Russia and NATO A History of Attempting Rapprochement

With all of the anti-Russia sentiment swirling about in Washington since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 run for president, a look back in time is in order.  As mentioned very briefly in the recent Oliver Stone interviews of Vladimir Putin, at one point during the Clinton Administration, Russia had considered joining NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was created in the post-Second World War period to protect Europe from the Communist hordes that were surely going to attempt to take over Europe and convert its citizenry from their capitalistic beliefs.

Looking back to 1991 during the Bush I Administration and just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we find this in the New York Times of December 21, 1991, one day after the December 20, 1991 NATO meeting where the Soviet Union announced its demise:

In yet another sign that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was turning global politics upside down, the Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, wrote to NATO today saying Russia hoped to join the alliance some time in the future. 

Mr. Yeltsin’s letter was sent in conjunction with the first meeting ever held at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization between NATO foreign ministers and those of the former Warsaw Pact — the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania….Mr. Yeltsin’s “long-term aim” to join NATO — which follows earlier appeals by the other members of the former Warsaw Pact, particularly Hungary and Czechoslovakia — could eventually present a serious challenge for NATO. Formed four decades ago precisely to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, it now finds itself having to deter a stampede from the newly liberated nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which want to join the Western military alliance. 

NATO officials, from Secretary General Worner on down, seemed too taken aback by the Russian letter to give any coherent response. Mr. Worner suggested at his news conference that Mr. Yeltsin was not actually asking to join. 

“I have seen the letter,” Mr. Worner said. “He did not apply for membership, he just raises a question, and then says he regards that as a long-term political aim. My reaction is that nothing is excluded, and we will have time enough to develop relations.”

Mr. Worner’s ambivalence about the Yeltsin letter is not surprising. To admit Russia, which is expected to be the main successor state of the Soviet Union, would require NATO to redefine itself fundamentally.”

Here is a quote from the December 20th, 1991 Yeltsin letter:

“…Today we are raising the question of Russia’s membership in NATO…This will contribute to creating a climate of mutual understanding and trust, strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent…We consider these relations (with NATO) to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels.”

Let’s move forward nearly two decades.  Here is an article from the Los Angeles Times dated August 20, 2008 after Russia’s military entered Georgia:

Anti-Russian fervor threatens to hit fever pitch in Washington this week. In the wake of Russia’s military incursion into Georgia, Barack Obama is suddenly doing his best to parrot John McCain’s Russophobia. Indeed, the cries to shove Moscow back into the cold are coming from both sides of the aisle: Kick Russia out of the G-8, lock it out of the European Union and the World Trade Organization and, by all means, boycott Vladimir Putin’s pet project, Sochi 2014 — the Winter Olympics slated for a Black Sea venue a short drive from the disputed territory of Abkhazia. On Tuesday, NATO said that continuing normal relations with Russia was impossible and moved to all but scrap the NATO-Russia Council.

Let no one be deceived: Putin has drawn a dangerous new line. Russian troops have trespassed into a sovereign nation for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But all such retributive Western campaigns are misguided and, like every attempt to twist Russian arms since the end of the U.S.S.R., sure to backfire.

There’s really only one lever left: Invite Russia to join NATO.

This is not a new idea. Once upon a time, it was openly entertained in diplomatic circles East and West. In late 1991, the final days of the U.S.S.R,, Boris Yeltsin stunned a NATO meeting by sending a letter with this unilateral declaration: “Today we are raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO.” “A long-term political aim,” Yeltsin called it then, as he threw down the gauntlet before the West. NATO ministers, as Tom Friedman reported for the New York Times at the time, were “too taken aback … to give any coherent response.” In the ensuing years, as Yeltsin with characteristic bravura continued to raise the prospect, the West kept fumbling for a reply.”

Here is a quote from the transcript of Vladimir Putin’s March 5, 2000 interview with David Frost that is referred to in the preceding L.A. Times article, Putin’s first interview with a Western journalist since he entered the Kremlin:

“DAVID FROST: Tell me about your views on NATO if you would. Do you see NATO as a  potential partner, or a rival or an enemy

PUTIN: Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy. I think even posing the question this way will not do any good to Russia or the world. The very question is capable of causing damage. Russia strives for equitable and candid relations with its partners. The main problem here lies in attempts to discard previously agreed common instruments – mainly in resolving issues of international security.  We are open to equitable co-operation, to partnership. We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO but only if Russia is  regarded an equal partner. You are aware we have been constantly voicing our opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion.   

DAVID FROST: Is it possible Russia could join NATO? 

PUTIN: I don’t see why not. I would not rule out such a possibility – but I repeat – if and  when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner. I  want to stress this again and again. The situation that was laid down in the founding principles of the United Nations – that was the situation that obtained in the world at the end of World War Two.   All right, the situation may have changed. Let’s assume there is a desire on the part of those who perceive the  change to install new mechanisms of ensuring international security. But pretending – or proceeding from the assumption – that Russia has nothing to  do with it and trying to exclude it from this process is hardly feasible. And when we talk about our opposition to NATO’s expansion – mind you, we have  never ever declared any region of the world a zone of our special interests, I  prefer to talk about strategic partnership. Its attempts to exclude us from the process is what causes opposition and concern on our part. But that does not mean we are going to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world.  Isolationism is not an option.” (my bold)

Here is a map showing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, particularly the Eastern European bloc nations in 1989:

Here is a map showing the western border of Russia in 1991:

Here is a map showing how NATO’s membership has expanded over the decades to include former Soviet republics:

In 1949, there were 12 founding members of NATO including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Additional nations were added as follows: Greece and Turkey in 1952, Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009 and Montenegro in 2017.

Here is a graphic showing NATO’s current member and partner states:

Now, let’s look at a bit of history. According to the National WW II Museum in New Orleans, during the Second World War, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 8.8 to 10.7 million military personnel and a total of 24 million military personnel and civilians.  In contrast, the United States lost 416,800 military personnel and a total of 418,500 military personnel and civilians or about one-sixtieth of the losses suffered by the Soviet Union.  It’s really no wonder that Russia has become increasingly concerned about NATO expansionism into the Eastern European bloc over the past decade and a half, after all, this bloc of nations formed a protective wall against incursion by NATO, a lesson that the Soviet Union learned the hard way at the beginning of World War II.  It is unfortunate that Russia’s willingness to become a NATO partner wasn’t accepted 25 years ago when the subject was first broached; perhaps we wouldn’t be living through the genesis of the Cold War Part II.

So much for Boris Yeltsin’s 1991 dream of “mutual understanding and trust”.

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