At U.S.-Russian Summit, Stand Firm on NATO Enlargement

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At U.S.-Russian Summit, Stand Firm on NATO Enlargement

March 14, 1997 4 min read Download Report
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center
Ariel was a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

On March 19, U.S. President Bill Clinton will meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. This meeting comes on the heels of a major reorganization of Yeltsin's cabinet. Although it remains to be seen how the reshuffling of the Yeltsin cabinet will affect Russia domestically, one thing is clear: The dominant item on the agenda at the Helsinki summit -- for both Clinton and Yeltsin -- will be the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russia is trying to derail enlargement, or at least to force the Western alliance to make wide-ranging concessions in return for its acquiescence.

Russia's posturing should be rejected, politely but firmly, by President Clinton. Clinton should tell Yeltsin that the decision to add new members to NATO is firm and that Russia cannot expect any concessions that would weaken the integrity of NATO or give Russia a tacit veto over its decisions.

The Case for NATO Enlargement
The candidate members of NATO -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- are sovereign and independent states which are entitled to join alliances as their people see fit. These countries have cultural, political, and historical roots firmly planted in the soil of Western Europe and the Euro-Atlantic sphere. They have experienced two terrible world wars in this century that involved Russia and Germany. All three countries have been invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, and both Poland and Hungary witnessed czarist occupations in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is understandable that the people of these countries want membership in NATO as a security umbrella and as insurance against similar conflagrations.

NATO Enlargement Not a Threat to Russia
NATO is a defensive alliance of Western democracies that harbor no hostile intentions toward Russia. Poland, the Czech Republic, and other prospective members of NATO have no evil designs on Russia; they merely seek the prosperity and stability they think NATO membership can provide. If history is any guide, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries have more to fear from Russia than Russia does from them. In this respect, it is important to remember that the military budgets of all NATO members are considerably less than that of Russia, if counted as a portion of their gross national products.

Unreasonable Russian Demands
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has become a weak regional power in need of Western assistance. NATO remains the only military alliance capable of power projection in the region, as the Bosnian peacekeeping mission has shown. The Russian government is making unfair demands on its neighbors both by trying to block Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries from joining NATO and by threatening economic sanctions against the Baltic states for alleged mistreatment of the Russian-speaking people living within their borders.

This behavior is reminiscent of efforts by the Romanov Empire and the Soviet Union to carve out spheres of influence and assure that Russian security concerns prevailed over those of neighboring countries. Moreover, Russia is responsible for pursuing a number of other policies that conflict directly with U.S. interests. These include supplying two nuclear reactors to Iran; selling modern nuclear weapons technology, military aircraft, and warships to China; opposing development of theater missile defense by the U.S.; stalling ratification of the START II strategic nuclear weapons treaty; pressuring Azerbaijan on Russian control of the Caspian Sea; and being ineffective in its efforts to control organized crime and corruption.

Clinton's Agenda at Helsinki
In return for continued U.S. and multilateral economic aid and future foreign investment, Russia must recognize the legitimate security interests of its neighbors and of the United States.

In Helsinki, President Clinton should:

  • Recognize Russia's role as an important player in European security but reject its attempts to veto NATO expansion
    While NATO enlargement will occur, reasonable measures should be taken to address Moscow's concerns. In the 19th century, and until World War I, Russia was an important player in European politics, and there is no reason why this should not be the case now that communism has collapsed. Therefore, security cooperation with Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the region -- including their participation in the Partnership for Peace program -- should be expanded. However, Russian involvement in Europe must be predicated on Russia's recognizing the security and sovereignty of all its neighbors, including Ukraine, the Baltic states, and countries of the Trans-Caucasus. This means Russia must respect the right of sovereign nations like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others to join NATO if they so desire.
  • Pledge not to base nuclear weapons on the territory of new members
    This pledge, made unilaterally and not as part of any legally binding treaty, could be made in exchange for Russia's guarantee that it will not base nuclear weapons along its western borders and in Belarus. Russia should pledge not to target European capitals, as some Russian military leaders have suggested. The U.S. also could promise not to deploy its troops in an offensive order of battle in the new NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Launch a public information campaign in Russia on the benefits of NATO membership
    Such a campaign could be initiated by President Clinton in a major speech in Helsinki. By appealing directly to the Russian people, Clinton should explain the benefits that NATO expansion can offer Russia and advocate cooperation between NATO and Russia. Most of the Russian people do not perceive NATO expansion as a threat. But neither have the Russians been adequately informed about the democratic nature and purely defensive goals of the alliance.
  • Object to Russia's unilateral violations of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty
    From 1995 through 1996, in a clear violation of the 1990 CFE Treaty limiting conventional armaments in Europe, Russia sharply increased the numbers of tanks, artillery, and other heavy equipment on the borders of the Baltic states and in the Northern Caucasus. But while hard-liners in Moscow call for regaining domination of the former Soviet area (the Newly Independent States) by force, Russia is not threatened by any of its neighbors. Russia's violation of the CFE Treaty raises understandable fears in capitals from the Baltics to the Black and Caspian Seas. The United States erred when it failed to object strenuously to this unilateral Russian action and to hold Russia in violation of the CFE Treaty. Either Russia's breaches must be corrected and its troops reduced to the levels stipulated by the treaty, or new limits must be agreed upon with all sides participating in the negotiations as part of a post-NATO enlargement force level adjustment.

President Clinton faces a tough challenge in Helsinki. He must move ahead with NATO enlargement while providing Russia with enough incentives to continue its integration into the world, including the West. To do this, Clinton must be firm on moving ahead with NATO enlargement. The more the Clinton Administration has equivocated on the issue, the more demanding the Russians have become. It is time to break this cycle. It is time to tell Yeltsin that enlargement will take place soon and without concessions that would be debilitating to the Atlantic Alliance.


Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center