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The year 2024 is significant for NATO as it marks several anniversaries. February 8 commemorated the 30th anniversary of Ukraine joining the Partnership for Peace, a special cooperation program with the Alliance. March 12 marked the 25th anniversary of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joining the Alliance, while March 29 marks the 20th anniversary of the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia becoming members. Additionally, April 1 commemorates the 15th anniversary of Croatia and Albania joining NATO. April 4, 2024 will mark 75 years of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

From July 9-11, the leaders of NATO countries will gather for a jubilee summit in Washington, celebrating the Alliance's 75th anniversary. Ukraine has expressed optimism about receiving an invitation to join the organization during this summit, with President Zelensky stating that Ukraine is highly deserving of NATO membership. Alongside Ukraine, Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also expressed their aspirations to join NATO. This article explores Russia's evolving stance on its potential NATO membership and the Alliance's expansion eastward.

How Russia wanted to join NATO, but the West resisted

During a meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo on January 14, 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin offered his American colleague Bill Clinton an agreement on NATO expansion. “Russia has to be the first country to join NATO. Then the others from Central and Eastern Europe can come in. There should be a kind of cartel of the US, Russia, and the Europeans to help to ensure and improve world security. In truth, Russia is not yet ready to join NATO,” the transcript of their conversation said.

Three decades later, Russian propaganda began disseminating excerpts from their conversation transcript (found in sources such as TASS, Izvestia, RIA Novosti, Regnum, etc.). Criticisms were leveled against the "failed reformer" Yeltsin, accusing him of aligning with Westernism and liberalism, cozying up to the USA, following Clinton's directives, and prioritizing Russia's geopolitical interests “solely due to financial concerns related to salaries and re-election in 1996”. These transcripts, along with manipulative commentary, aim to vilify Yeltsin, promote anti-NATO sentiments characteristic of current Putinism, and justify Russian aggression towards Ukraine as a response to alleged NATO provocations near its borders. “Moscow has repeatedly expressed apprehensions about NATO's military buildup in Europe. The Kremlin maintains that Russia poses no threat but will respond to actions deemed potentially harmful to its interests” (as quoted from ria.ru).

The sudden surge in discussions about this transcript and Yeltsin's alleged "missteps" closely coincided with Putin's interview with American journalist Tucker Carlson. In the interview, Putin claimed that he proposed the idea of Russia joining NATO to Bill Clinton, who allegedly rejected it. Putin suggested that had Clinton agreed, it could have initiated a process of Russia’s reconciliation with the Alliance. This narrative attempts to shift blame for the escalation to the West by portraying Moscow as having "genuine intentions" to improve relations, only to be deceived by a belligerent NATO that led to escalation and necessitated a "preemptive strike."

The fourth enlargement of NATO (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, 1999): "opposing Natocentrism, but without confrontation"

By 1999, discussions regarding the expansion of NATO were underway among scientists, politicians, and diplomats. Charles Gati, a professor at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, outlined the main factions of supporters and opponents regarding the expansion of the Alliance to the east.

Opponents of expansion advocated for a reduction in America's foreign engagements and urged a focus on domestic affairs. Some were open to cooperation with certain Central European countries but placed more trust in the recently formed European Union (established in 1993) than in NATO. Others expressed concerns about the potential costs of expansion, fearing it could endanger Russia's perceived legitimate interests in Eastern Europe and potentially fracture European unity.

Advocates of expansion included various groups with distinct perspectives. The "Atlanticists" believed that NATO should work towards expanding the borders of a stable and democratic Europe, supporting the inclusion of new members from Central and Eastern European countries after the Cold War. The "Revisionists" sought to gradually eliminate the post-war division of Europe established by the Yalta Conference of 1949. Additionally, there were "Russophobes" who supported expansion as a means to curb potential future Russian ambitions.

Russia was fundamentally opposed to NATO expansion. In February 1999, then-President Yeltsin addressed the parliament, urging firm opposition to the concept of "natocentrism" without resorting to confrontation because NATO's expansion remained unacceptable to Russia. On March 10, 1999, Igor Ivanov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, emphasized the need for European countries to collaborate on creating a security system that benefitted all states rather than individual groups. Moscow traditionally considered Eastern Europe within its sphere of influence, so NATO's movement towards Russia's eastern regions raised concerns within the Kremlin. Despite maintaining competitive rhetoric, the Russian side aimed to avoid direct confrontation.

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were the first former Warsaw Pact members to join NATO. This occurred 12 days before NATO initiated bombing in Yugoslavia. The NATO operation in Yugoslavia heightened tensions between Russia and Western powers. Operation Allied Force, which took place from March 24 to June 10, 1999, was a conflict between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), with NATO intervening to halt ethnic cleansing and violence against Kosovo Albanians. Unofficial sources suggest a death toll of 5 to 10 thousand Albanian civilians, although official data is unavailable.

On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was en route to Washington for IMF loan negotiations. While flying over the Canadian island of Newfoundland, Primakov was informed of US Vice President Albert Gore's announcement regarding the start of NATO operations, a decision made by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. In response, Primakov turned his plane around, aborting the trip and returning to Moscow.

The Russian side consistently used the Yugoslav events in its propaganda, portraying NATO as willing to use indiscriminate force without proper international authorization, and accusing Western states of pursuing their own interests under the guise of humanitarian intervention, leading to destabilization and casualties in affected regions.

The fifth expansion of NATO: "with the entry of the Baltic countries into the Alliance, security does not increase"

At the Prague Summit of the Alliance in 2002, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were invited to commence negotiations on joining NATO. Two years later, these countries officially became members of the organization, marking the largest round of expansion in NATO history.

"NATO didn’t grow like a living thing. Countries applied for membership individually," stated George Robertson, who served as NATO Secretary General from 1999 to 2004. He recounted an anecdote where President Putin inquired about Russia's invitation to NATO, to which Robertson clarified that membership required a formal application evaluated by Alliance members, not an invitation.

Russia maintained a complex stance, expressing both a desire to join NATO while criticizing its expansion. Putin, during his presidency, did not rule out Russia's potential NATO membership. In March 2000, he emphasized Russia's cultural ties with Europe and the civilized world, making it challenging to view NATO as an adversary.

In April 2004, the Russian publication "Kommersant" highlighted NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's personal invitation to Putin for a summit in Turkey, indicating Putin's familiarity with NATO gatherings.

During a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in April 2004, Putin expressed criticism regarding the admission of seven new members to the Alliance. He believed that "mechanical expansion" hindered the ability to effectively address major global threats such as terrorism. Sergei Lavrov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry at the time, reiterated Russia's view that NATO expansion was a misguided step in enhancing European security. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov added that the inclusion of the Baltic countries in NATO would not bolster the alliance's security, as they were considered "security consumer countries" rather than "security producers."

The sixth expansion of the Alliance (Croatia, Albania, 2009): "NATO has started in the apron, and does not know what to do next"

Albania has been part of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) since its inception in 1999, with Croatia joining in 2002. Both countries received invitations to join NATO at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008. During a closed meeting of the Russia-NATO council, Putin expressed concerns about NATO's proximity to Russia's borders, viewing it as a genuine threat to Russian interests and warning of "appropriate measures." He also issued a stark warning about Ukraine's potential NATO membership, suggesting it could lead to the dissolution of the Ukrainian state.

At the Bucharest Summit, NATO confirmed that Albania and Croatia would become members, but Ukraine, along with Georgia and Macedonia, were denied membership at that time (North Macedonia later joined NATO in 2020). Despite expectations, Ukraine did not receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a prerequisite for candidate countries since 1999. The Alliance officially canceled the MAP for Ukraine in July 2023.

In June 2009, Russia's then-permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, remarked on NATO's lack of clarity regarding Ukraine's status after placing it in a "pre-banner" position through the Partnership for Peace program. He emphasized that NATO expansion had stalled, making immediate membership unlikely for Ukraine and Georgia. President Dmitry Medvedev later commented on Russia's relations with NATO, acknowledging normalcy but expressing concerns about NATO's military posture towards Russia.

It is not NATO that is annoying, but democratization

Since its establishment in 1949, NATO has expanded its membership from 12 to 32 countries through ten rounds of enlargement. Sweden recently became the latest country to join the Alliance on March 7, 2024. The primary condition for NATO expansion is the unanimous agreement of all member states to accept a candidate into the organization. Despite criticisms from Russia, NATO has successfully agreed on inviting new members ten times, enhancing security and stability in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, when it comes to Ukraine's potential NATO membership, the Kremlin strongly opposes the idea. This resistance, coupled with Alliance members' reluctance to cross perceived "red lines," has delayed Ukraine's acceptance into NATO.

According to James Goldgeier, a professor at the American University School of International Affairs in Washington, NATO expansion has bolstered security in the region while also contributing to strained US-Russian relations. Robert Person, a lecturer at the US Military Academy, and Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, argue that tensions between Russia and the West do not solely stem from NATO expansion but are closely tied to waves of democratization in Eurasia.

They highlight the correlation between increased tensions and periods of democratic progress and popular movements for freedom in post-communist countries during the 2000s, often referred to as "color revolutions." The authors note a pattern where Moscow expresses strong opposition to NATO following democratic breakthroughs in the region.

According to information from the Ministry of Defense and other security sectors, Ukraine has successfully implemented 315 NATO standards, with 88% of these falling under the Ukraine-NATO Partnership Goals, considered top-priority standards by the Alliance. An additional 123 standards were implemented independently, showcasing Ukraine's commitment beyond the partnership framework. These achievements represent nearly 28% of all NATO standards, surpassing the implementation levels of some NATO member states.

Comparatively, as of early 2021, Montenegro had implemented about 22% of NATO standardization agreements, Albania around 29%, while North Macedonia had yet to reach 1%. These statistics highlight Ukraine's significant progress in adopting NATO standards despite not being a member of the Alliance.

This progress reaffirms a recurring argument made by former Ukrainian officials such as Reznikov and Stefanyshyn: Ukraine's NATO accession is primarily a political matter. Statements from figures like Stoltenberg and Sikorski emphasize Ukraine's growing proximity to NATO, with NATO soldiers already contributing to deter Russian aggression within Ukraine. Public sentiment in NATO countries also appears supportive, with Stoltenberg noting that two-thirds of citizens in NATO nations favor continuing aid to Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, Ukraine is gearing up for the upcoming April meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Council, marking another step in its engagement with the Alliance.

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