Upon first reading Charles Kupchan‘s article in the May-June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs which proposed Russia’s entry into NATO, the Liberal Ironist was skeptical, to put it mildly. While I agreed with the reasoning offered that Russia’s membership in NATO could be beneficial to for the United States, its European allies and Russia, it hardly seemed to be an essential security move for a Russia emboldened by its oil and natural gas endowments, former President George W. Bush’s costly war in Iraq, and the mistrust incurred by a tit-for-tat of expansionist foreign policies between our countries. But now, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has accepted an invitation to attend a NATO security summit in Lisbon on November 19th-20th to discuss inclusion in our new missile defense system. He also used the occasion, along with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to affirm his commitment to maintain US-led sanctions against Iran for its unauthorized uranium-enrichment program. While Medvedev said that any final agreement on Russian participation in the US missile umbrella would be contingent on specifics of the proposal to be discussed formally, this represents real receptivity by the Russians to a common defense deployment. Though Russia’s undemocratic political system, aggressive covert political action in its near-abroad and conflict with US ally Georgia all remain significant political issues, Russian participation in the US missile defense system would almost make it an ally. If NATO’s political doctrine didn’t make democracy a condition for membership, Russia’s embrace of the US security umbrella would probably be the penultimate step to its accession.
But considering Russia’s strategic importance, agreement on Russia’s participation in the missile defense makes some quality of NATO membership likely.
Remarkably, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the Russian Federation’s accession to NATO over 10 years ago. At the time the proposal wasn’t taken very seriously; the Russian Federation was in such morbid shape after 8 years of mismanagement and unpredictability by Boris Yeltsin that, in an Atlantic Monthly article, one author credibly proposed that Russia was in terminal decline and inevitably on its way to state failure and even fragmentation. Putin’s opponents for his first election campaign in late-March 2000 alleged that his suggestion was simply an attempt to attract support from West-looking Russians, whom clearly aren’t an essential constituency there today. In any event, with President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush’s all-absorbing policy responses to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and then the 2003 Iraq War and democracy-promotion efforts in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine in 2004 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, a pattern of actions emerged which agitated the already-intense sense of vulnerability within Putin’s government and among a supportive Russian public made prospects for long-term security cooperation between the countries appear dismal. The Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the Journal of International Affairs was entirely themed on Russia, with one article characterizing Russia’s foreign-policy blowback, facilitated by its considerable oil wealth, American military and political commitments in other theaters and President Vladimir Putin’s recent and dramatic consolidation of power, as “the Return of Geopolitics.”
Then, in September 2009 President Obama scrapped former President W. Bush’s plan to base 10 missile defense interceptors in close NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic. The President maintained deployment plans for interceptors in California and Alaska and on a large number of Navy vessels. The measure was clearly intended as the basis for rapproachment with Russia, but it promptly met with skepticism from conservative opinion-makers and even yours truly. The Russians were euphoric but non-committal on the President’s primary goal, which was Russian cooperation on strengthened sanctions against Iran. A New York Times article on the domestic political reaction characterized this concession as a potentially costly gamble. The move was even seen as potentially-damaging to friendly governments in those Eastern European countries which had made controversial commitments to follow the US lead in foreign and defense policy.
But now, over a year after the President made this conciliatory shift in our defense posture, the prospect has emerged for a more-lasting benefit than we could reasonably have hoped for. The idea of extending the US missile defense to include Russia is of course merely entering the exploratory phase, but this represents a dramatic turnaround for Russo-America relations from Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, crafted to demonstrate the vulnerability of an informal ally and transit point for Caspian Sea oil.
Though President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, during his December 2009 acceptance speech he implied in more than one way that he himself didn’t believe he had earned it. But if in just 2 years Obama could proceed from the near-total breakdown of relations with Russia under his predecessor to at least bring that state to the doorstep of the Transatlantic Alliance, that would be an affirmation of great power cooperation significant-enough to warrant it in its own right.