On Friday, April 2, without waiting for an Istanbul summit and without much pomp, the alliance will be joined by another seven members - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia. The procedure for NATO membership is becoming routine. It may be assumed that it will not evoke a resentful political reaction from Moscow, although the new wave has some distinctive features that may influence both the domestic political situation in Russia and its relations with the West far more markedly than when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the alliance.
To begin with, one should not discount the psychological shock for many Russians that not only states from the defunct Warsaw Pact, but also former Soviet republics, have become NATO members. From the perspective of traditional strategy, the situation in Europe is radically altering for Russia. In the west, the alliance is "pushing" Russia rudely away from the Baltic coast. The Kaliningrad region is encircled by NATO, with access to it blocked by two alliance members - Poland and Lithuania. In the south, when two newcomers, Romania and Bulgaria, join veteran NATO member Turkey, Russia will be fenced in on the Black Sea coast. It is difficult to get away from this impression. An overall picture is complemented by a key detail. In the immediate run-up to the seven new members' accession to the North Atlantic alliance, Ukraine's Supreme Rada passed a decision to grant its troops the right of passage through Ukrainian territory. That leaves one wondering: where are units of the alliance going to move across Ukrainian territory?
Of course, all fears can be easily laid to rest by describing the picture as a hopelessly outdated view failing to portray the new image of the North Atlantic alliance or partner-like relations between Russia and NATO. Such objections are correct, but only partly. Indeed, NATO's Prague summit in 2002 showed that all seven new members are being admitted under lowered "criteria", even compared with the ones that applied to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The armies of practically all the new members are unable, in terms of equipment and preparation for joint action, to cooperate with the armed forces of the US and its "old" European allies. If we seriously regard talk about the early admission to the alliance of Croatia, Macedonia and Albania, one can easily forget about the requirements set to the quality of armed forces of the alliance's members and their ability to act jointly. It is no coincidence that former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said that NATO was now paying much more attention not to the qualitative parameters of the new applicants' armed forces, but their loyalty to democratic values, human rights and market economics.
All these changes suggest that the United States is supporting NATO expansion, which is counter-productive in terms of military efficiency, merely to strengthen its political positions in Europe. It was, therefore, no coincidence that when the military operation in Iraq began, American politicians started talking about a stake on a "young" and more progressive Europe by setting it against the "old" and conservative one, above all, France and Germany. If "young" Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have demonstrated such enthusiasm in supporting the American stand, it is easy to guess the zeal with which the very "young" Europe, in the form of the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia, will show. An opinion exists that NATO is increasingly being transformed into a "club of friendly European democracies" and is no longer the disciplined alliance with a clearly defined military mission that it once was. So there are no grounds for worrying about the admission of new countries to its membership. On the contrary, this is rather an indicator of the alliance's weakening military significance.
Indeed, NATO forces that make up the core of KFOR units in Kosovo have proved incapable of fulfilling any of the points of UN Security Council resolution 1244. They have not been able to prevent either new violence in the region, or ethnic cleansing aimed against the Serbs. The successes of NATO forces in Afghanistan are also doubtful. Free elections are again being postponed. Nor is it proving possible to form elements of a new statehood and the Afghan economy is practically in ruins and not functioning. But opium poppy plantations are expanding, as is heroin output. And most of the drug traffic flows via Central Asian republics and Russia into Europe. One can well agree with the claim that NATO expansion need not be feared, one can only sympathise with the alliance, which has lost both its mission and its opponent, and is trying to adapt itself (not very successfully) to new conditions. And yet in the context of admission of seven new members to NATO, Russia has some questions to ask.
The new states are joining the alliance at a time when an adapted version of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty has still not been ratified by its signatories. The West's argument is that Russia has failed to fulfil the Istanbul summit obligations and failed to remove all its bases from Georgia and Moldova, while Moscow's concern is that the Baltic states entering the alliance are in general outside the treaty's scope. And with only Romania and Bulgaria joining NATO, the so-called flank restrictions stipulated in the CFE treaty may give an advantage to the alliance in tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery amounting to 2,200, 3,300 and 2,000 units, respectively.
Before the new seven members joined NATO, what could Russia fear from the small states with token armed forces? Nor, incidentally, did Russia take any steps to be seen as threatening, say, from the viewpoint of the Baltic states' security interests. The situation will look entirely different following their accession. Formally, nothing stands in the way of deploying any weapons and troops in the Baltic countries. Russia tried to head off such a situation by suggesting that the Baltics join the CFE prior to entering NATO, qualifying for national and territorial armaments quotas, but the proposal was perceived as an attempt at pressuring sovereign states. Now it emerges that for the time being Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will not be creating their own air forces. To patrol its airspace, Lithuania will have four F-16 interceptors based on its soil from the Belgian air force, a mobile radar, and about a hundred NATO servicemen to look after these arms.
Russia understands very well that we live in a world with military threats of an entirely new nature. And from this viewpoint, the establishment of basing points in Romania and Bulgaria for possible operations in the Middle East is easy to explain. After all, Russia consented to the recently inconceivable stationing of American aviation in Central Asian countries, since this meets Russian interests in the fight against international terrorism. But what terrorist threat requires the deployment of NATO infrastructure in Poland and the Baltic countries? And if such a threat really exists, why not stand up to it together with Russia? If NATO is really scared stiff by Baltic airspace security, there could be joint patrols with Russian air force planes. And facilities where NATO infrastructure is expected to be deployed in Poland and the Baltic countries could be monitored by Russian groups on a regular basis. It is often repeated that Russia and NATO are partners, not enemies. Why, then, is it necessary to ignore so demonstrably the well-argued Russian case?
The deep interest of Russia and NATO in a genuine partnership going beyond the framework of hackneyed declarations is determined by many real factors. The alliance's enlargement changes nothing here in principle. But the key to achieving a serious partnership is taking account of Russia's legitimate security interests, and the best way of convincing Russia that it need not worry about the alliance's expansion would be to "draw" it into the construction of a new security system. NATO's new Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer considers the ratification of the adapted CFE treaty and its entry into force to be an extremely important task, whereas Moscow seems to be reconciling itself to the fact that this document will suffer the fate of the ABM Treaty. If NATO countries really do view the CFE treaty as a major element of stability and security in Europe, it would be worthwhile not only thinking about how to adapt it to changing political realities, but also about its deeper transformation.
One can hardly give a sensible answer today as to why Europe now needs the 20,000 or even 17,000 tanks or 6,000 warplanes permitted within the treaty's limits. Why not cut these numbers by half? No one is going to wage a large-scale war in Europe either now or for the foreseeable future. NATO is planning a rapid deployment force, and the European Union is entertaining similar plans. Russia could well participate in these plans by agreeing the structure and methods of using such forces and developing the weapons required to equip them with other countries. But all this is realistic only if Russia is really considered an essential and important partner in the fight against common threats.
The West is now caught in a dilemma. It has to choose between two strategies. The first calls for involving Russia in the development of a common security system and making her a bona fide ally in the struggle against common threats. If successful, the problem of ensuring security on the European and the global scale can be solved comprehensively and in full conformity with the West's interests. The second is far simpler and more primitive: wait until the picture of growing democracy in Russia clears up, and in the event of negative developments build up protective barriers in the west, the centre and in the south of Europe. This kind of strategy looks prudent and cautious at first glance alone. To begin with, protective barriers are unable to safeguard the world against problems in conditions of globalisation. Besides, a demonstrative reluctance to account for a partner's interests and inactivity in anticipation of a poor scenario has the historical properties of a self-fulfilling forecast.
More than 3,500 people were detained during unprecedented mass protests that swept across all of Russia in support of Alexey Navalny on January 23