the subject of widespread discussion among Western politicians and scholars in the last 18 months, however, this issue is no longer on the agenda today. The discussion was purely speculative from the very beginning: it did not imply any practical conclusions or the drafting of a “road map,” although the tone of some statements created the impression that Moscow had already applied for NATO membership and was patiently waiting for a decision.

Yet in politics things never happen without a reason. Sometimes an issue is raised only to be heard and fixed in people’s minds in some way. It would be apt here to cite the famous statement by Ernest Rutherford: “Every scientific truth goes through three states: first, people say it conflicts with the Bible; next, they say it has been discovered before; lastly, they say they always believed it.”


What sparked such heightened interest in this seemingly impractical issue? 

It would be reasonable to assume that the active discussion of the Russian question in NATO was fueled by the Alliance’s search for its own place in the world. For NATO, its relations with Russia are a matter of self-determination to the same degree as it is for Moscow, because admitting Russia is not the same as admitting “just one more” member; it means the choice of a future.

At the turn of the century Western civilization faced an existential challenge – the threat of losing global leadership amidst the growth of other regions and nations. In this context, resource-rich Russia, which has a huge territory and one of the two largest nuclear potentials in the world, could prove to be very helpful. But in order to preserve Western unity and absorb other CIS states, the West needs to stop demonizing Russia and Russia should be included in NATO’s geopolitical and civilizational space. This means, among other things, making Russia a beneficiary, on par with the West, of the advantages that the West enjoys thanks to its privileged status as controller of global resource flows. In that case, Russians (and not only the elites) would have something to lose if it comes to choosing between siding with the West or being without it (and especially against it).

For some European neophytes Russia is still a past “reference point” which they should abandon – or else for what was it all started? But for strategically-minded Europeans, a developed and democratic Russia is a potentially powerful civilizational resource of the future, rather than an inevitable rival in the event of its further growth. 

However, Europeans believe (and not without reason) that Russia’s vast potential has not been fully tapped. This is primarily a result of purely domestic reasons; due to imperfections in the economic and state systems. This echoes conclusions made by the Russian leadership, most notably in Dmitry Medvedev’s article “Forward Russia!” The only difference is that Russia has already made its pro-European and pro-democracy choice, and the establishment of modernization alliances with leading Western powers is a necessary lever for its economic and social breakthrough. Meanwhile, the West does not seem to be sure of that and would like to have more evidence of Moscow’s intentions for integration. Otherwise alliances will never be formed. At best there will be some breakthroughs in Moscow’s relations with friendly European powers, but only insofar as this does not damage Euro-Atlantic obligations and ties.

Yet it would be premature to speak of Russia’s unconditional desire to fully integrate into the Western world. What was natural and taken for granted 20 years ago for many people, including East Europeans, is no longer obvious. The matter is not whether or not Russia belongs to European civilization; the choice in favor of Europe is still relevant, although it would be reasonable to give up this blind orientation to the West considering the overall growing strength of Asia and the potentialities opened up by this development. If the issue of Russia integrating into the West took practical shape, Russia would have to act when the West is in its downward phase. Conflicts between Western countries and the rest of the world are quite possible and the outcome is not certain at all. How much do civilizational reasons (belonging to the same Euro-Atlantic culture) outweigh for Russia the risk of possible conflicts with other global forces (China and the Islamic world), on relations with which prosperity and peace in Russia depend as much?

We must soberly assess the situation globally (trends in the development of the West) and in terms of our own prospects: Does the cultural and civilizational identity of the Russian people necessarily imply its institutionalization in the form of membership in existing Western structures? If Russians are tested for their “European suitability” and “European maturity,” then they naturally want to know the vector of the evolution of Euro-Atlantic institutions. The way these institutions are now, they certainly are no good for Russia because NATO’s shadow emerges wherever a conflict emerges with Moscow (for example, Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, energy supplies to Europe, the Arctic, etc.). NATO prefers to see the roots of these conflicts in Moscow’s relic anti-Western attitudes; however, NATO cannot deny its own activity, which was not provoked by the Kremlin.

Some may interpret a future initiative to invite Russia to join the North Atlantic Alliance as a deceptive maneuver intended to restrain Moscow’s activity concerning a new security architecture and the Alliance’s enlargement. Namely, Russia is made an offer, and if such an offer were refused it would confirm Russia’s reputation as a non-integrable and “suspicious” country (and would thus provide ground for NATO’s further existence, enlargement and strengthening). But if Russia accepts such an offer, this would open endless possibilities to set conditions for Moscow and demand control over their fulfillment. Naturally, there will always be something to find fault with.

Yet the very fact that the issue of Russia’s NATO membership was discussed publicly and seriously is of paramount importance. It was not the first time that the issue was raised, but never before had it been addressed so seriously that it came to a discussion of its feasibility/unfeasibility, practical implications and evaluation of existing obstacles.

There are politicians in Europe who do not see any problem in being in one military alliance with Russia. But there are many others who consider this absolutely unacceptable: for them, joining NATO symbolized a geopolitical departure from their eastern neighbor. It is not even fear of Russia (when one joins a military organization fears diminish faster than in the case of a continued “cold” conflict). Rather, symbols are what matter: NATO is viewed as the space of the “genuine West,” where the former center of the Eastern bloc should not be allowed by definition.

There are sentiments in favor of open discussion in Russia as well, despite the widespread distrust of the Alliance. Some experts and analysts sincerely see more risks in existing outside NATO rather than within it. There are also those who are ready to view closer relations with NATO through the prism of the question: Will one protect oneself from NATO by joining it?

In any case, now we have a situation that is already not absolutely immovable, as the initial disposition (“admitting Russia is impossible”) has undergone some changes. This process is aimed not so much at looking for concrete areas for rapprochement, as at rethinking the disposition itself in the changing environment of the new century (“Yes, this is impossible, but why?”).

Previously, answers to this question depended on the viewpoint of the person asked. The West views Russia as a country that is insufficiently democratic and not very integrated (or not possible to integrate at all) into the Western community. Russians still view NATO as an alliance tailored solely towards confronting Russia, an alliance that did not dissolve itself at the end of the Cold War and which supports “everything that moves” if it “moves” against Moscow.

There are some grounds for such arguments, yet there is one weak point. These arguments are built on the “let-him-start” principle; the matter is irrelevant until the other party “reforms.” However, in order to understand whether objective or subjective reasons stand in the way of Russia’s practical integration into the Euro-Atlantic community (or, on the contrary, make it inevitable at some stage), one must see the entire picture. After all, this is a choice that will determine the destinies of Russia and Europe for decades or even centuries to come. So, one should not speak only of a set of criteria to be met.


There are several aspects to the problem of Russian-NATO relations.

The first is the military-technical aspect, whose importance cannot be underestimated or exaggerated. The incompatibility problem does exist, but it will not be fatal if both parties display the will for rapprochement.

The second is the value aspect, which NATO countries usually emphasize. For example, Russian opposition to plans for NATO enlargement into Ukraine and Georgia, or to the imposition of certain political forms on Moldova, is presented as ideological incompatibility (“rejection by Russia of Western values”), although purely geopolitical differences are behind this disagreement.

In fact, the values embraced by the West do not divide us. The differences relate to the ways and methods of promoting these values, which for some reason often turn out to be ways to promote NATO’s military infrastructure or political forces loyal to the West. Due to an odd coincidence these forces often are negatively disposed towards Russia and cooperation with it. “Self-determination” of Ukraine and Georgia (as formerly the Baltic States and possibly in the future in Belarus) in the form of accession to Euro-Atlantic structures is recognized solely as emancipation from Moscow, which means that the issues of “the value conflict” and “authoritarian Russia” will live on.

The Kremlin is a “convenient enemy” for many of its opponents because it is actually not an enemy and seeks to prove this in every way. Such a “reluctant opponent” can be made to prove its non-hostility ad infinitum, and still ever more grounds can be found for suspicion, along with new arguments in favor of various steps in the field of armaments, NATO enlargement, support of various forces in CIS countries, etc.

The third and most significant aspect is geopolitics. Given the persistent “East-West” friction, geopolitics is still a major obstacle to real integration among those who were involved in the 20th-century confrontation between the “first” and “second” worlds. Yet, as differences between the West and other global forces (Asia and the Muslim world) grow, geopolitics may prove to be an equally important argument in favor of rapprochement with Russia.

The question is whether the West will continue to give priority to the policy of “engagement through encirclement” and the development of a situation that will result in Russia’s geopolitical isolation, with a view to forcing it not even to integrate but surrender – or whether the West, without waiting for this coveted triumph, starts negotiations (naturally on other terms) already now, when Moscow has some influence on other countries in Eurasia.

Let us not forget that NATO is an instrument that is not so much collective as oriented towards one leading nation (the 20th-century model). Russia is not a consumer of U.S. services in the security sphere, but the country has equitable treaties with the U.S. (the approval of the new START treaty is a recent example). Russia could discuss security issues with the U.S. and, in the future, with China, including in a trilateral format, while discussing other matters with Europeans that are more related to Europe than to the Euro-Atlantic community (“four spaces,” etc.).

The fourth, the political (tactical) aspect of relations with NATO. On the one hand, this issue is burdened with the problems of contemporary history: NATO’s enlargement in spite of accords with the last Soviet leadership; actions against Yugoslavia, including military attacks and the secession of Kosovo; the tug-of-war over Ukraine; the August 2008 conflict in the Caucasus; and the problem of “non-recognition of the recognition” of breakaway republics. On the other hand, some areas have already emerged where Russia and NATO have begun interacting successfully, and the parties value this positive experience (for example, their joint development of systems for the remote detection of explosives hidden under terrorists’ clothing). There is large potential for the parties’ rapprochement, but it will always be restrained by the “negative dossier” of existing differences. Yet the situation can be viewed from two different perspectives: as a stalemate and a barrier, or as still inevitable tactical disagreements which belong to the past rather than the future.

And finally, the long-term (strategic) aspect: Where is NATO headed? Will it retain its homogeneity and regional (Atlantic) dimension? How does it plan to build relations with other powers, such as China, Iran and other developing countries? Will NATO’s mission in the future be mainly focused on protecting the consumption level to which people in the West have become accustomed? Furthermore, will this mission protect the global distribution of resources to the West’s advantage (albeit under democratic slogans), which will inevitably lead to a “NATO-against-the-world” situation? Will the West in general remain united in the mid-term? What will be the outcome of the United States’ active interaction with China? Will the European Union withstand waves of crises? And what if NATO’s Asian allies get pulled into the geopolitical “funnel” of Chinese power?

Naturally, there are also other nuances (economic, psychological, etc.) of Russia’s relations with NATO and the West in general. But I think it is the above issues that require special consideration, because they will have a major impact on Russia’s positions regarding NATO in the present and the future.

In its dialogue with the Europeans, Moscow often proceeds from the assumption that security issues (as seen by Russia) have the same priority for Europe as they have for Russia. What is meant by this is the security of European states as independent actors in international politics that do not want to only be consumers of military services and programs provided by others (namely, the United States). Therefore, Russia believes that the Europeans must have an inevitable desire for dialogue with Russia on a European Security Treaty or any other format of interaction.

However, the current model (the U.S. allocates the money, while the allies demonstrate their loyalty in exchange for savings on defense spending) suits its participants fairly well. Under pressure from Washington the Europeans have had to become more involved in foreign operations recently, but this is only a small price to pay for the global “security umbrella” that the United States is building unilaterally. The concerns of Russia (and many other non-Western countries) that one country will attain a dangerous superiority over all others are relevant for the NATO allies only in so far as they make other external partners, including Moscow, nervous and force them to take measures. The NATO members are in no way concerned about this situation. Therefore, when it comes to the U.S. National Missile Defense or space weapons, the problem for the Europeans (or the Japanese) is not in these plans as such, but in the possible reaction to them from the rest of the world. This reaction may be unpredictable and uncontrollable and could pose a challenge, to which only NATO could respond.

NATO members have voluntarily sacrificed their sovereignty in favor of the Alliance (actually in favor of the main actor in it), thus closing the issue of ensuring their own security. For Russia, the notions of “sovereignty” and “security” traditionally (and not without reason) are of equal priority, and Russia finds the other approach demonstrated by the European countries as strange and bizarre. Russia can hardly accept the fact that sovereignty and security – which are absolutely sacred for the country – can be secondary to economics, moral values, social and other issues and that these two notions can be addressed only after those other issues have been resolved.

A solution for Europe and the entire Euro-Atlantic community can be found in the ratio between the notions of “sovereignty,” “national security,” “European security,” “NATO” and “Russia’s interests.” A solution must be found because, while some people are quite comfortable with the status quo and do not want any changes and others find it unacceptable and want to resolve the security problem, there remains a nutrient medium for those who crave conflict.


In speaking of Russia and its interests the main difficulty is that the mere statement that “Russia is not going to join NATO” does not solve the problem of its security. Of course, from the formal logical point of view, the easiest and fastest solution would be to join the Alliance, thus finally removing the most fundamental concerns of Russia in the field of security, which in many ways catalyzed the greatest geopolitical catastrophe – the collapse of the Soviet Union under the burden of the arms race.

But since, by virtue of the above, this simple way is closed to Russia, there are more complex solutions which – it must be emphasized – Russia needs more than the others because, as mentioned above, the situation suits those countries perfectly well. If Russia cannot join NATO, then the Alliance and Russia need to be integrated – without mutual losses in efficiency and security – into something common and that would be able to work, thus removing existing conflicts between the parties.

We believe that mere participation in common reliable mechanisms will gradually get rid of the differences between Russia and NATO and will help them find harmonious solutions to pressing problems facing both parties. There is also another view that the parties should first resolve their conflicts, and only then can one talk about some kind of integration. Otherwise, the conflict potential will be transferred to newly-established common institutions and thus make their work impossible, or at least formal and inefficient, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has become to an extent.

All the international problems that Russia is addressing today have two dimensions. One is tactical: Russia has largely been reacting to what the United States, NATO and the European Union do; namely, it has tried to counteract their plans to enlarge and build a missile defense shield. However, and this indicates that significant progress has been made, now Russia does not simply say ‘no,’ but offers practical and even bold solutions. For example, Russia’s recent proposal to create a European missile defense system far exceeded the Alliance’s expectations on this issue.

The second dimension is strategic, which implies a certain goal on the horizon, giving more meaning to Russia’s actions.

Russia’s European Security Treaty initiative is one obvious attempt to demonstrate this strategic approach. Russia is trying to convince the West that the present situation is no good for both parties, because the existing systems do not work (Kosovo, the gas transit conflicts and, of course, the August 2008 events in the Caucasus). However, Moscow has not been able to evoke a response from the West because mechanisms do not work only outside NATO and the EU, but work perfectly well within these organizations. The West is in no hurry to replace what works with vague prospects. It is also convinced that after the Alliance has united everyone possible (with individual, albeit important, exceptions), security problems will be solved due to the organization’s strength. No one will dare argue with or fight the Alliance, and all outstanding issues and conflicts will disappear by themselves.

Russia will neither solve its security problems nor make any headway on its European Security Treaty initiative unless it makes NATO members understand that their comfortable existence in the powerful alliance could also come under threat – not for subjective reasons (Russia’s “malicious intent”), but precisely for objective reasons (inefficient conflict-prevention mechanisms).


One of the factors that led to World War II was the sovereignty of pre-war Germany, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Poland without a collective security system. The security sphere in post-war Europe has been and remains an area of collective decisions. The first 50 years were marked by the development of collective mentality on the basis of an awareness of threats and interests. Initially, each country that sought to join the collective system had a choice:

  • Subordinate one’s sovereignty to collective interests: Germany is an example of a recipient (“user”) of the collective system’s benefits, where national problems are solved through a collective mechanism. For West Germany it was reunification with East Germany (Georgia now has similar reunification hopes); for countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Ukraine, it is emancipation from Russia; and for some other countries, it is even revenge for their “occupation” and other grievances from the past;
  • Preserve one’s sovereignty, but make some other major contribution, as was done, for example, by Switzerland, which chose the role of a collective bank, while preserving its neutral status, or Finland, which had benefits of its own from special relations with its “eastern neighbor”;
  • Or acquire special status, like that enjoyed by the U.S., which has not dissolved in the collective system, but has become an integral part and support, acting as a security donor. The United States sponsors Europe economically (at least, it did so for a long period), ideologically, culturally and militarily. In return, the Americans have upheld the right to privileges in the security sphere (the use of the common infrastructure for their own purposes) and in the humanitarian field (the death penalty, torture of terrorists) without any detriment to their partnership with the Europeans. Most importantly, the U.S. acts on the world stage on behalf of the most prosperous and developed part of humankind, thereby enhancing its own status.

The “post-Soviet” stage has been going on for two decades, but it is still a period of transition. As was already said, European countries feel quite comfortable in the old structures and insist (although less and less convincingly) that these structures are quite good for responding to new challenges; in short, Europe is absolutely not motivated to reform itself. Russia, which feels uncomfortable in the current situation, unlike Germany, the U.S., Switzerland or China, is seeking to reformat the collective security system.

The proposed sovereignty/contribution coordinate system implies three possible scenarios for Russia:

  • The present format – “Russia vs. the rest of Europe.” This scenario is based on principled equality relations and differs little from the China-Europe format (the same mechanisms of cooperation with the EU and the same non-participation in NATO’s programs – on the verge of rejection; membership in the OSCE does not give much in practice). Let us call this option “Chinese”;
  • The role of a recipient; entry into the European system without any claims to a special status (the “German” or “Ukrainian” option);
  • The role of a donor (the “American” option) – establishing partner relations in exchange for some added value.

All three options – becoming an equal partner, one of many equal members or an integrated donor – are acceptable in principle and have their own advantages. This, again, must be a matter of Russia’s political choice: where it should focus its political efforts in the first place, instead of trying to kill three birds with one stone.

The main drawback of the status quo is the systemic and genetic confrontation of the parties, which are hard-wired to view each other as rivals at best and as a threat at worst. It is a common belief in Russia that the confrontation factor is inherent in NATO, which is labeled in Russia as a Cold War relic. However, the reproduction of confrontation is a “joint venture.” Russia’s non-integrability into NATO (or Moscow’s belief in this) is itself a conflict factor. “Russia cannot be in NATO, so it may well be against NATO” – this suspicion will remain in the minds of Western politicians or among the public until Russia and NATO find themselves in one camp some day.

“Equal” participation implies Russia’s full-fledged admission to the “Euro-Atlantic Club” and its real influence on the decision-making process. Naturally, it will have to increase the transparency of its military planning, renounce the threat of force in any manner in relations with partners, and join, not just in word but in action, the common system of democratic values and decisions.

“Donorship” means that Russia will get European consent to its “special path” (like the United States has strategic independence), but (again, like the United States) it will have to make major contributions to solving problems of importance to “collective” Europe.

At present, these problems are as follows:

  • external military threats;
  • internal military threats; that is, the threat to use force in one’s own region (post-Yugoslav and post-Soviet conflicts);
  • international terrorism;
  • religious extremism, and internal ethnic and religious conflicts;
  • internal political authoritarianism and its spread; Belarus and Central Asia are viewed as factors and sources of risk;
  • energy instability;
  • economic instability, trade wars;
  • ecology, climate change.

Russia has a donor potential in each of these areas. At the same time, it will have to modify its approaches to some sensitive issues – namely, Iran, North Korea and Belarus (and this is already happening); abandon the concept of protecting compatriots abroad through military force; and build a qualitatively new basis for cooperation in energy and trade. In return, Russia will have every right to demand respect for its own interests in neighboring countries, for the needs of Russian businesses, and geographically and climatically determined realities of Russia. In other words, it must clearly show to its partners that, for example, no one in Russia is going to reclaim the Crimea from Ukraine, but, at the same time, that Moscow’s concern about the status of the Russian language in Ukraine or in the Baltic States has, not imperial, but natural national grounds, as is the case with any Western country.

One of the difficulties in promoting Russia’s European Security Treaty initiative is that Moscow has proposed building a new “collective” security model only in the military sphere and solely in relation to Europe, where NATO successfully solves existing problems and where the Europeans do not perceive any special threats. On top of that, Moscow insists on some “special” conditions for itself and on “exemptions” for Russia in other areas that concern European countries (see the above list of problems).

Russia must now choose the more preferable option – the “German,” “Chinese” or “American” one, because while it is trying to move along these three paths simultaneously, it will not achieve the desired result along any of them. That is, Russia is not allowed into the “Club” like Germany; no exceptions are made for it, like for the U.S.; and Russia is not even respected like China. How long Russia will manage to go along its own, fourth path (that is, along all the three paths at once) is a matter of both objective circumstances (the aggravation of conflicts) and subjective – Russia’s will and the readiness of the West to meet it halfway, instead of choosing to “finish it off.”

To make an existential strategic choice, Russia must draw up a list of threats and objectives in the field of security and identify strategic key points, depending on priorities. For example, it must close the issue of confrontation with the West entirely or achieve/maintain parity with it, while trying to avoid diktat; it must build its own structures at any cost and retain its neighbors in them, or recognize solutions to problems (unrecognized republics for example) in common structures; etc.

The last word has not been said yet. The discussions about Russia’s possible membership in NATO, although not followed up on, once again have created an opportunity to probe positions and see certain changes in the opinions of a growing number of politicians, above all in Europe. These discussions have also prompted people to look at this issue from a more specific point of view: “If Russia cannot join NATO, then why?” The possibility of different answers to this question is encouraging – not so much with regard to Russia’s NATO prospects (there is no rush here) as with regard to the possibility of finding a common language with the West. “Russia in NATO” is really a theoretical issue, whereas conflicts that arise now and then are quite real and cannot be solved without a working accord between Moscow and Brussels. This accord is also crucial for implementing the important security initiatives proposed by Russia to the Euro-Atlantic community. A reset of Russia-NATO relations is yet to be achieved.