NATO Got Nothing From Conceding To Russia In the Past, Why Should It Cave To The Kremlin Now?

May 23, 2016
President Vladimir Putin speaking at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008. Photo by Getty Images

This article was originally published on May 20, 2016.

Kremlin Warns of Consequences if Montenegro Joins NATO; Refutations of Russia’s Claims about Agreements

On May 20, 2016, NATO formally invited Montenegro to become its 29th member, Reuters and RBC reported.

This event provides an occasion to examine NATO-Russian relations in the last decade, to analyze and debunk some of Russia’s claims about NATO actions, and to marvel at the clues Putin in fact gave to the world in a speech behind closed doors in 2008 that prefigured the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass. 

Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov immediately reacted to the news of Montenegro’s accession (translation by The Interpreter):
“On the whole, further expansion of NATO is rather a negative process. This process is fraught with further increase in the temperature of tension on the continent.”
The invitation still remains to be approved by the US Senate, which is likely to pass it, as well as ratification by 27 other parliaments of members of NATO, a process that could take at least two years. 
The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that Montenegro has been “dragged into” NATO “artificially.”
Peskov has also previously said that “NATO’s continuing expansion” will lead to unspecified “retaliatory actions” by Moscow. If nothing else, his statement was an indication that the West could expect ongoing provocations of the type that caused British planes to scramble to intercept Russian intruders on Estonia’s air space.
No doubt there will be debate in Europe about Montenegro’s members, as indicated by the results of a non-binding Dutch referendum that rejected Ukraine’s EU Association agreement, which contains only a brief mention of generic military cooperation (NATO membership is not included in Ukraine’s association agreement, nor was it specifically voted on in the Dutch referendum).
The Dutch referendum is not binding, and many analysts said the issue was more about “Eurosceptics” who want to opt out of the EU in general than about Ukraine per se. Even so, the Dutch referendum was a bellweather on alliances perceived to be against Russia, and reflects the growing influence of far-right parties in Europe which are aligned with Moscow.
As for the issue of Montenegro, already a candidate for membership in the EU, the small state on the  coast on the Adriatic Sea is following other European members of NATO to pursue its own security, and its membership in the alliance is not likely to be as controversial for other EU members. 
Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden are EU members, but not members of NATO. The reasons range from declarations of neutrality on the part of Austria and Sweden to Ireland’s unwillingness to join an alliance with England to Finland’s reluctant to cross its neighbor Russia.
Russia has bitterly complained about the expansion of NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union, maintaining that NATO should disband and that NATO is even violating a pledge not to expand, and growing more aggressive in violation of a 1997 NATO-Russia agreement. A favorite staple of Kremlin propaganda is to claim NATO is “coming to its borders” and displaying aggression to Russia first — without any admission of the ongoing and escalating facts of Russian aggression that prompt countries in Eastern Europe to want to join NATO in the first place.
In April 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, a proposal to put Georgia and Ukraine on track to NATO membership failed because Germany led the opposition to it after a barrage of Russian objections. Russia then proceeded to invade Georgia just months later in August 2008, justifying its action by arguing this was a response to Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia — which had been prompted by the shelling by Ossetian separatists and followed years of Russia’s provocations, including the granting of Russian citizenship to refugees in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the deployment of peace-keepers in the region who were seen as biased. Russia went on to essential annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with which it has now signed treaties, reinforcing decades of skepticism about the wisdom of unilateral concessions to Moscow.
Putin’s speech at the April 2008 NATO summit — an eerie forecast of what was to come six years later — indicates the mindset of the Kremlin then as now. Rather than accepting the defeat at the NATO summit  — under Russia’s own pressure — of the membership track for Ukraine and Georgia as evidence of Western good will, Putin saw the mere existence of the issue on the agenda as “NATO aggression.” 
In his speech, he adopted a posture of pained-but-accusatory restraint, commenting that there were lots of places in the world — Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh and even the south of Ukraine — where there were ethnic Russians or situations involving Russian interests and allies (such as Serbia and Armenia), yet the Kremlin had not (at that time) made a move to directly intervene. Putin counseled Georgia to engage in patient negotiations with a breakaway ethnic minority within its borders rather than to seek NATO membership — advice the Kremlin didn’t keep itself in its disputes with Ukraine. 

In one section of the 2008 speech, Putin complained that the Crimea had been received “merely with the decisions of the CPSU Politbureau” — an indication of what was to come in February 2014 when his “little green men” took control there. In 2008, Putin begrudgingly conceded that US President George Bush “managed to act rather effectively in Afghanistan” without noting that before this period, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and killed more than a million civilians. Today, Russia is making overtures to the Taliban.

It is important to note that no official text of Putin’s speech in Bucharest exists and there is reason to believe that after presenting his points aggressively behind closed doors, Putin — then at the end of his term and anticipating Dmitry Medvedev as President — decided to suppress the full text to keep options open for negotiating with NATO., a pro-Ukrainian web site in Kiev, published the text in full in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, but, the official Russian government website, did not publish the text and only carried a question-and-answer session with Putin and journalists. Only one journalist referenced the problem of not having the text of Putin’s speech and only working from a paraphrase; Putin batted this issue away, dismissing concerns about the threats he made in his speech as “some sort of religious terror here in anticipation of my speeches” and explaining “in Munich I was speaking at an international conference” and that “implies a certain style, candid and controversial” — but in the end he never supplied the text. 

At this press conference, Putin mentioned Ukraine — not the reporters — and only dismissively, in reply to a broader question about NATO’s justification for expansion, that it spreads “democratic values and increased stability in the region.” Putin countered that Ukraine, along with other non-NATO members in Europe, was already a democracy., a site that publishes translations of the foreign media into Russia, said at the time that “friends of official Kiev gave a transcript of the text of the speech to Kiev.” Inosmi took to task Putin’s claim that “a third” of the population of Ukraine at the time was Russian or Russian-speaking, and said he had mixed up figures and that it was actually only 17% for all of Ukraine and 58.3% for Crimea, and not “90%” as Putin said in the speech.

Kommersant wrote at the time that the NATO meeting was behind closed doors, but that “sources” had told editors the highlights of the speech, including about Ukraine and Georgia and the threat to retaliate by annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, by ostensible analogy with Kosovo.

The New York Times reported that Peskov himself complained that Putin’s remarks were not shown on closed-circuit TV to the news media, indicating that there was no claim that Putin didn’t say what he did, yet Peskov did not supply a copy of the speech himself.

In a news article, gave a link promising “the full speech” but it doesn’t work and merely re-routes back to the same news article.

A video with excerpts only can be found, with Putin’s claim in the speech that Latvia isn’t democratic because it supposedly does not grants rights to a large Russian minority. Also featured Putin’s complaint that the Russians had withdrawn troops from Eastern Europe but the US did not follow suit.

So the speech and all its implied threats was not contested, but to understand the different ways in which the actualities of Putin’s remarks were perceived, we have only to look at headlines of the day, from the New York Times, the Telegraph in the UK, and Kommersant and in Russia, respectively:

– Putin, at NATO Meeting, Curbs Combative Rhetoric – New York Times;

– ‘Stay Away,’ Putin Tells NATO The Telepgrah

 Nato Bloc Broken up into Bloc Shares – Kommersant

Putin Threatens to Annex Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the Event Ukraine Joins NATO –

Kommersant, a business daily once owned by Boris Berezovsky, then the Georgian TV owner Badri Patarkatsishvili, is now owned by Alisher Usmanov., a relatively independent site originally owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, has been owned since 2001 by Gazprom Media, the same owner of Ekho Moskvy. These outlets were much more explicit than their Western counterparts in catching the actual threats under Putin’s supposedly conciliatory rhetoric. Kommersant‘s headline is a sarcastic remark referencing Russian finance and the ownership of shares in a company by different blocs, or majority and minority investors.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government newspaper of record, while running a neutral headline “Putin Speaks at NATO,” focused on the nuclear side of his speech with the subtitle “He warned that Russia will continue to strengthen its nuclear triad on sea, in the air and on land.” RG said it had obtained the points of Putin’s speech from members of the Russian delegation and contrasted them with Putin’s famous 2007 Munich speech by characterizing it as a “carrot, not a stick” — the same take as RT and the New York Times.

Since the 2008 summit and the veiled and not-so-veiled threats, it has been easier to see in hindsight what the Kremlin’s true intentions were — and the motives for countries wanting to join NATO. 

NATO itself adamantly denies Russia’s claims about any “understanding” regarding expansion and says Russia has never been able to back it up. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president  has conceded that no such claim was made, although current leaders believe it was. 

In a fact sheet rebutting all of Russia’s other claims, NATO says it accepted 6 members from 1952-2009, including the Baltic states because those countries “made the choice to apply for membership based on democratic process and respect for the rule of law.” 
Russia’s neighbors made this choice because of the Kremlin’s continued aggressiveness that caused fears for their security which have only been proven by actions against Georgia and Ukraine, and numerous provocative incidents against Baltic and Scandinavian neighbors. 
Russia’s latest propaganda themes involve the claim that NATO pledged not to place any troops permanently near Russia’s border in a 1997 agreement. But as Ira Louis Straus explained in September 2014 on the site Altantic Community, this is not the Western interpretation because NATO’s pledge to Russia was conditional — the agreement contains the phrase “in the current and foreseeable security environment” — made before Russia annexed Crimea, invaded Donbass and also essentially incorporated South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia. In September 2014, Ukraine had just been defeated at the battle of Ilovaisk where Russian-backed troops gained control of more territory in Ukraine,
Straus takes to task Der Spiegel and other commentators on the NATO 1997 pledge that leave out the conditionality of the agreement and the phrase regarding the security environment of the time — which was after the defeat of the August coup in Moscow and during the administration of Boris Yeltsin, three years before Putin came to power. Indeed, many Western press articles simply fail to make mention of any conditionality, for example a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail headlined “Polish and Baltic Hopes for Permanent NATO Bases Frustrated by 1997 Agreement with Russia“.
And it’s not that the press is merely to blame; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, no doubt mindful of the conditionality of the agreement, has repeatedly interpreted the 1997 agreement as one in which the West obliges not to deploy permanent forces. But in September 2014 she injected some conditionality herself in the debate about Poland’s request: “we have … a NATO-Russia Act that for the moment I do not want to overstep.” Liana Fix, an associate fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations, claimed that NATO would be “violating” its agreement by deploying permanent troops, although she conceded that Russia “had already violated it” (with its actions against Georgia).
The Polish and Baltic request to the NATO summit was for permanent NATO bases to deter the Russian threat. While Article 5 of the NATO agreement says that if any one member is under attack, the others will come to its defense, there is debate about the extent to which US and EU troops would be willing to “die for Narva,” for example, a town in Estonia. President Barack Obama said in a visit to Estonia last year, “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

The 1997 NATO-Russia agreement had other basic assumptions at the time, such as the declaration that NATO and Russia “do not consider each other as adversaries.”

Now they do, as the new US commander of troops in Europe identified Russia as the gravest threat to Europe, following similar proclamations by US and NATO commanders, and Russia routinely denounces NATO’s mere existence and what it sees as a trail of unjustified actions, such as bombing in Libya — although here NATO points out that Russia approved the same two UN Security Council resolution as the US did authorizing NATO members “to take all necessary measures”. Russia agitated for a UN commission to review NATO actions in Libya, but it pronounced that no violations of the resolutions had been made.

NATO goes too far in claiming that NATO as an institution was authorized by these UNSC resolutions — no mention was made of NATO in the resolutions, and the UNSC does not engage with NATO due to the opposition of both permanent and elected members. But certainly members of NATO sitting at the table were authorized to maintain a no-fly zone in Libya.

Montenegro’s accession to NATO and the stationing of US troops in Estonia, which Estonia describes as “possibly for a long time,” are sure to be key themes in the “information war” and efforts at Western counter-propaganda.  In an echo of the terms the West has used about Russia’s own actions, the pro-Kremlin site Global Research describes the positioning of these troops as “destabilizing and overthrowing pro-Russian governments using the “hybrid warfare” methods employed by the Western powers during the 2014 coup in Ukraine and the 2011 US-backed insurgency in Syria. It’s interesting how Global Research has tipped its hand, by describing as “pro-Russian” Baltic governments that today are pro-Western, although beset by pro-Kremlin factions in the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population.

Interestingly, in its coverage of Putin’s 2008 speech, Kommersant  talked about the possibility of Macedonia’s accession to NATO, which Greece blocked at the 2008 summit. Now the issue of Macedonia’s membership is being discussed again, with the announcement about its neighbor, Montenegro.

Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 20 that NATO “will not be influenced by some kind of outside event or series of lobbying efforts or other things” regarding whom it choses as its members, and that NATO retained its “open door” policy.

But the reality is that until Greece and Macedonia solve the dispute over Macedonia’s name and Germany and until other West European countries leery of crossing Russia are persuaded to relent on Georgia, there is little prospect of membership for these countries. These issues will be discussed more at the next NATO summit on July 8-9 in Warsaw.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick