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NATO was born 70 years ago today. Moscow has always viewed it as a threat, but that hasn't prevented three attempts to join the alliance.

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Piotr Malecki / Getty Images

On April 4, 1949, representatives from twelve countries in North America and Western Europe met in Washington, D.C., to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, giving rise to the NATO military alliance. From the very beginning, the organization was designed to defend against a potential conflict with the Soviet Union. As the center of both the USSR and the Russian Federation, Moscow has viewed NATO as a major national security threat. Nevertheless, the possibility of Russia joining the military alliance has surfaced multiple times throughout NATO’s 70-year existence.

The USSR wanted to join NATO back in 1954, or at least it pretended that it did

By 1949, when NATO formed, the Cold War threatened to escalate into World War III. The immediate impetus for the North Atlantic Treaty was the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, when Moscow unsuccessfully tried to pressure American, British, and French troops into abandoning their part of the city. NATO was founded amid these tensions with the Communist East.

In March 1954, Moscow made an unexpected proposition: invite the USSR to join NATO. This followed a complex diplomatic game surrounding the future of Germany. After the war, the Allies split the country into the pro-Soviet German Democratic Republic in the east and the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany in the west. Officially, Moscow advocated Germany’s reunification as a neutral and demilitarized state.

Western powers opposed the plan, fearing that communists would eventually stage a coup in a reunified Germany, leaving the whole country in the USSR’s orbit of influence, which had already happened in several Eastern European nations. Some also feared that a reunified Germany would once again threaten world peace, just as it had provoked two recent world wars. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, worried that NATO would expand to West Germany, deploying its troops at close proximity to the Socialist Bloc. The USSR found itself at a disadvantage, given its inferior economic and military strength, and the fact that tensions were already emerging in the Eastern Bloc.

The founding of NATO in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949
Discours Truman / Fondation Otan / akg / Scanpix / LETA

It was under these conditions that Moscow sought a compromise with the West. In order to remove the “German question,” Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed a collective security agreement between all European states, including East and West Germany. The pact would have relegated the United States to the role of an observer, however, and made uninvolved spectators of Western European states, in the event of a war between Russia and America. According to one negotiator who witnessed Molotov’s offer, Western diplomats responded with a “burst of laughter.”

In a detailed letter to other Soviet leaders, Molotov then suggested going further by publicly announcing a possible exchange: the U.S. could become a full member of Moscow’s European collective security agreement, so long as the USSR could join NATO. With this advice, the foreign minister openly acknowledged that his proposal was doomed to fail, but he hoped there might be propagandistic value in showing the world that NATO wasn’t really a defensive pact, but part of the West’s aggressive campaign against the Soviet Union and its socialist allies.

The West immediately recognized Molotov’s offer as a publicity stunt. In its response to Moscow, NATO explained that the USSR’s admission to the alliance was impossible because its members refused to legitimize Soviet control over Western Europe, saying that the Soviet system failed to meet the alliance’s democratic standards.

According to British historian Jeffrey Roberts, Molotov actually entertained the real possibility of the USSR joining NATO — not to end the Cold War, but to seize the resource from the Americans.

In 1955, West Germany joined NATO, defeating Moscow’s efforts to demilitarize Germany. In response, Europe’s socialist states, including East Germany, signed the Warsaw Pact, dividing the continent and eventually the world into two opposing military blocs.

In 2005, the United States entertained Russian membership in NATO

On December 21, 1991, the Alma-Ata Protocol was signed, confirming the dissolution of the Soviet Union and forming the Commonwealth of Independent States. That same day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent a letter to NATO, stating that the accession of a now independent Russia to the military alliance would be one of the “long-term aims” of his presidency.

At the first-ever summit with colleagues from the former Warsaw Pact, the foreign ministers of the alliance’s member states were clearly dumbfounded by the rapid pace of events in Russia and Eastern Europe. At that moment, according to reporting by The New York Times, NATO representatives were most struck by the fact that the summit’s Soviet delegation asked to strike all references to the “Soviet Union” from the final communique, because the country had ceased to exist during the four-hour conference in Belgium.

Responding to Yeltsin’s letter, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner said, “nothing is excluded,” but he clarified that the Russian president had not actually applied for membership. “He just raises a question, and then says he regards that as a long-term political aim,” Wörner explained.

Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens, however, didn’t mince words, stating, “If you do it for Russia, you also have to do it for the other republics,” warning that this posed “a danger of dilution” to NATO.

In the years that followed, the military alliance did “do it” for several former Eastern Bloc states, but not for Russia. This wasn’t predetermined, however. It’s unknown if Yeltsin intended anything more with his letter than to announce himself on the international stage, but there was nevertheless active discussion in Western political circles in the first years after the USSR’s collapse about whether or not to admit Russia into NATO. One declassified U.S. State Department memo even proposes expanding NATO to Russia, Ukraine, and “Byelorus” specifically by 2005.

NATO’s expansion over the years

Two months later, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev effectively disavowed Yeltsin’s initiative, meeting with Wörner and explaining that Moscow would prioritize “effective mechanisms of international cooperation,” not “breathtaking ideas like Russia’s quick incorporation into NATO.” Meanwhile, Russian officials became increasingly prickly about the military alliance’s expansion into former Soviet countries.

On October 22, 1993, Yeltsin hosted U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher at his official residence, where the American diplomat described NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program — an initiative designed to create trust between the alliance and non-member states. The Russian president was delighted by the news, believing that NATO had decided to scrap plans to expand eastward and instead form partnerships with all European nations, rather than admit only some as members.

At that moment in the United States, there still wasn’t a consensus about whether NATO should expand eastward. Just a year after Yeltsin’s meeting with Christopher, however, the expansion lobby prevailed in Washington, and Yeltsin felt deceived. In Russia today, pundits often recall the supposed pledge to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward, in exchange for the reunification of Germany (which by the end of the Cold War became a Western initiative). But James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University, argues that Yeltsin’s meeting with Christopher did even more damage to Russia’s relationship with NATO. After the “deception” was apparent, the Russian president quickly replaced his pro-Western foreign minister with hardliner Yevgeny Primakov. Yeltsin's rising distrust of the West also contributed to his selection of Vladimir Putin as successor.

In the first months of his presidency, Vladimir Putin suggested NATO membership for Russia

In January 2001, newly minted President Vladimir Putin said he’d suggested NATO membership for Russia a year earlier, but Western leaders rebuffed him. Shortly before his first presidential election, Putin stated in an interview with the BBC that he wasn’t opposed to Russia joining NATO. A few months later, he raised the issue in negotiations with U.S. President Bill Clinton. According to Putin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright strongly opposed the idea. Many years later, in an interview with the filmmaker Oliver Stone, Putin said “the whole American delegation was very nervous,” though Clinton said he was willing to discuss the possibility of Russia joining the alliance.

U.S.-Russian relations were incomparably better at this point than at any time during the Cold War, but many Western diplomats nevertheless saw Putin’s proposal the same way their predecessors viewed Molotov’s offer in 1954, at least according to a book published in 2009 by journalist Steve LeVine. Citing an anonymous “longtime Kremlin insider,” LeVine writes: “Clinton glanced at his advisers and finally responded with a diplomatically phrased brush-off. It was something on the order of, ‘If it were up to me, I would welcome that.’ Not dissuaded, Putin’s entourage raised the idea again with visiting congressmen. But they reacted similarly, getting ‘this tricky expression on their faces’ and saying, ‘Ah, you want to destroy NATO from within.’”

Despite these obstacles, experts and politicians in the West continued to discuss Russia’s possible NATO accession until the early 2010s. Together with other German military experts, former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe justified the need for Russia’s NATO membership as a means to preventing armed conflicts in Central Asia and ensuring Europe’s energy security, as well as granting Western countries access to Russia’s potentially dangerous military infrastructure.

In an article published by Foreign Affairs in May 2010, American scholar Charles Kupchan argued that NATO membership for Russia would facilitate the accession of countries like Ukraine and Georgia, strengthening the alliance against China, and ultimately contributing to the democratization of Russia itself.

The arguments against NATO membership for Russia break down into three groups: first, opponents say the alliance lacks the resources needed to protect Russia’s long border with China at NATO standards; second, Russia wouldn’t transform into an ally just by joining the organization, and would most likely try to paralyze the group bureaucratically, converting it into something like today’s United Nations; and finally some have argued, like former Czech President Václav Havel, that NATO unites the nations of “Western Civilization,” which excludes Russia now and forever.

Curiously, in a collection of interviews published in 2000, Putin laid out many of these arguments himself, except for the “civilizational” reasoning. “It might upset the balance, and NATO’s founding fathers fear that the organization would change considerably. From our point of view, for the better, but from their perspective it would be worse,” Putin said, stressing that he “understands them perfectly well.”

In the same interview, Putin identified another reason Russia has never really seriously considered NATO membership in the near future: lobbying efforts by the military-industrial complex. “Any military bloc, and NATO is no exception, adopts its own weapons standards, and this of course significantly affects the interests of the defense industry,” Putin explained.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, all discussion of NATO membership for Russia ceased immediately, and most of the partnership programs developed over the previous quarter of a century were shut down.

Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock