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Russia should be rewarded with NATO membership

Russia should be on the agenda for NATO summit in Chicago this weekend. In spite of recent tensions, the historically fractured relationship between Russia and NATO is the most ripe for transformation. Obstacles like missile defense and Eastern Europe can be resolved.

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Experts talked of four simultaneous revolutions in Russia: in the economic system; in domestic political institutions; in foreign relations, and in the psychology of the Russian people. It was anybody’s guess whether a country could survive such wholesale challenges to its institutions, habits of thought, national identity, and to its social fabric.

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The country’s positive developments over the past 20 years are nothing short of a miracle – and they indeed offer the basis for putting Russian relations with NATO on a new footing. Due to the reasoned response of Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and others, the cold war ended peacefully. Though still struggling to structure its economic institutions, Russia has reformed sufficiently to gain membership in the World Trade Organization and to support a rising middle class that is showing a taste for democratic action.

With the aid of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, Russia has deactivated more than 7,500 nuclear weapons and secured some 24 nuclear weapons sites. Even more important for future collaboration, the United States and Russia have dismantled nuclear weapons side by side, in transparent operations observers could never have dreamed of, even at Reykjavik, where Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev talked of nuclear weapons abolition.

No one should overlook Russia’s political corruption, its intimidation of journalists, and its belligerence toward countries on its borders. But if NATO could incorporate former enemies West Germany and Italy into the alliance after World War II, there is no reason that Russia should not join NATO now, two decades after the end of the cold war.

Two major obstacles stand in the way of Russia’s full NATO membership: a lack of strategic agreement with the US on missile defense, and a failure to reconcile with former Eastern European countries that once were Soviet client states. Neither obstacle is easily overcome; the countries involved have long histories – and even longer memories. Yet there are signs that accommodation is possible.

The essential disagreement over missile defense is this: The US and NATO want to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system in Europe to destroy any potential Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at Europe or the US. Russia is concerned that the deployment of this anti-missile system in Europe is actually aimed at their nuclear arsenals, making their own defenses vulnerable, even though the US contends that this system is aimed at Iran and not Russia.

In fact, Russia is so worried about the destabilizing effects of this new system that last week the Russian General Staff chief General Nikolai Makarov remarked that Russia would consider pre-emptively destroying the European missile defense system if it were deployed, because it would threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

But in ongoing discussions between Stanford University’s Center on International Security and Cooperation and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Committee of Scientists for Global Security, former US officials and Russian experts agreed that current US missile defense plans do appear to threaten Russia’s retaliatory capability.


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