Russia too had problems and fault lines in handling ‘NATO expansion’

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The then Russian President Boris Yelstin could be blamed, as initially Russia took a fairly relaxed view of the so-called enlargement programme of NATO.

This was in the 1990s when Russia had fallen ‘weak’ after the split of Soviet Union and a hardliner nationalist — Vladimir Putin — was yet to take the centre stage.

In certain quarters it was believed in the early nineties that Russia was almost trapped into believing that it could even join NATO. The real issue was because President Yelstin was himself not consistent.

The Americans and other western powers, including Germany, could thus take advantage of the ‘vacillating position’ of the Russian leadership. Then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher had said that because NATO had decided to take new members, it should not keep the willing allies in the ‘waiting room’.

But at times, Moscow was being assertive as well. On April 2, 1996, Russia and Belarus announced the formation of the Community of Sovereign Republics (CSR).

In the process, Moscow’s message was clear — some of the former Soviet Republics would stick together in unity.

However, the West did not take the episode much seriously. Even Yelstin was on the move. He befriended the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin and visited Beijing.

The Russian President offered his unequivocal support for China’s claims on Tibet and also Taiwan. A joint statement was directed against the West.

“…hegemonism, power politics and repeated imposition of pressure on other countries have continued,” it said.

In the subsequent period, Yelstin was re-elected President in July 1996.

The West, meanwhile, played their diplomacy often leaving Moscow’s powerhouse Kremlin rather confused on some crucial issues. One such issue was Moscow’s demand of a firm commitment against deployment of nuclear weapons in the territory of new members of NATO.

In fact, former US President Bill Clinton and Yelstin even held a summit meet on March 20-21, 1997 at Helsinki. Russia believed it won a pledge that nuke weapons would not be stationed in new member states of NATO.

Thus, when Russia ‘reluctantly’ agreed to the expansion of NATO, the US decided not to allow any substantial role for Russia in the structure and functioning of the alliance.

Clinton was also firm that he should decide the ‘time table’ of expansion and that Russia would not stop it.

The delay, Washington thought, would not only give time to Russia to organise itself better, there were other US rivals within NATO who would also get time to ‘strengthen themselves’.

There were other instances also where Americans and the West took things for granted and left Russia high and dry.

Analysts recall that within 10-12 days of NATO expansion, it launched air strikes in Yugoslavia. The challenges in Yugoslavia were internal and any ‘outside intervention’ in the resolution of the crisis was not allowed under the UN Charter.

Predictably, Russia was annoyed. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was to attend a meeting in Washington, in fact turned around his aircraft and went back to Moscow.

Russia also withdrew its representative from the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council in Brussels.

Even Russia’s efforts to send humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia was stalled by a neo-NATO member, Hungary.

Ironically, none better than Clinton himself understood quickly that Russia’s embrace of NATO was an essential component that was derailed.

NATO, Clinton once said, would fail in the realisation of its “vision of Europe” unless “it embraces the partnership of Russia”.

The Kosovo crisis was thus the first major post Soviet Union collapse crisis between Russia and America. It essentially bordered around trust deficit.

(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist and author of ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’. The views expressed are personal)

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