Russia, NATO and Us: Will our search for a European security order end in war?

By Wolfgang Ischinger

Editor Matt Daley recommends this as the best short background to the current face off on Ukraine.  It also charts a reasonable path forward.  It was originally presented at the Munich Security Conference, December 31, 2021.

The year is 1993/94. Poland, Hungary, and other former member states of the Warsaw Pact are pushing for NATO membership, German Defense Minister Volker Rühe is promoting this, and the U.S. would rather avoid NATO enlargement because of possible ratification issues in the Senate. Chancellor Kohl is skeptical and decides to discuss the matter personally with Boris Yeltsin. The result: Moscow is absolutely not enthusiastic, but would accept the admission of new members if, in parallel, the Russia-NATO relationship will be put on a fundamentally new, more cooperative basis. It was precisely along these lines that the alliance then negotiated the “NATO-Russia Founding Act” with Russia, starting in 1996. Two core elements: on the one hand, the admission of new members, albeit with considerable restrictions, for example on NATO troop deployments as well as on the stationing of nuclear weapons, and on the other hand, the creation of a consultative body that later became known as the “NATO-Russia Council”. The Founding Act, by the way, is quite favorable to Russia. Neither in Poland nor in the Baltic states may nuclear weapons be deployed, but Russia can – right next to EU and NATO, as it were – deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad that could reduce Berlin to rubble in a matter of minutes. So much for Russia’s “encirclement” by NATO.

By signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Russia officially accepted the principle of enlargement of the North Atlantic alliance. The persistent whispering about alleged Western promises to Russia in 1990 has thus actually been off the table since 1997: Russia has accepted NATO enlargement in writing. 

Just a few weeks later, in the summer of 1997, the NATO summit met in Madrid to take initial decisions on admitting new members. At the time, the U.S. wanted a maximum of three new members, namely Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. France, in consideration of the Francophonie, demanded the admission of Romania, and Denmark pleaded for the Baltic states. When no agreement emerged, it was decided to continue discussions in a closed session of heads of state and government and their foreign ministers, along with a maximum of two advisors each. A compromise proposal hastily scribbled down is finally presented by Helmut Kohl in German. President Clinton asks for an English version, on which everyone finally agrees: A first round of enlargement in Madrid with the three states favored by the USA, followed by further rounds, among others with Romania and Bulgaria as well as the states of the Baltic region; all of this linked to a far-reaching offer of cooperation to the Russian Federation. Decided in this way.

These decisions, informally discussed with Moscow in advance, did not open new strategic rifts with Moscow. In retrospect, this was a masterpiece of responsible Ostpolitik, with the German government playing an active and leading role in shaping it.

Why then have we reached such a dangerous low point in the relations with Russia today?

Even if it is true that the responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship with Moscow and for the massive loss of trust between West and East lies essentially in Russian behavior since the 2008 war in Georgia, we should not overlook decisions for which NATO also bears direct responsibility.

The enlargement crisis began at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when the Bush administration wanted to clear the way for Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. A year earlier, in 2007, Putin had given his famous warning speech at the Munich Security Conference – not a step further! Washington was ready to ignore it. Normally, NATO summit communiqués are drafted and negotiated by the NAC ambassadors in Brussels. But in April 2008, the professionals in Brussels could not agree. Germany, France, and some others were opposed to giving the green light for Ukraine and Georgia, because this would have been the first time that former Soviet territories would have been admitted (the Baltic states, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, were seen as an exceptional case, even from Russia’s point of view. The U.S. delegation insisted on starting the Membership Action Plan program for both countries, presumably because President Bush hand signaled in advance to Georgian President Saakashvili and to the Ukrainian leadership that he would obtain a decision in their favor. Thus, the draft communiqué ended up on the table of the heads of state and government themselves in Bucharest. The compromise formula finally found (“these countries will become members of NATO”) seemed acceptable to France and Germany because the announcement did not include a date and because no Membership Action Plan decision was adopted. From Moscow’s point of view, however, the Bucharest compromise formula was exactly the opposite: namely, a clear NATO membership perspective and thus an unacceptable threat to the sphere of influence traditionally demanded by Russia.

Subsequently, Russia did everything to prevent further Alliance steps towards membership of the two countries. Regarding Georgia, the military confrontation in the summer of 2008 offered a welcome opportunity to obtain the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. As far as Ukraine was concerned, Moscow tried to dissuade President Yanukovych from taking steps toward the West by offering political, economic, and financial incentives. This attempt failed when Yanukovych fled from Ukraine in early 2014. At the time, Moscow was deeply worried that NATO ships might soon dock in Sevastopol and other Black Sea ports and thus impair Russian security in the Black Sea region. In a cloak-and-dagger operation, the Russian Federation seized and annexed Crimea in March 2014 and began to provide political and military support to separatist groups in the Donbass region, with close to 15,000 casualties at the end of 2021. The objective to prevent Ukraine from moving in the direction of NATO, has thus been achieved by crude military force and political disinformation, at least for the time being. After all, NATO has long upheld principle that it should not accept a disunited country. This is also a good reason for Moscow not to be interested in a solution to the conflicts in Donbass, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Parallel to this military prevention strategy, however, Moscow has also repeatedly launched attempts to change the existing European security architecture, founded on the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the Charter of Paris of 1990. In 2008, then-President Medvedev presented a draft text that received little or no support, and eventually petered out in the OSCE’s so-called Corfu Process. The proposals now presented by Russia go far beyond the Medvedev paper in their directness and lack of compromise. For example, Ukraine’s membership in NATO is to be permanently and explicitly renounced. Therefore, no in-depth analysis is required to recognize that President Putin’s new proposals were not drafted with the intention of presenting a paper likely to serve as a useful basis for a new agreement. Rather, through the simultaneous and repeated buildup of massive military capabilities near the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russia seeks to force the West – in Russia’s view, the United States – to respond directly or indirectly to Russian demands, the alternative being military options. This is simply an extraordinarily dangerous, high-stakes political-military poker game.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski has said: Without Ukraine Russia is a large country, but with Ukraine it is an “empire”, a world power. It is in this direction Putin is trying to go – or rather where he wants to move back to – rewind history to before 1997, as the Russian government has now explicitly stated.

However, history moves forward, not backwards: With its buffer-state dogma, Moscow has itself caused Ukraine to develop a growing anti-Russian identity. Yes: Nothing has spurred Eastern Europe’s aspirations to NATO more than Russia’s refusal to respect the sovereignty of its own neighbors. Carl Bildt is right: Putin threatens to go down in history as the Russian president who lost Ukraine.

So what should we Europeans, what should NATO do in this situation?

It makes sense to recall NATO’s core strategy: the Harmel Report. In sum: as much deterrence through political and military strength as necessary, and as much offer of cooperation and dialogue as possible.

The deterrence part includes not only the nuclear component and the “Enhanced Forward Presence” in the Baltic states and in Poland; it also includes, among many other elements, the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine. In 2015, Angela Merkel spoke out against this. The situation today is, of course, quite different and more urgent: If we give the Russian side the impression that we are undecided, this could be seen as a sign of weakness, i.e., the opposite of effective deterrence. The “empowerment” – to use a Merkel term – of Ukraine’s defensive capabilities should be considered a meaningful deterrence option – to be designed, of course, so as not to provoke an escalation. Berlin should not be on the sidelines here, not least to make up for the German credibility gap over Nord Stream 2.

Let’s be clear: If Russia was to advance militarily, the political, economic, and military costs for us would increase dramatically. Just imagine the protective measures that the Baltic states, for example, would then expect from the Alliance and thus also from us. Ergo: Conflict prevention through deterrence and diplomacy is the tried and tested recipe.

How should the second part of the dual strategy, the diplomatic offer of dialogue, be designed?

Under no circumstances should the alliance simply dismiss the Russian proposals. The situation in 1973, at the beginning of the Helsinki Process, may be recalled here. At that time, Soviet proposals and Western counter-proposals were miles apart, and it took many months before an agreement on the text of the Final Act could be announced in Helsinki in 1975. In this spirit, the German government and the entire Alliance would be well advised not to reject negotiations, but to respond to the Russian petitions with concrete counter-proposals and to declare our willingness to initiate a diplomatic negotiation process, for example within the framework of the OSCE.

What might be elements of Western counter-proposals?

Here are just a few examples:

  • Reaffirmation or renewal of the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Charter of Paris (1990), including the principle of free choice of alliance
  • Reaffirmation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 
  • Reaffirmation of the content of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994
  • 2023 – 50th anniversary of the Helsinki process: meeting of OSCE heads of state and government, as proposed by the Finnish president
  • Negotiations on intermediate- and short-range nuclear systems, including demands for a withdrawal of Russian nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad
  • Resumption of negotiations on CFE Treaty issues, i.e., conventional military capabilities in Europe and related confidence-building measures
  • Demand for withdrawal of Russian military presence in Donbass, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia
  • Comprehensive reaffirmation of the “Vienna Document” (confidence building within the OSCE framework)
  • Negotiations on mutual renunciation of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and militarily-relevant facilities
  • Immediate re-establishment of the NATO-Russia Council as a joint crisis management center

Considering the proud history of German Ostpolitik, it would be a good idea for the German government to work towards a corresponding offer of negotiations by the Alliance as quickly as possible and to initiate accompanying bilateral and multilateral talks with Moscow, both at the level of the German chancellor, the foreign and defense ministers, and at the level of diplomatic experts. German Ostpolitik was so successful because at its core it was quiet diplomacy, not “public diplomacy.” This can also be built on, in closest possible coordination within the alliance and especially with our Eastern partner states concerned. We must not be distracted by Russia’s efforts to negotiate primarily bilaterally with Washington. European security cannot and will not be decided without us, the Europeans. It must remain a central task of German foreign policy to work towards a situation in which we can actually say that it is no longer a question of security from Russia, but of security with Russia. A very big task lies ahead of us.