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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saving the World Over a Goblet of Bordeaux

It is the dog days of summer in France. The country has shut down for traditional August vacations, and the Russian colonies de vacances in the Departement of Landes, between Bordeaux and Biarritz, on France’s southwest seacoast, are doing a brisk business. All the bungalows are fully occupied, mostly to Russian speakers from the Paris region, from the French provinces, from Central Europe … and from Russia itself. Summer camps set up by cadres of the White Army in emigration welcomed the generation of dissidents who landed on these shores in the 1960s and ‘70s and later the generations of simply curious travelers and nature lovers from Russia’s cities, who first appeared in the mid-1980s perestroika and continue to come over for an exotic getaway and interesting table talk with the Russian diaspora. And the seacoast resort provides a societal kaleidoscope, including the occasional movie star from Moscow, cabaret performers from Cap d’Antibes who sing old Russian romances to amuse friends and celebrate birthdays, and well-to-do businessmen from Northern Palmyra who come just for the company at dinner and take day trips down to the corrida in San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border.

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After languishing for several days at the table of an extended French family from the Jura, I had the good fortune to be re-seated with a newly arrived Russian, rumored to be almost an oligarch and hailing from one of the palace suburbs of St. Petersburg, where he heads the local Chamber of Trade and Industry. He says he is a friend of Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and knows Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fairly well. Over a bottle of 1996 St. Emilion, which he generously passed around for sampling, the table talk moved from the variable weather and dangerous ocean currents at nearby beaches to bigger economic and political questions, even to questions of war and peace. In that spirit, my interlocutor mentioned in passing that the best way to solve the world’s divisions and present dangers would be to combine forces — by inviting Russia into NATO. The suggestion was tantalizing. The next day, I asked how widespread was this notion, and I was told that it is the general view of the Russian leadership, from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on down.

Is this improbable notion of Russian membership in NATO truly the shared property of the country’s political elite? Perhaps. But whether or not that is the case, it is surely an issue that merits renewed examination in the West, where it is routinely cast aside without any rigorous and consistent thought.

The most obvious objection is that NATO is a military alliance of democratic countries sharing common values, whereas Russia is authoritarian and has pleaded the case for its own political uniqueness. However, the so-called sovereign democracy that the Kremlin advanced several years ago was nothing more than a defensive slogan to ward off any U.S.-financed “color revolution” at home. And it could be argued that since the emergence of the Russian Federation from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the country has been moving toward rule of law and practices of parliamentarianism with at least as much commitment and possibly greater success than in the euphemistically termed young democracies of Ukraine and Georgia, whose NATO membership the United States has been enthusiastically supporting.

If corruption is the sticking point in NATO membership, then most of Eastern Europe, including not only the Balkan states of Bulgaria and Romania but even Poland, suffer from the same malaise and have in no way been disqualified from NATO.

The point is not to overlook the grave structural and political flaws in Russian democracy. On the contrary, it is to apply to Russia the same logic that has been used to justify bringing on board all the new member states: namely that the process of applying for membership is a lever for accelerating democratic reform. Moreover, in the case of Russia, reversal of the current exclusionary policy and open acceptance into a common security structure would provide the strongest possible relief from the Kremlin’s fear of encirclement and concerns over threats to its defense infrastructure from irresponsible neighbors. The release from these immediate external threats would make it possible and reasonable to relax controls within the country, which is precisely what foreign critics of Russian nationalism and exceptionalism say they are seeking.

With prospective NATO membership, we could reasonably expect much more accommodating Russian behavior concerning nuclear arms reduction, common action on nonproliferation and other high-priority issues with both the U.S. and European governments. Moreover, with its ongoing military reform aimed at training and equipping highly mobile battalions for rapid reaction, Moscow could be a major contributor to NATO’s international peace missions.

This does not mean that Russia would cease to have national interests or would start to see eye to eye with Washington on every potential military intervention in the world’s trouble spots. But then, neither do France and Germany, which together are quietly exercising a veto on various Washington initiatives today, including increased forces in Afghanistan.

Russia’s presence in NATO would raise the level of internal democracy further and would be entirely salutary.

Gilbert Doctorow publishes analytical articles on international affairs on the blog portal of La Libre Belgique.