While the idea of Russia joining NATO has been occasionally placed on the table, now, in 2020, the suggestion is merely hypothetical, as there is no intention on either side to discuss the issue, experts told Sputnik, adding that if there is a tiny possibility that Russia will join the bloc, it would only be in "a dramatically changed security environment" in which the alliance would adapt its agenda.
The remarks came in the wake of Washington’s moves to pull out of a whole slew of foundational arms control and defensive treaties that keep military superpowers at bay. The New START treaty, the only remaining arms control agreement between Russia and the US, is set to expire in February 2021.
"I have been holding various political posts for 30 years. In my opinion and if I am not mistaken, former Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov even did not rule out Russia's entry into NATO. This was seriously discussed. Then the Russia-NATO Founding Act was signed. All this you need to discuss again," Schmidt, who was the minister of food and agriculture from 2014-2018 and the minister of transport and digital infrastructure from 2017-2018, said.
The idea of Russia becoming a member of the military alliance has been floated by a number of experts and politicians since the establishment of the relations back in 1991 within the framework of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (later renamed into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council). The relations between the bloc and Moscow saw more improvements after the creation of the Russia–NATO Council in 2002, which was established for reviewing the security issues and joint projects. The council was suspended in 2014 in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis.
In a series of interviews with American film director Oliver Stone in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that once he suggested to then-US president Bill Clinton that Russia join the Washington-led military alliance.
"I remember one of our last meetings with President Clinton when Clinton was still in office. He visited Moscow and during a discussion, I said, ‘So, what if [we] consider an option of Russia maybe joining NATO,’" Putin told Stone. While Clinton replied that he "didn’t mind," the other US delegates became visibly nervous, Putin added with a smile.
During the 30-year history of the relations between the bloc and Russia, the suggestions about Russia joining the bloc were voiced by then-Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in 2009, as well as a number of German defense experts, including Volker Rühe, who served as the German Defense Minister from 1992-1998, Klaus Naumann, a retired German General, who served as Chief of Staff of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) from 1991-1996 and Ulrich Weisser, a former military advisor in the German Defense Ministry.
In late 2019, a report in the UK media emerged claiming that Russia could have become an associate member of NATO back in 1995 when then-UK Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind put forward such a proposal. The suggestion, made four years after the Soviet Union collapsed, was reportedly aimed at easing Moscow's suspicions of NATO's expansion eastward, closer to Russia's borders.
Far Away Scenario
While the speculations about Russia joining the military alliance were discussed on repeated occasions in the 1990s, now it is "entirely hypothetical," Hugo Klijn, a senior research fellow within the Security Unit of the Clingendael Institute, told Sputnik.
"Apart from the occasional trial balloon, there is no appetite whatsoever on either side to give this idea serious thought. As long as a range of arms control problems and territorial disputes are not resolved, even a meaningful warming of relations is unfeasible," he said.
According to the expert, if Russia ever was to join the bloc, it would only be in "a dramatically changed security environment" in which the alliance would have adapted its agenda and probably been renamed.
"It depends whether North America would still be involved in European security, either through a transformed 'NATO' or a strengthened OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). If not, a new pan-European security arrangement would likely emerge. But again, these are far away scenarios," he said.
Meanwhile, Sven Biscop, who is the director of the Europe in the World Programme at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations, believes that constructive relations are hardly possible unless Russia compromises on the Ukrainian issue with the Western partners and ceases to seek to create "an exclusive sphere of interest."
"The future role of Russia in the European security architecture depends in the first place on its own strategy," he told Sputnik.
The West imposed sanctions against Moscow in the wake of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the referendum on Crimea's reunification with Russia in 2014. Western countries and Kiev have not recognized the vote's legitimacy and accused Moscow of meddling in Ukraine's affairs. Russia, in turn, has denied any interference claims, insisted that the referendum was carried out in line with international law and retaliated by an import phase-out and counter-sanctions.
Now, in 2020, the relations between Russia and NATO can hardly be called friendly. The alliance now perceives Russia as a major threat and continues to beef up its military presence in eastern Europe, mainly in Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states. Russia has repeatedly condemned the NATO expansion in Europe and its deployment of military infrastructure closer to the Russian borders.
The recent Ukraine-US Sea Breeze-2020 Drills in the Black Sea became the recent stumbling block between the alliance and Russia. The exercises involve 27 warships, 19 aircraft and over 2,000 servicemen from seven NATO countries (Bulgaria, France, Turkey, Spain, Romania and Norway) and its allies (Georgia and Ukraine).
Speaking to Sputnik earlier in July, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said that the drills would have a negative effect on security in the area. According to Grushko, NATO is undermining the work of regional organizations in the Black Sea which could potentially lead to security and economic prosperity in the region. The Russian official also said the alliance’s actions, in fact, weaken the role of Black Sea region countries in terms of security.
The Russian Defense Ministry is keeping a close watch on aircraft and vessels that take part in the drills. On Friday, Russia's Su-27 fighter was scrambled to intercept a US reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Black Sea and the latter eventually drifted away from the Russian border.