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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Engaging With NATO

NATO's expansion over the next few years to include some Central European nations is increasingly likely. Although developments could delay or block this outcome, NATO member-nations are inclined to add new members.

Until now, the Russian government has alternated between reluctant acceptance of such NATO expansion and blustery rhetoric denouncing it.

The May 9 ceremonies marking the end of World War II are a crucial time for the Russian relationship with the alliance. Russia risks locking itself into a negative posture which could undermine a potentially constructive relationship. This could lead to a vicious cycle of recrimination and deteriorating relations. NATO should thus now re-emphasize its interest in developing a positive relationship with Moscow. And Russia should understand the reality of NATO expansion and develop policies to deal with it.

Russia at this point has three basic options: First, it could oppose expansion; second, it could adopt a disinterested stance; or third, it could decide to work constructively with the alliance. It would be in the long-term best interests of a democratic Russia to adopt the third course and to work actively to assure a smooth transition to new European security relationships.

Russia can adopt a posture of strong, or even belligerent, opposition to expansion. Such an approach would be seriously mistaken.

First, while NATO members are not yet unanimously in favor of expansion, they all feel that Russia should not have a veto over such a decision. Thus, Russia cannot block expansion.

Second, active opposition by Russia -- especially if it were to reflect Defense Minister Pavel Grachev's recent threat to take "countermeasures" in response to NATO expansion -- would tell Western leaders and public opinion that Russia had made a policy shift away from the West. This would lead to a serious reassessment of Western political and economic policies toward Russia.

With the second option, a policy of "indifferent neglect," Moscow would express its position on expansion in a low-key manner. This approach, especially if it reflects opposition to NATO expansion, would certainly be preferable to belligerent opposition. But this too would be a mistake.

Moscow should adopt the third approach of constructive engagement with the alliance. As a first step in this process, Moscow would acknowledge that NATO and the sovereign nations to its east have the right to develop security relationships.

As a second step, Russia should accept NATO's invitation to participate in the Partnership for Peace. Russian direct involvement in the body's partnership programs will begin a process of mutual confidence-building.

Assuming this initial interaction moves smoothly, and other issues (such as the proposed Russian sale of nuclear-related items to Iran) can be solved, NATO and Russia can then begin to explore the parameters of a security dialogue. Such a dialogue would begin slowly, but could on a step-by-step basis cover important issues related to how the two can develop a constructive relationship for the longer term.

This dialogue would provide a forum for each side to express its view, and ideas about the NATO-Russia relationship. It should be made clear that such a forum will not allow Russia a veto over NATO's decisions, but it will provide a way for its concerns to be expressed. This process can also provide another mechanism, in addition to the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, for discussions about how Russia could work with the alliance to prevent, mediate or resolve conflicts.

The NATO-Russia dialogue should not preclude discussion of similar issues in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russian interaction with the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations can also continue.

If a non-expansionist democracy stabilizes, then a more structured and formal relationship between NATO and Russia can be considered. The specific form of a NATO-Russia relationship need not be decided now, and actual NATO membership for Russia need not be ruled out. The alliance should simply make clear that a democratic Russia will be welcome in the Western community of nations.

In the initial post-Cold War period, there were unrealistic expectations in both the West and Russia about "strategic cooperation." But the NATO-Russia relationship need not go to the other extreme of overt hostility.

It will, however, take strong Russian leadership, as well as a correct appreciation of its historical position, for a constructive NATO-Russia relationship to emerge. Given Moscow's past dealings with many of its neighbors, even a Russia which wants to become integrated into the West will have to accept a period of "probation." This will be difficult, and is in a sense unfair, because even the actions of pro-democratic and pro-Western Russian leaders will be subjected to a tough standard.

But a similar situation existed concerning Germany after World War II. Even German leaders such as Konrad Adenauer, who wanted to bring Germany into the West permanently, had to accept that Germany's actions would be judged differently than those of other European nations.

In the early years after World War II, the United States offered the Soviet Union a chance to move toward the West via participation in the Marshall Plan. Moscow rejected the offer.

Now, a post-Soviet Russia has another opportunity to move closer to the West through developing its relationships to NATO. Russia should look to the long-term, seize the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of the end of Europe's largest conflict, and take steps toward becoming a democratic nation by seeking cooperation with the alliance.

W. Bruce Weinrod, a Washington, D.C. attorney, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from 1989 until early 1993. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.