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Russia: Future NATO member?

The idea that Russia could join NATO was unthinkable not long ago -- but it has been cropping up with increasing frequency in recent weeks. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox asks why the issue has arisen and how realistic is the prospect.

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Not so long ago, the troops of NATO member countries were trained to regard the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries under its occupation as the enemy.

Now, three of those former satellite states -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland -- are NATO members, and next year the alliance is set to invite more to join its fold. If, as is widely expected, this means Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, NATO will within a few years have advanced right up to the Russian border and into territory once claimed by Moscow.

It's no surprise that successive Russian leaders have complained loudly about NATO's eastward expansion. One recent such remark came from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. He said earlier this month that Russia could not understand why, as he put it, this military bloc is continuing to enlarge now that the Cold War is over.

What may be harder to understand is the notion that Russia itself could join NATO.

But that's exactly the idea that's been put forward recently by a number of prominent figures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue last month, when he said the treaty organization should either consider admitting Russia or disband.

In a speech earlier this month, Richard Gephardt, who leads the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, suggested Russian membership would be the best way to prevent a new Cold War.

A week or so later, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder waded in to the debate, saying that Russian membership in the alliance cannot be ruled out in the long term.

In an interview with the German news magazine "Stern," he said U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had also suggested much the same.

Adding his voice to the list is the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow.

In one of his first interviews as ambassador, Vershbow told Ekho Moskvy radio that there are no fundamental obstacles to discussing Russian NATO membership and that it could be a long-term goal.

All this endorsement is not to say that Russia is likely to join NATO anytime soon. At the moment, Russia's say in NATO affairs is limited to a special consultative arrangement. Analysts say Russia would require years of social and military reform before it could even be considered.

One theory for why the issue has popped up is that the prospect of an invitation -- however distant -- is meant to soften Russia's objections to NATO's further eastern expansion toward its borders.

Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. He says the momentum building behind NATO expansion ahead of next year's summit has thrown the spotlight on Russia's possible membership:

"If you're going to carry on a process of enlargement which you argue is not necessarily driven wholeheartedly by security or strategic considerations, but by a sense that certain countries have displayed democratic credentials and liberal economic management and so on, then it becomes a different set of criteria as to who to include in the alliance. Russia just might reach these criteria. More specifically, if -- as seems likely -- there's pressure to include the Baltic states, it could be potentially very tense with Russia. Leaving open the possibility that the alliance could expand to include Russia could take the edge out of that, because there's nothing else that can be offered to Russia."

Freedman says this is a distant scenario, but that a process is underway that at some point may create good reasons why Russia should be in NATO:

"What has happened is that something that would have seemed silly and frivolous five years ago has moved forward to where serious people can imagine circumstances in which it can happen."

Freedman says it will get harder for a larger NATO to agree on external operations. This could leave it as a Europe-wide security organization focused much more on internal issues, which might as well include Russia.

"It would be almost neutralized as a major security provider, unless something very curious was happening outside of the NATO area. So it's not particularly something I would welcome, but having started on enlargement and having decided to give enlargement a bigger boost we may have just put the alliance on a course that will end on this sort of outcome."

Observers say the current talk has highlighted an important question -- what the future is for the alliance. David Abshire is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO:

"We have got to think ahead on the purposes of the alliance and have some studies done on that by a wise-man's group. Those types of studies are replete throughout the history of the alliance. Certainly the time has come to set up a group that will study its future and its purpose as was done several times throughout NATO's history."

Ariel Cohen, a research fellow at the U.S. Heritage Foundation think tank, says the idea itself should have a democratizing influence on Russia.

"The whole notion of the integration of Russia into the euro-Atlantic space is to make Russia more civilized, more predictable, more secure -- and there are quite a few precedents. For example, Germany and Japan after World War II have ceased to be a menace for their neighbors."

Cohen says he agrees with an idea put forward by Henry Kissinger in a recent article in "The Washington Post." He said that Russia should be welcomed into a North Atlantic political system, but that membership in the military arrangement be deferred.

Cohen says Russia recognizes it cannot join NATO anytime soon but that it also knows it's in its best interests to align itself with the West:

"Russia's [options] are either integration into the euro-Atlantic environment -- which would be, when everything is said and done, the preferred option for the majority of Russians and the Russian elite. Or [it could] be a junior partner to China and a bunch of rogue states -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Middle Eastern countries, with which Russia is increasingly having trouble because of the militant Islamic component prevalent in the Middle East and expanding into the Russian southern periphery."

Another question the issue raises relates to the Central European states who have recently joined the alliance or are aiming to join, mainly out of a desire to be protected from their larger neighbor to the East. These countries are more skeptical about the prospect of Russia joining the alliance.

Russia joining NATO would strip them of that security guarantee. Cohen says that these countries would no longer need such guarantees, as a Russia fit to join NATO would be equitable and ruled by law. Still, those countries would be wary at the very least.

Jan Eichler specializes in security issues at Prague's Institute for International Relations:

"This would be something terrible for the Baltic countries. They want to get into NATO to rid themselves of the Russian threat and because they still don't feel safe from Moscow. Now just imagine Russia being in NATO with them. The Russian threat was an argument [for joining NATO] here in the Czech Republic and in Poland, so this would just put everything on its head."

Eichler says he suspects Russia is raising the issue to squeeze concessions from the West.

But Svyatoslav Kaspe, a political analyst at Moscow's Public Policy Center, says the entire discussion is so hypothetical as to render it meaningless.

"I wouldn't even say it's become much more of a live issue recently. It's been brought up a few times in relation to the U.S. missile defense plans, [and] as something of a side issue that's come up connected to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. But I don't see any decisive turning point. I think it'll be talked about and forgotten. Nothing more. No one in the West or Russia will take it seriously for the next 10, 20, 30 years."

Kaspe says that even if Russia, in the end, accepts Baltic integration, it does not make Russian membership any more likely.