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The NATO Russian Founding Act
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Jack Mendelsohn

On May 27 in Paris, Russian President Boris Yeltsin joined President Bill Clinton and the leaders of the 15 other NATO member states in signing the "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation." (See p. 21.) In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers agreed to seek an agreement with the Russian Federation on arrangements to deepen and widen the scope of NATO-Russian relations, primarily to offset the largely negative impact on those relations caused by NATO's decision to enlarge. Negotiations between NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov during the first part of 1997 led to the Founding Act which, despite its intention "to overcome the vestiges of past confrontation and competition and to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation" (in the words of Solana), is viewed by many in Russia and NATO with decided ambivalence.

As its preamble notes, the Act "defines the goals and mechanism of consultation, cooperation, joint decision-making and joint action that will constitute the core of the mutual relations between NATO and Russia." The Act establishes a NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council which is to begin functioning by the end of September. The Act also contains NATO's qualified pledge not to deploy nuclear weapons or station troops in the new member states and refines the basic "scope and parameters" for an adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

The first section of the Act elaborates the basic principles for establishing common and comprehensive security in Europe. These principles include strengthening the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), responding to new risks and challenges "such as aggressive nationalism, proliferation..., terrorism, [and] persistent abuse of human rights...," and basing NATO-Russian relations on a shared commitment to democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and the development of free market economies. NATO and Russia also pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force against each other or other states, to respect the independence and territorial integrity of all states and the inviolability of borders, to foster mutual transparency, to settle disputes by peaceful means and to support, "on a case-by-case basis" [Emphasis added], peacekeeping operations carried out under the UN Security Council.

In the second section, which contains the only concrete action in the Act, NATO and Russia establish the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council. The Council is intended as "a mechanism for consultations, coordination and, ...where appropriate, for joint decisions and joint action with respect to security issues of common concern." The Council is to meet "at various levels and in different forms"—specifically in two meetings a year at both the foreign and defence minister level, two meetings a year of chiefs of staff, and monthly meetings at the ambassadorial and military level. However, neither the Council nor anything in the Act will "provide NATO or Russia, in any way, with a right of veto over the actions of the other [Emphasis added] nor do they infringe upon or restrict the rights of NATO or Russia to independent decision-making and action."

Section III lays out the areas for NATO-Russian consultation and cooperation. These include the obvious: "security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area;" as well as conflict prevention; joint operations including peacekeeping; defence conversion; combatting terrorism; preventing proliferation; nuclear safety issues; and arms control. Of more specific interest among the areas listed for potential consultation, cooperation and increased transparency are theater missile defence, exchanges of "information in relation to air defence and related aspects of airspace management/control," and "reciprocal exchanges... on nuclear weapons issues, including doctrines and strategy of NATO and Russia."

In the final section of the Act, which deals with political-military matters, NATO restates that it has "no intention, no plan and no reason," to deploy or store nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. NATO and Russia also recommit themselves to concluding "as expeditiously as possible" an agreement adapting the CFE Treaty to take into account the new security environment in Europe, lowering the total amount of treaty-limited equipment in the treaty area, enhancing military transparency, and establishing national (as opposed to the current group) ceilings.

Immediately after the discussion of CFE treaty adaptation, the Act notes that NATO will "carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces." [Emphasis added.] But, the Act cautions, NATO "will have to rely on adequate infrastructure commensurate with the above tasks." NATO and Russia agree to strive for greater transparency, predictability and mutual confidence with regard to their armed forces, to fully comply with the Vienna Document of 1994 (covering confidence building measures), and to use and improve existing arms control regimes. Finally, NATO and Russia agree to expand political-military consultations and cooperation through the Council and by an enhanced dialogue between senior military authorities.

The reception of the Act has been widely varied. President Clinton hailed it as marking "an historic change in the relationship between NATO and Russia..." and the Western press generally saw it as "burying" a Cold War rivalry and signalling Russian acquiescence to NATO expansion. President Chirac, host of the signing ceremony in Paris, praised the Founding Act as opening "a new chapter in the history of Europe, a chapter without precedent in that it expresses a common vision of the future." And even President Yeltsin claimed the Act "will protect Europe and the world from a new confrontation and will become the foundation for a new, fair and stable partnership, a partnership which takes into account the security interests of each and every signatory to this document."

Despite the enthusiastic rhetoric in Paris, some confusion remains over the actual significance of the Act. At the signing ceremony, for example, Yeltsin described the Act as containing "an obligation not to deploy NATO combat forces on a permanent basis near Russia," and as "a firm and absolute commitment for all signatory states."Administration officials, on the other hand, made it very clear they consider the Act to be only politically, and not legally, binding and therefore not requiring Senate approval. Jeremy Rosner, Special Assistant to the President for NATO Enlargement, said, "the Founding Act itself states explicitly that the Act does not limit NATO's ability to act independently, and it does not apply—it's not legally binding [Emphasis added]—doesn't apply any limitations on NATO's military policy from the outside."

Henry Kissinger, in a post-signing commentary, expressed at length his concern that the "so-called Founding Act... seeks to reconcile Russia by diluting the Atlantic Alliance into a UN-style system of collective security." His main criticism is that Russia would have too much of a voice in NATO councils and that "Russia has a veto no matter how often administration spokesmen repeat that 'Russia has a voice, not a veto.'" Kissinger "confess[es] that, had I known the price of NATO enlargement would be the gross dilution of NATO, I might have urged other means to achieve the objective." Rosner, speaking for the administration, tried to blunt Kissinger's criticisms by arguing, "they derive from some misperceptions about what the Founding Act says and does."

Peter Rodman of the Nixon Center, echoing conservatives in Congress and the press, argued that the Act "promises to complicate NATO decision-making in future crises in Europe or the Middle East." He acknowledges, "it's not at all clear that we bought Russian acquiescence in NATO enlargement..." but concludes, "having paid this price to the Russians, we have no choice but to go forward. The worst of all worlds would be to have paid this price and then not proceed with the NATO project to be launched at Madrid."

The Act's reception among Russians was equally diverse. While in Paris, Yeltsin praised the document. But on the eve of the Act's signature, Yeltsin cautioned that NATO would "fully undermine" its relations with Russia if it expanded to include any of the former Soviet Republics, generally understood to pertain to the Baltics and Ukraine. (Foreign Minister Primakov said Russia remains "categorically against" NATO expansion to include any former Soviet republics.) Sandy Berger, the president's National Security Advisor, when briefing the press four days after the Paris Summit, said, "We have made it very clear in the Founding Act and in all of our discussions publicly and privately with the Russians that we don't believe that any nation is or should be excluded from potential membership in NATO if they meet the criteria and they seek to be members."

Yeltsin, in his radio address to the Russian people on May 30, described the Act as an effort "to minimize the negative consequences of NATO's expansion and prevent a new split in Europe." He then described the agreement—inaccurately, according to Western officials—as "enshrining NATO's pledge not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territories of its new member countries¼not [to] build up its armed forces near our borders...nor carry out relevant infrastructure preparations."

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Russia's Communist Party, on May 29 called the Founding Act a "complete and unconditional surrender." Alexander Lebed, a retired General and the most popular potential presidential candidate in Russia, argued that "the Russian-NATO deal [gives] rise to political, legal and military risks. Russia received from the Soviet Union the role of guarantor of the postwar order in Europe. Any partial revision of that order places in doubt all the other components, including the inviolability of national boundaries and the rights to displaced cultural artifacts. . . ."

Sergei Rogov, Director of the Moscow U.S.Canada Institute, was upbeat about the Act, calling it "a fundamental step in the postwar settlement in Europe." As for tactical nuclear weapons, "we have had 95 percent, that is, almost maximum success in obtaining pledges from NATO.... As for conventional arms, let us not deceive ourselves: NATO will expand toward our borders. But I believe that we have managed to limit that expansion by about 70 percent. I am even more optimistic about the mechanism for strategic partnership between Russia and the West which is laid down in detail in the Act.... It effectively creates a parallel structure to NATO—a permanent joint council with working organs, political and military."

The main conclusion to be drawn from the discussion around the Founding Act is that there is no clear understanding as to its actual implication. There is obviously a difference of views in and between officials and observers in Washington and Moscow over whether the Act is legally binding or not, whether it gives Russia too much of a voice within NATO or not enough, and whether it has "bought off" Russia for just the first tranche of three countries or for NATO's expansion throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In any event, the Permanent Joint Council is scheduled to begin consultations in late September of this year putting the new Russian connection to the test before any new members are actually brought into NATO in 1999.

Posted: May 1, 1997