NATO-Russia: It’s time to suspend the Founding Act
During a period of greater hope for Russia tempered by uncertainties, President Bill Clinton sought both to enlarge NATO and build a strategic partnership between the Alliance and Moscow. As part of his National Security Council staff, we three worked on the approach that produced the 1997 “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation.” It formalized a NATO-Russia relationship that we thought of as a potential “alliance with the Alliance” and contained security assurances for Moscow.
While the Founding Act produced tangible results in its early years, Europe today faces an aggressive, revanchist Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions have destroyed the basis for cooperation. NATO should suspend the Founding Act and, in particular, renounce its assurance regarding the stationing of conventional forces on the territory of new member states.
NATO and Russian leaders met in May 1997 — two months before the Alliance invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join — and concluded the Founding Act. The document laid out the goals and principles for NATO-Russia “consultation, cooperation and joint decision-making and joint action.” Its ambitious framework reflected a shared view that the Alliance and Russia could work together “to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free,” creating the habits of cooperation that would, among other things, alleviate Moscow’s concern about the military impact of enlargement.
The Founding Act contained two key assurances to show that NATO enlargement posed no military threat to Russia. First, NATO members reiterated that they had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members” (the “three no’s”). Second, the Alliance stated that “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” NATO defense did not require the “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in new members. Russia pledged to exercise similar restraint.
Unfortunately, the European security environment did not develop as NATO leaders hoped. The West was not blameless, but most of the responsibility for the deterioration lies with Putin and the Kremlin. Malign Russian actions have included a large military modernization program, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns and an increasingly hostile stance toward the West.
In 2014, Moscow violated commitments it made in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and reaffirmed in the Founding Act when its military illegally seized Crimea and fomented the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This February, Russia re-invaded Ukraine on multiple fronts, launching the largest war Europe has seen since World War II. Russia’s actions have violated its Founding Act commitments and eviscerated the goals and principles agreed 25 years ago.
NATO leaders will meet in Madrid June 29-30 to adopt a new Alliance strategy and measures to bolster NATO’s defense and deterrence posture in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They should also suspend the Founding Act.
The Alliance can continue to observe the “three no’s” in deterring Russian nuclear threats. NATO should, however, renounce its pledge to refrain from the additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.
From 1997 to 2014, NATO stationed no ground combat forces in new member states. The United States drew down its forces in Europe to such an extent that, in 2013, it had no tanks permanently stationed there.
Following Russia’s initial assaults on Ukraine in 2014, the Alliance deployed, on a rotating basis, small battalion-sized battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland, essentially as trip-wires, and the United States put an armored brigade in Poland on a rotational basis. This year, as Russia prepared and went to war against Ukraine, NATO placed additional forces on its eastern flank on a temporary basis, including new rotational battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, to deter the possible spillover of Russian aggression to NATO territory.
Regardless of how the Russia-Ukraine war ends, NATO members must accept that they face a long-term military threat to their east. Ensuring that the Kremlin does not try something against a NATO member requires that the Alliance station, on a permanent basis, more robust combat forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. To deter today’s Russia, those forces should serve as more than trip-wires and have ground and air capabilities sufficient to hold off attacking forces until Allied reinforcements arrive.
Of course, Moscow will not like this, but it has forfeited any reason for NATO to take Kremlin objections seriously.
The Founding Act was an opportunity to build a new Europe by establishing mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation between Russia and NATO. Unfortunately, it has failed. Suspension will leave open the possibility that it might be restored at a future point, when Russia renews its adherence to the principles of the rules-based international order. However, that may only come after Putin has left office and a new generation of Russian leaders demonstrates that Russia once again shares the goal of a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe.
Ambassadors Daniel Fried, Steven Pifer and Alexander Vershbow are retired U.S. Foreign Service officers. They served as senior directors on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and later served in various senior positions during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.