NATO Expansion: A Continuing and Irreversible Landslide
25 years ago, Europe missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to become truly free from the fear of another devastating war. On 27 May 1997, NATO vowed to work with Russia towards a "lasting and inclusive peace on the principles of cooperative security", but immediately began a relentless drive eastwards that has now brought the whole world to the brink.
To understand how we got here, let's look at NATO’s duplicity of 25 years ago.
On 27 May 1997 in Paris, NATO and Russia signed a Founding Act on their new relationship, declaring their “shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free, to the benefit of all its peoples”.
Making a commitment to building indivisible European security at the highest political level, the Founding Act marked the beginning of a fundamentally new relationship between NATO and Russia.
In his remarks prepared by the Foreign Office for the signing ceremony in Paris, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the Founding Act “a historic breakthrough”:
“We must develop the partnership between NATO and Russia into a powerful force for peace and security in Europe. We must use it to help create a Europe in which another major war is not just improbable but unthinkable."
But was NATO genuine about the commitment it agreed to in Paris? British government archives tell a different story.
Back-Marker on the Open Door
Two days after NATO acknowledged Russia’s "unprecedented withdrawal" from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, and its commitment to further reduce conventional and nuclear forces, it got down to the business of plotting its expansion toward Russia and into the sphere of its national security interests. On 29 May 1997, at the first substantive meeting of NATO foreign ministers to discuss the nitty-gritty of this expansion, Russia, according to a British diplomatic cable, "was barely mentioned". When Moscow was mentioned, it was in the context of blunting its opposition to NATO’s plans to swallow up the Baltics, Ukraine and even neutral Austria, Sweden and Finland.
Yes, Ukraine was eyed by Britain as a prospective NATO member as early as 1997, as a briefing note by the British Foreign Office to Prime Minister Blair reveals. It advised Blair to position Britain as "the back-marker on the open door” into NATO:
“We would recommend trying to see President [Leonid] Kuchma of Ukraine, President [Aleksander] Kwasnievsky of Poland, Prime Minister [Victor] Ciorbea of Romania, President [Václav] Havel of the Czech Republic and Prime Minister [Gyula] Horn of Hungary, in that order of priority.”
The fact that Ukraine found itself not just in the company of the first official candidates for NATO expansion, but actually ahead of them in the British pecking order suggests that London has long intended to lure Kiev into the alliance.
This despite the solemn promise in Ukraine’s Declaration of Sovereignty of 1990 to become a neutral, non-aligned, non-nuclear country, which was confirmed by the country’s first President Leonid Kravchuk in his letters to the leaders of the UN Security Council member states.
As NATO foreign ministers gathered in Sintra, Portugal, to discuss the enlargement on 29 May 1997, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took charge as a “child of divided Europe”, alluding to her Czech roots. Whether she was out to divide Europe yet again, or considered Russia being outside Europe is not really material now. What is material is that she laid down the fundamental principles of NATO’s expansion: it must be a “continuing and irreversible” process.
Her dictum made British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Defence Secretary George Robertson warn Prime Minister Tony Blair that if NATO went beyond inviting a limited number of new members at the forthcoming alliance’s summit in Madrid, it could jeopardise the process of building pan-European security:
“The NATO-Russia Founding Act which was signed on 27 May signals Russia’s willingness to look past enlargement and build trust and cooperation. But if Madrid decisions look to Russia like the beginning of a landslide which will only stop at her borders, then she will react adversely.”
They were not alone. US President Bill Clinton admitted there were voices in the US Congress who opposed the enlargement because “they were worried that it would provoke the Russians”.
21 February 2022, 11:15 GMT
Such worries were dismissed out of hand by Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, who said that “a recent poll in Russia had made clear that the man in the street was not worried about NATO enlargement”. But the British Embassy in Moscow had different information:
“The Russians are virtually at one in regarding the coming enlargement of NATO as a humiliating defeat, and in supposing that the West either consciously or unconsciously intends it to be seen as such.”
Having signed the Russia-NATO Founding Act, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin was still worried that he would be accused back home of blessing NATO expansion, especially if he agreed to attend the alliance's Madrid summit in July 1997, when the first candidate countries were to be determined. And he told President Clinton so in Paris. Clinton responded by putting a lot of wool around Yeltsin’s ears, singing his praises and playing to his ego.
Clinton said it would be good if Yeltsin could come to the Madrid summit, British diplomats cabled to London from Paris:
“There was scope for Yeltsin to make this another personal and political success. Madrid would not focus only on NATO expansion, Clinton said. The Alliance would also be adapting itself, which should be “congenial to Russia”. There could be a NATO-Russia summit to inaugurate the new Joint Council in advance of the larger Euro-Atlantic Partnership meeting. Such choreography, Clinton said, could 'demonstrate Russia’s position in European counsels' [ed. drawing parallels with Russia’s leading role in the 19th century European affairs] and Yeltsin’s leadership."
British Premier Blair chipped in, praising Yeltsin to the skies. At their 27 May meeting in Paris, Blair heaped on Yeltsin “much of the credit” for the “historic breakthrough” of the Founding Act. He promised “the UK will work hard in NATO to build real confidence and transparency” in the alliance’s relations with Russia:
“NATO and Russia should develop a reflex of consulting each other, almost across the board”, said Tony Blair.
Yeltsin told Blair he wanted a proper treaty between NATO and Russia with guarantees of non-deployment of nuclear weapons and of no permanent stationing of conventional forces on the territories of new members.
But this was not something Britain or NATO were prepared to accept, as exchanges between the PM’s office and the Foreign Office show. Both were categorically against calling the document a treaty. British and NATO officials rejected Russian demands that the NATO-Russia document should be legally binding. They argued that “a solemn political commitment at the highest level would have equivalent weight”. Its whole purpose was not to guarantee Yeltsin anything, but to “enable him to claim that NATO had taken Russian security concerns fully into account before proceeding with enlargement”.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote to Prime Minister Blair:
”I judge that the NATO-Russia agreement has considerable net political benefits to UK and NATO interests. Russian opposition to NATO’s decision, at its Madrid summit, to invite some countries to begin accession negotiations, is likely to be considerably more muted than it might otherwise have been. Russia’s leaders will have a vested interest in presenting the NATO-Russia deal in a positive light, and in portraying NATO not as a threat or adversary, but as a partner, sensitive to Russian security concerns."
This “sensitivity” was of a peculiar type: in the Permanent NATO-Russia Council established by the Founding Act, “the Russians would be encouraged to reach common positions with NATO”, but Western allies must ensure that their positions are coordinated before the meetings of the Council.
This proviso effectively meant that Russia would be isolated in every Council meeting. Moscow could not accept being in a minority position and tried to level up by suggesting a joint Chairmanship of the Council with the NATO Secretary General or his representative on one side and a Russian representative on the other. As then NATO Secretary General Xavier Solana briefed Tony Blair on his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov:
“I pointed out that the Russian representative on the Council would under no circumstances be acceptable as co-chairman.”
As a result of this and other snubs during the protracted and difficult negotiations on the final text of the Founding Act, Primakov advised President Yeltsin to shun NATO’s Madrid summit so as not to be seen blessing the enlargement. This proved to be prescient, as NATO eventually incorporated the Baltics, thus breaching Russia’s first red line.
In fact, the Baltic states were at the heart of the very first NATO discussion on enlargement on 29 May 1997. The main question was how many countries to invite. Most NATO members suggested five candidates: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia. Some added Slovakia. But President Clinton said such a large number would “turn up the heat” on the question of the Baltics’ membership, prematurely alerting Russia to the prospect that the Balts would be next in line.
Hence he was adamant “not to let Romania and Slovenia in this time round”, arguing that a "small" enlargement of three would keep Russian anxieties at bay while the Baltics were being readied for NATO membership. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook suggested a different approach, short of NATO membership. In a Foreign Office memo, he wrore:
“...argued with the US that Baltic security could better be promoted through careful language, practical defence cooperation, NATO’s new Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, bilateral links, and most of all, a good NATO-Russia relationship which transforms Russian attitudes over a number of years…”
Alas, Cook turned out to be the last British Foreign Secretary with a conscience, having resigned his post over the invasion of Iraq.
These days careful language has been thrown to the wind, with top British politicians making speeches that are tantamount to a declaration of war on Russia, and calling for a “Global NATO” to challenge China.