A new book worth reading: OPEN DOOR – NATO and the Euro-Atlantic Security after the Cold War

Edited by Daniel S.Hamilton and Kristina Spoor 2019, this book came out at the moment when NATO celebrated its 70th birthday. Several authors look back to the time when the Berlin Wall came down, when the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO enlargement was debated. In 1999 the first three new members were welcomed in NATO: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, in 2004 seven more members joined the alliance: Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The elephant in the room all over is the question „Who lost Russia?“ Prominent politicians and diplomats like George F.Kennan or Sam Nunn warned that NATO enlargement would alienate Russia and let it backslide into a new cold war. Today this has happened and it is easy to say: we were right, those who backed NATO enlargement lost Russia. Too easy! Several authors in the book show convincingly that there were several factors causing Russia to embark on its way into an authoritarian aggressive path, including Western mistakes. But most authors, between them the former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kosyrew, do not believe that the Open Door of NATO for Eastern European countries was a decisive factor.

I share that view. However, there have always been at least two Russias at the same time: the old scheme of Westerners and Slavophiles from the nineteenth century came back als the split between Westerners and Eurasians in the post-Soviet era.

Most authors analyse „Russia‘s“ position and its development over time. In my view this gives only half the picture. The struggle for power inside Russia at that time was permanent. It came to a first climax when the old communist guard organized the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. There was a second climax when the old power elite organized another coup in 1973 against Yeltzin. Both coups failed, but the forces behind the two coups remained in the power game. Gorbachev and Yeltzin both had tried to integrate the old power structures into their regime. Gorbatchev himself had put most of the plotters into powerful positions before – and never could remove people like Ligatchev or Lugo from their posts. Rather he had to remove his firm supporter Edvard Schewardnadse in a crucial moment. Yeltzin never put into question the old KGB guard, they remained in office and were even promoted – starting with Prime Minister Primakov, ending with Prime Minister Putin. Reformers like Gaidar or Kosyrew got a chance for just one and a half year, that means no chance for real reforms, after that they were blamed for all the evil happening in their country for the whole of the nineties.

When I worked in Moscow between 1992 and 1995 political and economic reforms had just started. Western countries supported Russian reforms, the G7 established a support group, several prominent economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Anders Aslund were close to the change agents in government. The last phase of the Soviet Union and the reforms brought forward by Gorbachev had been a mess. Many people lost their job and their dignity, pensions were not paid, Russia needed food aid from abroad. The economy came to a halt. The Soviet Union was bancrupt. Gorbachev tried to reform communism – there was nothing to reform left from the shell of a wrecked ideology. Gorbachev tried to save the Empire, but loyalty to Moscow had only been secured by power and superior forces. Now the imperial project fell apart.

Often – also in Russia itself – the time of Gorbachev is mixed up with the time of reforms under Yeltsin after the demise of the Soviet Union. There is some nostalgy that it was all better under Communism. This is wrong: the communist soviet regime was in receivership, its liquidation was the only way out of a crisis that could have ended in a civil war.

With President Yeltsin new economic experiments started. Today this time is linked to the worst fall of the living standard of the Russian people. Corruption abounded, a few stole most state owned assets and became filthy rich. This is all true, but very much skewed by later propaganda.

The very bad situation of ordinary people was first of all a consequence of the bancrupcy of the Soviet Union, not a consequence of the reforms that never really took off the ground. Prime Minister Gaidar, privatization minister Anatoli Chubais and other reformers made audacious steps towards a market economy, the transition from one system to another one was bumby and costly. Their communication skills were bad. However, they had very little time and they were met with forceful resistance from the old guard that was willing to give up communism but unwilling to give up power. Wide areas outside of Moscow remained firmly in the hand of powerful bureaucrats making deals with a powerful mafia. Reformers like Nemzow in Nishni Nowgorod were rare.

When Gaidar was replaced by the former Gasprom-Chief Victor Chernomyrdin, the reform of the biggest economic asset, the energy sector, was dead. When Foreign Minister Kosyrew was replaced by former KGB-grandee Primakov, who embarked on the neo-Breshnewite doctrine of the „near abroad“, the reorientation towards the West was dead. The attempted coup in 1993 made Yeltzin even more vulnerable. He had to assemble a strong coalition that could keep him in power – and that coalition had to include the institutions of power like secret services and the military as well as the upcoming oligarchs and the mafia – both intertwined – in the economy. Corruption was widespread and organized crime made alliances with power structures.

In 1995 my view on the future of Russia was already quite bleak. I kept my desperate optimism, that the sharp ups and downs of Russian politics may in the end still lead to a more democratic and more liberal Russia – but signs were on the board that the second, Eurasian, Russia could once again overwhelm the first, Western, Russia. While the West still negotiated with a lot of Westerners in Moscow, hoping that Yeltzin may support them, the Eurasians already prepared the backsliding of Russia into a nationalist and imperialist doctrine. From a strong partner of the West, Russia transformed into a weak adversary of the West.

To avoid misunderstandings: „Eurasian“ has no geographic connotations, but means the imperialist ideology that strives to collect „Russian land“ and recover the Empire, angryly looking on the map of Tzarist Russia and counting the losses of „our land“. It is an ideology that believes that there was a plot of the West against Russia to deprive it from the role of a world power. For the Eurasians NATO has always remained the enemy.

While I observed what was happening in Moscow – working mainly on economic questions including the reform process, NATO slowly developed its position. In 1990 the power of the Soviet Union had to be taken into account and ideas of condominiums or a secuity system based on the Helsinki accords was the maximum thinkable. After the Soviet Union vanished, the Eastern European countries could free themselves from the shackles of the Warsaw Pact and the COMECON. The Baltic states struggled to stabilize their independence.

The book gave me much new insights into the process how Western positions changed over time and only after 1995 consolidated into a new consensus. The book is so valuable because authors who were part of the decision making process as well as of the deliberations leading to the decisions shed light on this process from very different standpoints. It is as if the resulting structure is highlighted from all sides. I learnt a lot from this book.

The different views of Russia-firsters and Eastern Europe- firsters are still there and play a big role in the debate about „who lost Russia?“ – Between the authors of the book the Russia-firsters are a bit under-represented, but both positions are put to the reader in a clear language. I remeber that my superior, German Ambassador von der Gablentz, was firmly against opening NATO for the Baltic states. He believed that this would alienate Russia permanently from the West. At that time I also saw this risk but still believed that this could be managed giving Russia certain guarantees. For the first round of enlargement NATO carefully negotiated with Russia to come to a constructive solution. The Russian government may not have been too happy about enlargement but Yeltzin did not believe that NATO was an enemy of Russia. However, he wanted to appease the nationalists and bolchevists who still saw NATO as the big enemy.

My position evolved until 1995 to be clearly in favor of enlargement including the Baltic States because I began to fear Russian backsliding when the other Russia, the Eurasian ideology, came to power. Enlargement did NOT exploit Russian weakness: because Russia had a strong bargaining position when it was friendly to the West. No Western government wanted to exclude Russia from a new security system still hoping for a democratic and cooperative Russia. President Clinton even did not exclude NATO membership, while Europeans were sceptic and feared a condominium of the US with Russia over NATO.

When Russia was the leading reform country in the former Soviet Union it could have become attractive for new arrangements based on the Community of Independent States (CIS). Russia chose a different path, it rejected to be equal with other partners, becoming less attractive and more aggressive.

When the Russian government sent Rogosin as its representative to NATO it was clear for me that the time of cooperation was over. I new this man as somebody who thinks in zero-sum-games and had no will to become an equal partner in NATO but to disrupt the alliance. His style was Soviet, not even Russian.

If and only if an authoritarian Russia came back to antagonize the West, then the West had all reasons for a new policy of containment. NATO enlargement started as a cooperative affair. Because of Russia‘s growing nationalism it became a containment affair. For me the answer to the famous question, who lost Russia, is: „Russia lost Russia“ – and it lost a great chance. The article by Kosyrew in the book is quite clear on that.

And the West was the innocent bystander? Lamentably not. There were mistakes that played into the hands of the nationalists. When I talked to a colleague in the German Foreign Ministry at 1995 about the need to keep Russia on board he was very dismissive saying that the Russian must go along with the West because they lack power. This attitude was widespread especially with people who did not know Russia. This hurt Russian feelings and the dignity of Russian people who deserved to be helped in their difficult transition period but at the same time needed recongnition of their great role in Europe.

Russian culture is an integral part of European culture, Russian literature, Russian music, Russian painting all belong to the finest heritage of our common house. Russian intellectuals and scientists were between the best in the world, although many barely survived the period of economic distress in the 1990s. There was really a neglect of the West towards Russian society when it was still very open. For many Russians Western behaviour corroborated their belief that their dignity would be respected only if they use political, economic and military power.

There has always been a tradition, especially of Eurasians, that to be respected Russia must be feared. This is a the best way to build up more tensions. In the end Russia may be feared but no longer respected. This view also mistakes the reasons why Russia was weak: it was not weak because the West „won“ the Cold War, it was weak because the communist economy and the aggressive foreign policy was no longer sustainable. Backsliding into such behaviour will weaken Russia again and again. Yeltzin knew that. In 1990 I wanted to consolate a Russian diplomat that Russia will always be a great power. He answered that the real great powers were Sweden and Switzerland, countries that could feed their population and guarantee a good life in welfare, freedom and dignity. If this view would have prevailed Russia could have become a great power with reforms and western orientation. But this did not happen.

However, Russian policy in international affairs was quite cooperative for some time even after NATO enlargement. But treating Russia as second rate power (which it definitely was for some time) was a grand psychological mistake. Kosyrew mentions that before bombing in Bosnia started, a courtesy call from President Clinton to President Yeltzin may have been enough to show that Russia was taken for serious. That Russia was not even informed, hurt Yeltzin deeply.

I remember having met finance minister Fjodorov – a young reformer – just after that decision. He said the same to me, that a phone call could have helped. His wife then became more explicit: her husband – she said – was extremely upset about this lack of respect and believed that the West would run into a 1914-Balkans-situation if it would continue to disrepect Russian interests.

Some authors discuss if Russian interests were taken into account. With the NATO-Russia Founding Act this was mainly resolved – some believe. Others stress the continued misgivings Russia had with NATO enlargement, especially when former Soviet terrirories were involved. I would say: both are right, because the two Russias defined their interests differently. The Founding Act gave the Westerners what they wanted, even more, it was good enough appease the more moderate Eurasians, but ist could never be accepted by staunch nationalists and imperialists.

The Western behaviour in the Security Council was not always helpful. Russians enabled much action in the Balkans by not exerting their veto. They did not vote against the British and French no-fly zome over Libya, supported by the US. But when the no-fly zone was transformed into a no-drive zone and containment of Ghaddafi was transformed into action for regime change, Russia felt betrayed. In their eyes the UN-mandate had been utterly overstretched.

The announcement of a forward missile defence installation in Poland and the Czech republic contributed to worsening relations with Russia. That was unnecessary and unhelpful.

The Eastern European countries were pressing hard to become members of NATO. They feared a new kind of „Zwischeneuropa“ – a no-man‘s land between Germany and Russia where they had to organize their security in changing alliances and where nationalists would love to settle old accounts about terrirtorial claims and minority rights in a zone created between the former Russian and German Empires after the Great War 1914-1918.

The doctrine that prevailed was, that any vacuum tends to be filled, if not by NATO then by others. President Clinton bought this as did German Minister of Defense Volker Rühe and SPD foreign affairs spokesman Karsten Voigt. In addition there was a moral element in enlargement: why should the West leave the newly born democracies alone when they really wanted to be part of the West. There was some bad conscience that during communist rule the West respected the Soviet zone of influence and the Yalta accords. Those criticizing this behaviour forget that it was about risking nuclear war if anybody did not respect the Cold War borders. However, now this was no longer the situation.

The only way to avoid the void and let grow together what belonged together was to find a way to embed NATO enlargement in a new security structure for Europe that took into account Russian interests. It is very impressive to read in the book how intense the efforts were to keep Russia included and to come to a cooperative effort. With the Russia Foundation Act this goal was reached.

There has always been some debate if enlarging NATO was in breach of a gentlemen‘s agreement after German unification not to enlarge NATO beyond the German border. Several authors make clear that this was not a real perspective at 1990 when the Warsaw Pact still existed. It is also clear that there was no formal paper promising this although many other issues were laid out in detail. Malcolm Rifkind, however, says that Secretary of State James Baker hinted to Gorbatchev in 1990 something like a promise not to move NATO‘S border to the Soviet border. Declassified papers show that Baker may have said this without coming to any formal agreement. But this happened under totally different circumstances. It happened before the coup against Gorbatchev and the demise of the USSR changed the situation for all Eastern European countries.

The only French contribution is lamentably a bit long on history and short on the background of French initiative of that time. But it shows clearly that France was not too relevant for NATO decision making at that time. France concentrated on EU issues and the Euro.

The debate inside the Western countries on enlargement did by far not only take Russia into account. Any Open Door policy must review the rationale of enlargement for the existing member states and for each new member state. As Malcolm Rifkind righly mentions, Britain hesitated because the new members must also fully take up the responsibilities of membership, and there were doubts.

Rifkin does not question the right of each eligible country to enter the alliance, but only if Article V. remains credible by the committment of all member states. If this is not the case, welcoming a new member would be a folly, because if tested and not fulfilled, the credibility of NATO would fall apart. Some authors believe that the Partnership for Peace should have been rather an „Ersatz“ of NATO membership instead of preparing it for Eastern Europe. This was certainly a position appreciated in Russia – and it was interesting that this was also for a long time mainstream in the Pentagon. But President Clinton wanted enlargement.

Today the world has changed – not for the better. I was in the room when Putin held his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, and I was stunned about his blunt declaration of cold war. When Russia invaded Crimea and started a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, sanctions were inevitable. But it was also important to try all possible ways to come to a diplomatic solution of the situation. Hybrid warfare with „little green men“, cyber attacks and a dirty propaganda war using all means of modern media especially „fake news“ made Russia an adversary on many fields. The West especially NATO must take up the challenge and hit back tit-for-tat. At the same time the door should continue to be open for a more constructive relationship.

Ukraine and Georgia applied for NATO membership. In April 2008 at the Bukarest summit Western European countries between them Germany and the United Kingdom rejected the American plan for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for both countries. However, it was stated that both countries will become members of NATO. I knew that this would step over Russia‘s red lines. But this is not the main reason why I am firmly against both countries joining NATO (as I am firmly in favour of all states in the Western Balkans to join): Russia had in my view always been politically determined and militarily capable to destabilize Ukraine and Georgia in case of those countries starting to join NATO. The West and especially NATO was politically not determined and militarily not able to fight a war against Russia to reject an aggression against Ukraine and Georgia. If Russia would test the alliance, NATO would fail. And if NATO fails an Article V. committment nobody would trust Article V. any more in any situation. This does not mean that the West should not support Ukraine and Georgia below that threshold. But I still believe that NATO membership is no way to stabilize both countries while it could destabilize NATO.

Did NATO stabilize its new members? – There is a warning: Portugal was a founding member, ruled by the Salazar (and Caetano) dictatorship until the revolution of the seventies, Greece became a bloodthirsty brutal dictatorship for several years. NATO did not even suspend membership. Turkey had over the time sometimes more, sometimes less democratic credentials, most of the time less! And now we see Hungary and Poland becoming „illiberal democracies“ inside NATO.

Times have changed and non-democratic countries in NATO (and in the EU) must be aware that the support to apply Article V. in case of aggression may be jeopardized because other democratic members may not be willing to risk the life of their soldiers for authoritarian regimes (but only if the aggression is definitly limited to one of the authoritarian member states).

NATO is more than ever before an alliance based on common values. President Trump has called NATO obsolete. This was a severe blow against the trust of all members in the American committment to Article V. But American society and the political establishment in Washington still support NATO despite all nitty-gritty conflicts about burden sharing (where the Americans are right to ask others do fulfil their committments).

For a long time NATO countries believed that the alliance is as much in the American interest as it is the base of their own security. We should be grateful to President Trump for the sobering effect of his clear stance: his voters are not willing to accept a combination of Antiamericanism and NATO guarantees for member states, they expect politicians to support America if necessary. The same is true for other member states: if politicians believe they should attack other member states for old bills, like the effects of the Treaty of Trianon dismembering old Hungary leaving many Hungarians as a minority in neighbouring states, or ask reparations for the Second World War, they may risk an irreparable alienation of those partners. The alliance is worth much more than any good feeling of possibly being on the right side of history – an excess of history was one of the reasons for the wars in former Yugoslavia and it could make NATO guarantees (and EU cohesion) very weak.

NATO member states were bound together by common interest even more than by common values. They were not always friendly towards each other. The conflict between Greece and Turkey, old strife between Hungary and Rumania and Slovakia, anti-German resentment in the Polish PiS party, problems between Slovenia and Croatia, Italy‘s turn against common responsibility for the EURO, not least Brexit and the split inside the United Kingdom, all that weakens both NATO and the EU.

But when it comes to common security it is important to keep forces together. Article V. must be a strong and binding committment and not put to risk by side-effects of other debates.

The Book :  OPEN DOOR – NATO and the Euro-Atlantic Security after the Cold War, is worth a reading.

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