Can Russia and NATO Co-operate? Vladimir Putin Says “No.” It is Time for the Facts.

Can Russia and NATO Co-operate? Vladimir Putin Says “No.” It is Time for the Facts.
Can Russia and NATO Co-operate? Vladimir Putin Says “No.” It is Time for the Facts.
Photo:  ©, CC BY 4.0

Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the trigger for the current war between Russia and Ukraine is the threat of NATO expansion toward the East. He argues that this represents a direct threat to the Russian Federation. Therefore, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an act of self-defense in his mind.

However, the facts tell a different story.

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NATO members shared borders with Warsaw Pact nations for decades. Sometimes, those borders consisted of a simple river or a wall. Yet, NATO never attacked them. From the fall of the Warsaw Pact to 2014, a closer relationship between NATO and the Russian Federation appeared likely. Some experts even speculated that Russia might even join NATO.

Two Diplomatic Visions

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, the West considered two opposing diplomatic views regarding the future of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). The first proposed a new partnership with post-Soviet Russia to attract it to the Western sphere. It would be much like the relationship between Tsarist Russia and post-Napoleonic France in 1815. The second vision argued that Russia should be punished harshly, like Germany after World War I.

The conciliatory first vision largely prevailed, as the West extended a conciliatory hand to the dying USSR.

Thus, a series of contacts gradually brought the USSR (and its successor, the Russian Federation) toward the West. Secretary of State James Baker visited Moscow in February 1990. Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated by visiting the United States in May 1990. The Soviet Union participated in the G7 summit in Houston in July 1990. The Russian Federation joined the WTO in 1993 and the expanded G8 in 1997. It appeared that Russia was leaving Marxism behind.

Russia’s Path to NATO

Rapprochement with NATO was part of the anticipated thaw.

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At the 1990 NATO summit in London, member countries approved the “London Declaration.” It optimistically stated, “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey towards a free society…. The member states of the North Atlantic Alliance propose to the member states of the Warsaw Treaty Organization a joint declaration in which we solemnly state that we are no longer adversaries and reaffirm our intention to refrain from the threat or use of force….”

To implement the London Declaration, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was established on December 20, 1991. The Council was designed to be “a forum for dialogue and cooperation with NATO’s former Warsaw Pact adversaries.”1 The following day, at the NACC’s inaugural meeting, Soviet Ambassador Afanassievky dramatically announced the end of the Soviet Union’s legal existence.2

On June 17, 1992, the Russian Federation-United States Charter for Partnership and Friendship3 was signed in Washington. The document states, “The United States of America and the Russian Federation reiterate their determination to build a democratic peace, one founded on the twin pillars of political and economic freedom.”

The climate then reigning can be seen in an article by General Sergei V. Stepashin, head of the Russian Federation’s Defense and Security Committee, published in 1993. The general proposed a “close coordination” with NATO, transforming Russia into a geopolitical bridge between the Euro-Atlantic and the Asia-Pacific security system. The article culminated in the appeal for “a new Marshall Plan” for post-communist revival, with the conversion of Russia into a democratic society.4

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In 1994, Russia formally joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. The organization attempted to establish strong ties between NATO and the former Soviet bloc. Subsequently, fourteen member countries of the Pact joined NATO.5 In December, the Budapest Memorandum on Reduction of Nuclear Weapons was signed between the United States, Great Britain and the Russian Federation. Russia-NATO relations were so close that, in 1996, a Russian contingent took part in the NATO-SFOR military mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the conclusion of the May 1997 Paris Summit in May 1997, Russia signed a solemn agreement with NATO: The Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. The official language echoed the London Declaration of 1991. “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries; the Founding Act is the expression of an enduring commitment, undertaken at the highest political level, to build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Then, the language shifted to reassure Russia that NATO and any new members posed no danger. “The member states of NATO reaffirm that they have no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members. Obviously, Russia consented, at least tacitly, to the admission of the “new members.”

By this point, Russia’s eventual NATO membership was taken for granted. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council was created to facilitate this process.

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The Rome Declaration perfected the initial accord in Paris6 signed in May 2002 by NATO member countries and the Russian Federation.

A part of this Declaration reads: “[W]e reaffirm… our determination to build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security and the principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible.” The document then placed Russia at the heart of the Euro-Atlantic system. “We are convinced that a qualitatively new relationship between NATO and the Russian Federation will constitute an essential contribution in achieving this goal.”

Moreover, the Declaration created the NATO-Russia Council to “serve as the principal structure and venue for advancing the relationship between NATO and Russia.” In effect, this Declaration officially ended the Cold War.

Over the next decade, Russia took significant steps toward integrating the Russian Armed Forces into the Euro-Atlantic defense system. In 2002, the Russian Armed Forces joined those of NATO in the peacemaking mission in Kosovo. The Russian Navy participated in the NATO Active Endeavor naval maneuvers in 2004 and 2008. In 2011, Russia participated in the NATO Vigilant Skies military maneuvers and also allowed NATO military equipment to transit through its territory to Afghanistan.

The Idyll Cracks

Two factors—one surmountable, the other decisive—caused relations between Russia and the West to deteriorate.

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The first factor was NATO’s intervention against Milosevic’s Serbia in 1998. Boris Yeltsin called the action “a tragic mistake of the American leadership.”7 The crisis fueled the anti-Western rhetoric of Russian nationalism. However, subsequent events proved the effect to be temporary. The joint NATO-Russia participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission promoted at least minimal cooperation and mutual trust.

The second factor proved to be much more decisive: the rise of Vladimir Putin in the Russian political landscape.

The Two Faces of Vladimir

There are two very different sides to Putin’s public image. The first image is smiling and cooperative, immortalized at the meeting with Geroge W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi at the Rome Declaration signing in 2002. On that occasion, he projected an image of friendliness toward the West, hinting at a future close alliance.

The second Putin image was manifested during the Crimea and Ukraine invasions in 2014 and 2022. This Putin is far more belligerent, blaming “the scum of pro-Western traitors for the unrest.8

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This second Putin appears to surprise Western leaders, especially those who negotiated with him at the turn of the twenty-first century. What made him move away from the pro-Western attitude? Is this a profound development or merely a change in strategy? Had he been bluffing to buy time to rebuild Russian military strength to USSR levels?

Nostalgia and Nationalism

Speculation aside, Russian nationalism advanced, with all its Pan-Slavic and anti-Western implications. Complementing this development is increasingly popular nostalgia for the Soviet period, especially the World War II leadership of Josef Stalin.

This new attitude promotes the belief that NATO was an instrument of aggression during the Cold War.9 Furthermore, the NATO threat against “Mother Russia” continues today. Under this scenario, Russia’s future lies with non-European nations relatively hostile to the United States: China, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

This new vision abandons the spirit of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, withdrawing into an increasingly aggressive nationalism. These “pan-Slavists” demand remilitarization. They echo the Brezhnev Doctrine by speaking of “limited sovereignty” for neighboring countries. Their goal is not collaboration but a restoration of the “imperial” role of Tsarist and Soviet memory.10

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The revived nationalism contains more than a touch of Machiavellianism. Its partisans hold that earlier complacency towards NATO led to a new escalation of tensions with the West. In turn, this escalation created ideal conditions for suppressing Russian democracy and the restoration of the Soviet empire.11

Pacta Sunt Servanda

A favorite refrain of the new Russian nationalists is that NATO and the West promised not to move east (into former USSR areas of occupation). They allege these negotiators during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras informally made these promises. Those reassurances, the narrative continues, were key reasons for the previous cordial attitude of the Russians toward the West.

Mr. Putin expressed this version of events to justify his February-March 2014 annexation of Crimea. On March 18, 2014, he made a long speech at the Kremlin, including the following excerpts.

“[W]hat seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart. Things developed so swiftly that few people realized how truly dramatic those events and their consequences would be. Many people, both in Russia and in Ukraine, as well as in other republics, hoped that the Commonwealth of Independent States that was created at the time would become the new common form of statehood…. It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed; it was plundered.

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“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.

“[T]hey have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”12

However, the evidence does not favor Putin’s interpretation. Indeed, the atmosphere of cooperation between the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin and the Western powers described above refutes Putin’s argument.

The only justification for the Putin view is that between September 1990 and March 1991, the USSR participated in various international conferences. As a result, it signed a series of treaties of friendship and cooperation with the United States and the European Community. The minutes of the meetings, now declassified, reveal several utterances from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, among others, which seem to indicate oral promises that NATO would not expand east.

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However, two facts refute Putin’s interpretation.

The first is that these statements never became part of the texts of the agreements. Vague assertions do not automatically become parts of written agreements unless the agreements include language that gives weight to those oral statements.

However, a more fundamental fact is that the Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 21, 1991. Even though the United Nations allowed the new Russian Federation to take the Soviet Union’s vacant place in that body, the Soviet Union never became the Russian Federation in any legal sense. Boris Yeltsin’s government had no more right to enforce agreements made by the USSR than the Bolsheviks of 1917 had concerning treaties signed by the Tsar.

Indeed, since 1994, the Russian Federation has maintained a monopoly on the nuclear arsenal of the former Red Empire. However, it did not inherit the debts with foreign countries nor agreements with other powers. From the Partnership for Peace in 1994 to the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 to the Rome Declaration in 2002, all the new agreements were signed by the Russian Federation, which thus assumed responsibility under the terms of those agreements.

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At the time of the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world. In May 1992 and September 1993, two very hard clashes with Russia risked escalation into atomic conflicts. Those tensions subsided thanks to the mediation of the United States, which convinced Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal to Russia. In exchange, Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s integrity.

The agreements were first violated in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea. The aggression continued on February 24, 2022, with the Ukraine invasion. It is useless to dust off the minutes of old meetings with a political entity that no longer exists. The only reasonable course is to abide by the treaties to which the Russian Federation is a party. Putin violates these pacts every day that the Ukraine conflict continues.


1. NATO – Topic: North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) (Archived)
2. NATO – Declassified: No longer a Soviet, 01-Jan.-1991
4. Stepashin S., Russia and NATO: A vital partnership for European security, in “The RUSI Journal,” 138: 4 (1993), pp. 11-17.
5. The Partnership for Peace membership included Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Macedonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania,
Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Source: U.S. Department of State.
6. Microsoft Word – 2002.05.28 NRC ROME DECLARATION.docx (
7. Francesco Randazzo, Russia-NATO-US: From detente to impossible cooperation . In M. de Leonardis (ed.), NATO in the Post-Cold War Era: Continuity and Transformation, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2022 (forthcoming). I was unable to verify this quotation.
8. Putin Warns Russia Against Pro-Western ‘Traitors’ and ‘Scum,’ Swissinfo, March 16, 2022. Putin warns Russia against pro-Western ‘traitors’ and scum – SWI
9. Antonenko O., Russia, NATO and European Security After Kosovo, in “Survival,” 41: 4 (1999-2000), pp. 124-144.<ahref=””>Microsoft Word – ifri_kosovo_antonenko_ang_july2007.doc
10. Arbatov A., NATO and Russia, in “Security Dialogue”, 26: 2 (1995), pp. 135-146. NATO and Russia – ALEXEI ARBATOV, 1995 ( Cit. Francesco Randazzo, Russia-NATO-US: From Detente to Impossible Cooperation.
11. Arbatov A., NATO and Russia, in “Security Dialogue”, 26: 2 (1995), pp. 135-146. NATO and Russia – ALEXEI ARBATOV, 1995 ( Cit. Francesco Randazzo, Russia-NATO-US: From Detente to Impossible Cooperation.
12. Address by President of the Russian Federation • President of Russia (