At first blush, the NATO summit to be held in Chicago this weekend has an ambitious and exhaustive agenda, which includes everything from the effects of government financial crises on defense budgets, to lessons from the successful action in Libya. You name it – exit strategies from Afghanistan, relations with Asia in a global NATO, cyber security – and it’s there. Yet one issue that is fundamental to the future of the alliance is conspicuously missing: the NATO-Russia relationship.
In late March, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the cancellation of the NATO-Russia Council Summit, slated to be held in conjunction with the NATO Summit. The official statement explained that the “timing is difficult...because Russia has a very busy domestic political calendar.” And just last week President Vladimir Putin canceled his trip to the G8 Summit at Camp David.
Whatever the reason, it is no secret that the relationship between Russia and NATO remains troubled. This is unfortunate. In spite of recent tensions, the historically fractured Russia-NATO relationship is the most ripe for transformation.
Since 1997, when NATO and Russia laid the foundation for future cooperation and security, the connection has been nothing but fragile. Of course, the first rupture came when NATO offered membership to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – all countries sharing borders with Russia – as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
At a time of great vulnerability, Russia felt the affront deeply; it had peacefully backed down from the superpower struggle, only to have its erstwhile enemy incorporate former Soviet states into the US-dominated alliance. Hardliners in Russia were ready to lash out with a military response, but President Boris Yeltsin and others committed to transforming the country prevailed, instead focusing inward on domestic problems.
And the problems were many. In the 1990s, observers worried that Russia itself would be fragmented by ethnic strife and civil war. They aired concerns that the transition from a command to a market economy would leave many without employment and in dire poverty, and that the humiliation of a defeated Russia would give rise to hyper-nationalist leaders who might be even worse than communist bureaucrats. And they feared that some 40,000 nuclear weapons from poorly guarded and unsecured sites would leak out across the world.
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.
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.
They see the plans as threatening, even though the US approach to missile defense – placing around 500 sea- and land-based interceptors throughout Europe over the upcoming years – is still not able to distinguish nuclear warheads from decoys or other debris. According to a September 2011 Defense Science Board report, as well as a recent US National Academy report, this failure of the European system renders the US defense so deeply flawed as to be useless.
Discussions in March between the US and Russian missile defense experts focused on a more limited but possibly more effective missile defense system, the Forward Active Defense, proposed by Ted Postol, a missile expert at MIT. Whatever the outcome of developing this particular system, US-Russian technical collaboration is precisely the kind of cooperation that will help overcome the missile defense obstacle to Russian-NATO integration.
On the second obstacle, Eastern European memories of Soviet domination are beginning to fade as new generations are born into a world free of the cold war. As Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states develop economically and become more integrated into the world economy, memories of the humiliation and hostility associated with Soviet domination have been blunted.
In addition, cooperation on energy sources, including nuclear power, is likely to grow and to produce a new sense of partnership in the region. Transforming those commercial partnerships into the kind of trust required for formal Russian NATO membership will not be easy, but the alternative is continued political tension that distracts the region from the long-term and very real problems of nuclear weapons proliferation, energy insecurity, and economic stagnation.
As NATO continues to expand its reach globally, it makes sense to invite the alliance’s most prominent and able neighbor as a member. Russia possesses sophisticated military technology and already engages in military-to-military exchanges with the US. Russia also has a military-industrial infrastructure that could contribute capabilities that NATO currently lacks, and that the US has sought from its European partners for at least 20 years.
It is time to recognize how much Russia has accomplished in less than a generation, how much it could contribute to the military capacity of NATO, and how much its full cooperation could enhance global security if it were rewarded, finally, with membership in NATO.
Kennette Benedict is the executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine established by Manhattan Project scientists in 1945 to inform the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons and other catastrophic threats to humanity. From 1992-2005, she directed the international peace and security program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She also established and directed the foundation’s initiative in the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002.