Foreign Policy

Putin Is Right: Russia Belongs in NATO

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On July 18, the globe shifted a few degrees on its axis. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said that Russia does not see NATO as a hostile organization, but also does not see why NATO is needed. Nothing new there. But then he said: "The simplest [solution] is to dissolve NATO, but this is not on the agenda. The second possible option is to include Russia in NATO. This also creates a single defense and security space."

So far as I could learn, the Bush Administration did not respond directly to Putin's suggestion. A month earlier, however, as President Bush and Putin met warmly in Slovenia, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters, according to The New York Times, that Bush's "expansive talk about a closer partnership with Moscow did not, at least now, take into account the idea of Russia's joining NATO. 'I don't think he was talking about an alliance in the sense of a military alliance or a political alliance,' Secretary Powell said."

Wrong answer, Mr. Secretary. Admittedly, it is the same answer that the Clinton Administration gave. Admittedly, too, it was probably the right answer a few years ago. But today, the right answer would be something like this:

"Everyone understands that Russia is not ready for NATO membership now, and that it may never be. But admitting Russia into NATO should be an explicit goal of U.S. and European foreign policy, something we work toward instead of just daydream about. And the time has come to set up a process leading toward that goal."

For almost a decade, NATO has been bedeviled by a geopolitical problem that it has finessed rather than solved. The organization was born in 1949 as a mutual-defense pact to counter the Soviet threat. At the time, Europe's divided structure was a given. Western Europe was in; Eastern Europe and, of course, the Soviet Union were out. With the end of the Cold War, the Soviet threat melted away, and suddenly NATO risked becoming the problem that it had been trying to solve. Its hard eastern boundary risked perpetuating the Iron Curtain distinction that Western policy makers dreamed of eliminating.

With its old mission defunct and its old boundaries archaic, NATO responded during the Clinton era by enlarging. Enlargement, however, did not solve the identity crisis of a defensive alliance that found itself without an enemy. With the Kosovo war, NATO found a new sense of purpose in its first "out-of-area" offensive action. That made sense militarily and helped with the identity problem, but at the cost of intensifying Russia's fears.

Those fears are understandable. "When NATO enlarges, division doesn't disappear, it simply moves toward our borders," Putin told reporters in July. True, NATO never tires of reassuring the Russians that its intentions are benign. But any country, even one less prickly and nationalist than Russia, would feel alarmed if a muscular military alliance marched right up to its border. At a joint press conference with Bush in June, Putin put the matter with characteristic bluntness. "When the President of a great power says that he wants to see Russia as a partner, and maybe even as an ally, this is worth so much to us. But if that's the case, then, look, we ask ourselves a question. Look, [NATO] is a military organization. Yes, it's military…. Yes, it's moving toward our border. Why?"

This problem is fundamental; words can't solve it. The more NATO broadens its membership and its mission, the more it alarms Russia. "How do you bring in the central Europeans without alienating and isolating the Russians?" asks Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former staff member of the Clinton Administration's National Security Council. "I can only think of one way to do it: Bring the Russians in. I think it's still at a stage where it's a prospect for the future, not for the present. But what you can do to get around the timing problem is, you start talking seriously about the idea. You engage Russia in a process in which it begins to think about ultimately joining NATO, and then you draw up a work plan."

In 1999, the alliance admitted three new members (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), and another 10 or so are knocking on the door. Among the most determined, and best qualified, are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three Baltic nations in formerly Soviet territory. Their inclusion in NATO is a prospect that the Russians view with dismay, verging on horror. In November 2002, at the NATO summit meeting in Prague, the alliance will issue its next set of invitations. If the Baltics are on the list, the Russians will hit the ceiling. If the Baltics are not on the list, everyone will assume that NATO allowed itself to be intimidated by the Russians.

So why not invite in the Baltics _and_ the Russians—the former soon, the latter when practicable? That gives NATO's enlargement a whole new cast. If the Russians reject the offer, the onus is on them and expansion will continue apace. If they accept it, as Putin hints they would, then NATO's expansion becomes a joint project in which the Russians take part. For that matter, the same step would help allay Russia's anxiety over the Bush Administration's proposed missile defense program. "You can't drive the Russians bonkers by rolling NATO right up to their borders and expect at the same time to get a missile deal," says Kupchan.

If NATO keeps growing without making a positive effort to draw in Moscow, Moscow will respond, probably by shopping around for countervailing coalitions. The most logical partner for a "Stop America" coalition would be Beijing. On July 16, Russia and China signed their first mutual-cooperation pact since 1950. The agreement was more symbolic than substantive, but it was a shot across the bow. "I think that that pact is to some extent a hint of what some of the consequences could be of leaving Russia out of the process of NATO enlargement," Kupchan says.

None of this is to suggest that possible NATO membership is a bribe to buy good Russian behavior. Rather, it is a lure to draw Russia toward the West. For Russia, joining NATO would mean enormous change: further democratization, economic and legal reforms, and, not least important, reforms that would professionalize Russia's tattered and unreliable military and bring it firmly under civilian control. The prospect of joining NATO has given the former Soviet satellites a powerful incentive to Westernize and normalize; it may do the same for their former overlord.

Of course, Russia is incomparably larger and more powerful than Poland or Hungary. Will Russia change NATO while NATO changes Russia? Yes, undoubtedly. A NATO that included Russia would be a very different NATO. "At that point," says Anthony Lake, a former Clinton Administration national security adviser who now teaches at Georgetown University, "NATO becomes not a defensive alliance—the greatest in history—but something like an OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] with teeth." That is, NATO would become a regional cooperation pact with military capability. That, however, is what NATO is becoming anyway. "There is no collective threat to defend against," says Kupchan, "and if you look at what NATO has been doing, it's much more focused on peacekeeping and crisis management."

President Clinton took care neither to rule Russia out of NATO nor to entice it in. "Call us if you get your act together," was the message to Moscow. When I asked Lake about possible Russian inclusion, he replied, "We're not at that point, and whether we ever get there depends on Russia." Bush, so far, has taken the same wait-and-see approach.

Caution is understandable. Russia may collapse or turn belligerent; Moscow might make untenable demands or insist on bending NATO's rules; an overeager NATO might make too many concessions, or an overeager Kremlin might foment nationalist backlash at home. Yet the potential prize is breathtaking: the erasure, once and for all, of the East-West divide in Europe, and the abolition of major war in Europe.

"Our goal," President Bush said in June, just before he met with Putin, "is to erase the false lines that have divided Europe for far too long." The way to achieve that goal, he said, is to "look for the day when Russia is fully reformed, fully democratic, and closely bound to the rest of Europe."

Bush is saying, in effect, that Russia should be just another European country, albeit a big and important one. With his very public ruminations on joining NATO, Putin is saying, in effect, that Russians might take the deal—that they may just possibly like the sound of "European" more than they dislike the sound of "just another." NATO can help catalyze Russian integration into liberal Europe, rather than merely waiting for it, by declaring next year that Europe's great alliance will not be complete until it includes Europe's greatest power.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to REASON. This article was published by National Journal on August 4, 2001.

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