The victorious Western alliance saw Russia as a crumbled post-Soviet state and did not make enough efforts to let Moscow join the power bloc.
According to the Kremlin, Russia is fighting Ukraine, or Vladimir Putin's words, “Little Russia,” to prevent NATO’s eastern expansion across Eastern Europe. While Kiev is not a member of NATO, Russia is fighting forces trained and armed by the Western Alliance.
But at one point in history, Putin’s Russia wanted to join NATO.
“Russia is part of European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy,” said Putin, the country’s acting president in 2000, three weeks before the election, which made him president.
At the time, Putin’s words were interpreted as extending an olive branch to the West. Since then, Putin has been in power, rising to the occasion and becoming the sole decision-maker of the country.
The same year, according to the then-NATO chief George Robertson, Putin bluntly asked: “When are you going to invite us to join Nato?” Robertson advised the Russian president that he needs to “apply to join NATO” and not expect an invitation.
Now, under massive Western sanctions isolating Moscow from Europe and with much of the “civilised” world allied with Washington, Russia has reached a point that its long-serving president could not have imagined two decades ago. His words now sound like those of a man with an unfulfilled desire for an impossible love affair with NATO.
Some experts believe it could have been real if the West had taken Russia’s membership prospects seriously back in 2000 or the 1990s when Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and Russian Federation’s first President Boris Yeltsin also lobbied for Moscow’s entrance to the alliance. Had it happened, the current Russian onslaught on Ukraine could have been prevented.
“Because they thought that they had won the Cold War and could dictate all the terms as Russia was 'beaten'. They were high on the euphoria of a perceived victory rather than a massive opportunity for peace and security,” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.
“They did not regard Russia as an equal and probably thought to use the idea of membership as a means of compliance. Like the EU has done to Turkey for years,” Simons tells TRT World.
Simons is not alone in his thinking. Laurence Kotlikoff, an American professor of economics at Boston University, who consults groups like Moscow-based Gaidar Institute, also believes that “the obstacle to Russia's membership in NATO appears to be NATO,” which was established to counter communist Soviet Union’s expansion across the globe.
But other experts believe that if Russia is not a NATO member, it is not the fault of the Western alliance. “Yes. In the 1990s, Russia and NATO discussed whether or not Russia might want to become a member of NATO. I think Russia never wanted it, and it was never serious,” says Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.
Many high-ranking American officials, including the former US Secretary of State, James Baker, a powerful establishment figure in Washington, openly supported Russian membership of NATO, seeing it as a win-win situation for both sides. There is also critical evidence of NATO’s seriousness about Russian membership of the alliance.
In 1993, a US State Department document even designated 2005 as a deadline for Moscow’s as well as Kiev’s “accession to the bloc,” wrote Simon Saradzhyan, the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
In 1997, NATO and Russia agreed to form the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which defined the ways to work together and to cooperate with each other. They also founded the NATO-Russian Discussion Council in 2002.
“The mood was very positive in NATO toward Russia, and there was a great hope that Russia could become, if not a member of NATO, at least a partner. But I think Russia decided on its own that it’s not interested (in the membership in the alliance),” Bryza tells TRT World.
Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired Professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University, who worked under different NATO assignments, agrees with Bryza.
“In 1992, Russia and the former USSR countries were offered the opportunity to join NATO's ‘Partnership for Peace’ (PFP), and they all joined, including Russia. We hoped it would be an entry point into NATO and several PFP members joined. Russia even sent a brigade to serve under NATO in Bosnia in 1995. Things looked good in those days,” Erickson tells TRT World.
But things blew up in the early 2000s as NATO’s eastern expansion plan, excluding Russia, was moving in full force.
What were the obstacles?
While the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, its political philosophy has persisted across both Western and Russian establishments, preventing a genuine reconciliation process between the two camps, according to experts.
“There was the factor of the heritage of the Cold War mentality in Western political and military structures,” says Simons. But he also adds that despite Moscow’s willingness to enter NATO, Russian military and political structures, which were dominated by anti-Western thinking, were not ready to be a member of the alliance back in the 1990s.
As a result, NATO sought “the need to reform and restructure the military and political aspects” of Russia, the professor says, but time was running against fast-changing geopolitical realities of Eastern Europe, which has been long contested between Russia and the Western alliance, and Caucasia, a turbulent region resembling the Balkans.
In 1994, Chechen War blew up in Caucasia, fomenting separatist tendencies against the Russian Federation, which saw its fight against the Chechens as an existential struggle, fearing that other autonomous regions inside the state might also seek an independent path from Moscow. For the Chechens, it was about their own independence.
While Russia conducted a brutal war against the Chechens during the two long engagements in 1994 and 1999, which was also instrumental for Putin’s rise to power, some US officials expressed sympathy for the Chechnya's separatist cause, increasing Kremlin’s suspicions toward Western intentions.
Despite Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the three former communist allies of Moscow, being accepted as members of NATO in 1999 as part of the alliance’s eastern expansion program, there was no concrete plan for Russia’s integration into the world’s most powerful military group, decreasing much of the Russian establishment’s hopes to join Brussels.
Moscow has long opposed NATO’s eastern expansion plan, excluding Russia, the world’s biggest country, interpreting it as a growing threat against its unity and existence across vast areas. While many Western diplomats warned their capitals about Russian concerns, in 2004, NATO accepted seven more Eastern European countries and former communist allies of Moscow to the alliance, in its largest expansion ever.
But NATO believes its eastern expansion is an exaggerated fact in the Kremlin. “Only six% of Russia’s land borders touch NATO countries. Russia has land borders with 14 countries. Only five of them are NATO members,” said an article published in January on NATO’s website.
In his early years, Putin saw Russia’s “integration with the West and its institutions” as a policy priority of the time, according to Simons. But he did not want to stand “in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter” to enter NATO. Putin’s rise to power was also largely related to the support of Siloviki, an anti-Western alliance of Russian security establishment.
After some threatening developments in the former Soviet territories, ranging from Chechen War to NATO’s continuing expansion and growing pro-democratic movements across both Georgia and Ukraine, Putin and his alliance appeared to be persuaded that being part of the Western alliance could not be a real option.
“Many old school Russians (like Putin) bitterly resented America's rise to hyper-power status. In the 21st Century, Putin has tried to revive Russian power. He needs an enemy to rally national pride against, and the US & NATO fill that need,” Erickson sees.
“Especially after Putin became the leader of Russia,” Moscow’s interest in NATO has significantly decreased, according to Bryza. “There was the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which Putin looked at as a threat to his own power. So by that point, all talk about Russia joining NATO was finished,” the former diplomat says.
The Rose Revolution, a pro-Western political action, happened in 2003. Five years later, Putin launched military action against Georgia, a Caucasian state, backing the country’s two rebellious regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to establish their own separatist governance.
A similar scenario played out in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution in 2014 when the pro-Western Ukrainian political forces ousted the pro-Russian government. Russia backed the two separatist regions in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass Oblast, but also annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Kiev in 2014.
The ongoing Ukraine fighting has important messages related to both NATO’s and Russia’s raison d'etre. While Putin’s Russia wants to claim its old influence across former USSR territories, NATO wants to counter Moscow, seeing it as the new emblem of the old Soviets.