In 1999, IN EARLY SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS as the new secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Lord Robertson was already defining his most pressing task as rebuilding NATO's relationship with Russia, a relationship that had been severely strained by the Kosovo crisis. A few months into office, he officially met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow to restore ties, thus moving 'from permafrost to slightly softer grounds.' Russian representatives insisted on a cautious and incremental approach. In the summer of 2000, however, Putin publicly stated that Russia could consider NATO membership sometime in the future. In February 2001, during his second official visit to Moscow, Lord Robertson also discussed the potential for Russian membership in NATO. One might be forgiven for wondering what to expect from the NATO-Russia relationship beyond periodic statements.
It is widely accepted that the single most challenging aspect of NATO's role in promoting Euro-Atlantic stability and security lies in developing a positive relationship with the Russian Federation. There cannot be security in Europe without the constructive engagement of Russia. As Walter Slocombe, a former United States secretary of defense for policy, observed a couple of years ago with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina: 'When we deal with the most important security problem which Europe has faced since the Cold War was over, we want to have Russia inside the circle, working with us, not outside the circle.'(f.1)
Allies recognize Russian engagement in the Balkans as necessary to maintain stability in that part of the world. However, NATO-Russia co-operation has yet to translate into a strategic partnership. NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept included in the Alliance's fundamental security tasks the need 'to promote wide-ranging partnership, cooperation and dialogue with other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, with the aim of increasing transparency, mutual confidence and the capacity for joint action with the Alliance.' While a co-operative relationship with Russia is essential to NATO's vision of an undivided Europe, NATO-Russia co-operation may not be the most suitable venue to engage Russia.
The NATO-Russia relationship suffers from fundamental shortcomings. From the outset, it was built on significant misunderstandings. On the Russian side, authorities argued throughout the 1990s that, during the negotiations over the Two-plus-Four Treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany, Western powers had agreed that the unification of East and West Germany would not result in the military presence of NATO beyond the Alliance territory at the time. The Russian Federation has claimed that it always thought this 'gentlemen's agreement' was the basis for a new security framework in an undivided Europe.
On the NATO side, the signature of the NATO-Russian Federation Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security was widely perceived as tacit acquiescence in NATO's invitation, issued two months later, to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join the Alliance.(f.2) Some Western commentators have argued that Russian public opinion was not interested in the issue, that it was owned entirely by the Moscow-based foreign policy elite.(f.3) To this day, however, Russia retains deep misgivings about the Alliance's open door policy and argues that it creates new dividing lines in Europe. Although Russian authorities acknowledge the sovereign right of each nation to decide whether or not to join the Alliance, they tend to think that the West has largely played down Russian concerns over NATO enlargement. Allies for their part continue to stress that NATO is seeking security and stability in Europe and that its enlargement is not directed against any one and, therefore, cannot create dividing lines.
Beyond misunderstandings, there are structural and institutional impediments to NATO-Russia co-operation. The NATO-Russia relationship is essentially asymmetrical in the sense that it pits Russia against nineteen Allies and thus reinforces Russian perceptions of marginalization and betrayal by the West, along with its loss of prestige and sense of humiliation. …