As NATO leaders gather in Strasbourg to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the soon-to-be 28-member organization, the elephant not in the room – but very much on their minds – will be Russia, the Eurasian giant which, in its previous incarnation as the USSR, was the Western alliance's original raison d'être.
Some NATO members wonder why, after most of the former Soviet Union's allies have joined, Russia still remains stubbornly outside the group's tent. But while the lineup at NATO's front door is long and includes some former Soviet republics, Russia isn't an applicant. Nor is an invitation from NATO likely to land in the Kremlin anytime soon.
Still, a new conversation about the problem of Russia's absence appears to be in the offing. Moscow's angry objections to NATO's march to Russia's borders has become one of Europe's biggest diplomatic problems in recent years, while a great many other pressing security issues – from Afghanistan to Kosovo – might be handled much more smoothly if Moscow were a partner rather than an embittered outsider.
"We need Russia for the resolution of European and global problems," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told journalists earlier this week. "That is why I think it would be good for Russia to join NATO," if it can meet membership requirements, he added.
Moscow's official response to Mr. Sikorski's suggestion, delivered by Russia's NATO ambassador, Dmitri Rogozin, was a study in ambivalence: "There is no such necessity at the moment [to join NATO], but we cannot rule out this opportunity in future," he said.
Differing security interests
Like most elegant-sounding ideas, this one has a long, tangled history, and most experts believe it would never work in practice. Russia sprawls across two continents, has an authoritarian political culture that is at odds with basic Western precepts, and still regards itself as a superpower rather than a team player.
"Many Russian security interests, including the Arctic, a long border with China, and our southern neighbors, are not things NATO would want to be dragged into," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Our problem with NATO is not how to join, but how to work together, to create a modus vivendi."
Finding a way for Russia and NATO to coexist has evaded leaders on both sides since the USSR collapsed nearly two decades ago. Russia's brutal war against separatist Chechnya, which began in 1994, arguably led to NATO's decision the next year to begin the process of inducting former Soviet allies in eastern Europe.
Moscow's attack on neighboring Georgia last year, to defend a Georgian separatist enclave, led to a deep freeze in relations that has only lately begun to thaw.
Western leaders continue to reject Russian claims that it is entitled to a "sphere of influence" that embraced most of the former USSR, and therefore has a right to veto potential NATO membership for ex-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia.
The Russians have their own narrative, stressing NATO's "aggressive" wars against Russian ally Serbia in the 1990s and its ongoing campaign to "encircle" Russia by bringing ever more former Soviet republics into the alliance.
"NATO is an organization whose existence is entirely based, from its very beginning, on opposing Russia," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute for Globalization Problems in Moscow. "What is the purpose for NATO to keep attracting new members, if not to surround Russia?"
Early in his Kremlin tenure, former Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world, and many of his own compatriots, by responding to an interviewer's question about Russia joining NATO by saying, "I don't see why not ... isolation is not an option [for Russia]." But in subsequent years, ill will between the two sides spiked to the point that some commentators began talking of "a new cold war."
It is an article of faith in Russian foreign-policy folklore that, as the pro-Soviet Warsaw Pact alliance dissolved after 1989, US leaders pledged they would never take strategic advantage of the Soviet retreat. "We had a verbal promise from the US secretary of state [James Baker] that NATO would never expand to the east," says Valentin Falin, a close aide to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "But it wasn't written down."
Pavel Palazchenko, Mr. Gorbachev's personal interpreter during the final years of the USSR, says "there were legitimate expectations in the Soviet Union and later Russia that NATO wouldn't move east. It was inevitable that a military organization with that legacy [to oppose Russia] would be viewed with suspicion. The whole mess could have been handled differently from the start."
Moscow: stress political objectives
Where to go from here? Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has argued that Europe needs a completely fresh security architecture, one that stresses political rather than military objectives and includes Russia as a full partner. At the London School of Economics Thursday, Mr. Medvedev said he wanted an "equal partnership."
"The creation of a Pan-European pact should not lead to replacing old organizations with new ones," he said, according to Reuters. "The existing organizations should remain and take part in creating a new pact."
Medvedev's idea of a new deal would seem to make NATO redundant, and that is likely to be a nonstarter among the leaders meeting in Strasbourg this weekend. But many experts are calling for more pragmatic approaches to break some of the logjams in Russia's relations with the West.
"Today's Russia differs significantly from the Russia of a decade ago," Olga Oliker, an analyst with RAND, a global think tank, and lead author of a new report on Russian-US relations, said in a release this week. "Even with the economic downturn, it is wealthier, more stable, increasingly less democratic, and more assertive globally. If US policymakers hope to work with Moscow on key foreign and security policy goals, they must be aware of how they align – or don't align – with Russia's own interests."
One example of what can be accomplished by focusing on practical goals is on display in this week's announcement by Medvedev and Barack Obama that the US and Russia will soon resume strategic arms reduction talks. Another could soon arrive in the form of an accord on building a resupply corridor through Russia for NATO troops in Afghanistan.
"There's no need for Russia to join NATO; that's not going to happen," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "What we need to do is identify our common security concerns, map out areas of joint interest, and then set out to act in concert in these areas. That can work."