Summer 2010

Reaching Out to the Russians

– The Wilson Quarterly

Today, NATO is making a strategic mistake by not integrating Russia into the alliance, argues Charles A. Kupchan.

Hastings Ismay, the first secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, reportedly once said that the organization’s purpose was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” But times have changed. Today, NATO is making a strategic mistake by not integrating Russia into the alliance, argues Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has embraced the countries of Central and Eastern Europe but has “treated Russia as an outsider.” The West needs to be sure it has Russia squarely on its side, Kupchan asserts, particularly as it attempts to tackle global concerns such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, cybersecurity, and international crime. Moreover, Russia’s help will be crucial in negotiations with Iran and North Korea; Moscow also has considerable sway with Beijing.

Europe could reach out to Russia through a variety of other means, such as a treaty between NATO and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, but NATO’s formidable size (28 member-states) and its military strength mean that other international collaborations are “merely strategic sideshows”—what matters is whether a country is a NATO insider or outsider.

A complicating factor is that protecting the allied European-Atlantic countries from external threats such as terrorism is only one element of NATO’s purpose. The other is blunting internal rivalries, and in this regard a seat for Russia at the NATO table might not prove quite as advantageous. Some newer NATO members, particularly former Soviet satellites in Eastern and Central Europe, feel that letting Russia join the club is a bit like letting the fox into the henhouse. “Admittedly,” Kupchan writes, inviting Russia into NATO “strikes a dissonant chord due to the alliance’s Cold War mission, Russia’s backsliding on democratic reform, and its heavy-handed approach to its ‘near abroad.’ ” In the past, the alliance has stipulated that new entrants be democratic, have market economies, treat minorities fairly, and be committed to peaceful conflict resolution—none of which exactly describes Russia. But, as Kupchan points out, NATO has made exceptions in the past (Portugal, for example, was an original signatory in 1949 but did not become a democracy until 1974), and strategic concerns certainly warrant making one for Russia now.

In February, Russia identified the expansion of NATO as a primary external threat. The alliance is contemplating extending membership to Georgia and Ukraine, a move that could provoke a crisis with Moscow. One way to avoid such a situation: Admit Russia first.

It’s not as though NATO’s overtures to Russia would be irreversible. If Russia tried to splinter the alliance or block decision making, the outreach could quickly come to an end. Of course, even if NATO does invite Russia to join, Moscow may reject its offer due to the constraints entailed by membership. But let any absence be on Russia’s head, Kupchan argues, and not the result of the Atlantic democracies’ failure “to demonstrate the vision or the will to embrace Russia in a pan-European order.”

THE SOURCE: “NATO’s Final Frontier” by Charles A. Kupchan, in Foreign Affairs, May–June 2010.

Photo courtesy of The NATO-Russia Council