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Russia and NATO – Eroding the Foundation of Relations

Igor Sutyagin
Commentary, 8 July 2016
International Security Studies, NATO, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia
The NATO–Russia Founding Act is the most important legal instrument governing relations between the Alliance and Moscow. Unfortunately, it is not working, and Russia has violated the Act on numerous occasions.

The 1997 Founding Act laid the foundations for NATO–Russia relations for a decade. Yet, arguably, Moscow started to contravene the Founding Act’s principles – and especially the obligation to ‘refrain from the threat … of force against each other’ soon after the document was signed. In December 1999, President Boris Yeltsin emotionally if indirectly invoked the nuclear threat, arguing that Russia was not being treated fairly by the US. This curious and menacing rhetoric was also repeated on a number of subsequent occasions, and especially after 2013.

In fact, Russia’s leaders have always applied a very selective approach to the respect for the Founding Act’s main provisions. On the one hand, Russia insists that NATO fully adheres to the restrictions imposed on it by the Act, such as the restriction on the permanent deployment of substantial combat forces on the territory of the new NATO member states. But at the same time, Moscow shows far less respect for its own obligations under the Act. The cynical assumption in Moscow has always been that NATO member states value the maintenance of their post-Cold War peaceful relations with Russia so much that they will ignore any violation on the Russian side if that is what is required to uphold the Act, which the West views as one of the most useful conduits for Russian–Western relations. Nevertheless, Moscow’s violation of its obligations under the Founding Act are becoming more egregious

It is worth recalling that the restriction on NATO’s deployments is established by Section IV of the act, which states, inter alia, that:

NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. [Author’s emphasis.]

Although Section IV is titled ‘Political-Military Matters’, its content deals almost exclusively with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). This is not surprising: the CFE Treaty – to which both NATO and Russia have been signatories since 1990 – established the security environment which would then enable the Founding Act’s main provisions. It was optimistically envisaged at that time (immediately after the end of the Cold War) that the CFE Treaty would remain the cornerstone of European security – thus defining the ‘foreseeable security environment’. But the NATO–Russia Founding Act also lists other principles which are worth reiterating.

First, the Act states that ‘NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries’. Second, both sides are expected to have a mutual shared commitment to ‘refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state’. Third, the parties are entreated to show their ‘respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states’. These three commitments were considered to be part of the fundamental deal which made good will between NATO and Russia possible. It is also important to recall that Moscow agreed to certain obligations regarding its troop deployments, in parallel with the limitations imposed on NATO by the Act: Russia, the treaty says ‘will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe’.

Yet neither the CFE Treaty nor the three conditions to bolster peace enumerated in the NATO Founding Act are adhered to today. On 29 November 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation that officially suspended the CFE Treaty. On 10 March 2015, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs announced that Russia would completely withdraw from the CFE Treaty the next day. Thus, the cornerstone of the Russia Founding Act is no longer there.  

Russia’s military operation against Georgia in August 2008, which led to a fifth of Georgian territory coming under de facto Russian control, was the first concrete – as opposed to rhetorical – act through which Russia disregarded the second and third principles mentioned above (it both used force against Georgia and showed a lack of respect for its territorial  integrity). Russia’s intervention in Crimea (followed by its annexation), as well as the irregular military actions and direct military intervention by Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are further evidence of Moscow’s disregard for the principles underlying the Founding Act. Threats to use nuclear weapons against NATO member states – such as the US, Denmark, Romania and Poland – by Russian politicians, diplomats and media figures have become commonplace in Russian discourse since 2007–08, and especially following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

As a result, the NATO–Russia Founding Act is a hollow shell: it has not restrained Russian behaviour; it is not taken seriously by Russia; and it has not created new channels of co-ordination between the relevant militaries.

Some NATO governments – particularly the German one – continue to argue that the preservation of the Founding Act is important because it provides a good foundation for continued trustful and co-operative relations with Russia. The hope in Berlin and a few other capitals is that, when Moscow rolls back its current aggressive adventurism and returns to a more co-operative stance, the Founding Act will still be there to regulate behaviour.

The problem with this line of argument is that there is little evidence to suggest that Putin’s Russia will revert to a co-operative relationship with NATO. Nor is there evidence that Russia takes the Founding Act seriously; it merely uses its adherence to the Act as a useful framework to do as it pleases.

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