Why Should Moscow Trust Anything NATO Says?


NATO is always asking Russia to accept its word.

Concerned about missile defence establishments next door? Pshah! they’re there to deal with a “rogue state’s” as-yet-non-existent missiles, nothing to do with you. No you can’t come and look at them.

NATO walks out of the CFE Treaty, which Russia ratified but no one in NATO did; sure but Russia didn’t satisfy the extra conditions NATO tacked on to it.

NATO expansion right up to Russia’s door? Why, NATO is a force for stability – remember Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia in 2008? That kind of stability. Or, more recently, the stability, peace and prosperity that floods Ukraine.

NATO flights and exercises all around you? Nonsense, they’re peaceful and stabilising; it’s Russia aircraft that are the real destabilisers.

Are NATO members bombing people all over the place? Yes, but it’s for their own good.

Why don’t the Russian leaders just take NATO’s word for it? After all, NATO says it’s a trustworthy organisation and NATO is proud to tell Russia, and the rest of the world, “Our Alliance remains an essential source of stability in this unpredictable world”. So, how have we got into the position that Moscow does not accept NATO’s word of honour? The answer is very simple: experience has taught Russia that NATO’s word of honour isn’t worth anything: “empty words” indeed. Here are two examples of the evanescent character of NATO’s promises.

Moscow was promised in the Gorbachev years that NATO would not expand. How do I know that the promise was given? After all, nothing was written down. I know this because the US Ambassador of the period has said that the promise was made; I have been personally told by another NATO Ambassador of the period that the promise was made and “After speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia”. Here’s more evidence, from the magazine Foreign Affairs: “In the end, the United States overturned the system it promised to bring about.” So, never mind what sophists say about there being no piece of paper saying “We promise, signed, NATO”, Moscow was assured. And the promise was soon broken and broken again and broken again. At present NATO has 28 members: 12 of them – 40% – are former Warsaw Pact, Soviet allies or parts of the USSR itself. When NATO breaks a promise, it really breaks it.

And, one cynically has to ask, would it have made any difference if Gorbachev had got it in writing? NATO is perfectly capable of breaking, or severely stretching, a written agreement too. See below.

Let us move to a more recent test of NATO’s trustworthiness. A UNSC resolution authorised NATO states and others to create a no-fly zone over Libya for humanitarian reasons. In fairly short order this mutated into sustained destruction of Kaddafi’s forces and installations; then weapons were supplied to the rebels (so much for 13. “strict implementation of the arms embargo”) and special forces gave them training and directed the air attacks. In short, NATO aircraft swiftly became the rebels’ air force retaining only the hollowest pretence of the impartiality the Resolution implied. “We came. We saw. He died” as Hillary Clinton put it. Providing the rebel forces with an air force, weapons and special forces is very far from the UN Resolution that Moscow thought it was abstaining on. What was NATO’s word of honour worth in this case? And that ignores the consequences of the intervention. Not even the New York Times can pretend it’s anything other than a disaster (the days when NATO’s intervention was a “model intervention” are long gone. But thanks to the Internet’s memory, not forgotten).

So, given the Libya precedent and NATO Expansion, Moscow can be forgiven for thinking that, not only is NATO’s promise worth nothing, but, rather than bringing the stability it boasts about, it only destroys and moves on like some science fiction monster that lives to kill and kills to live.

Russia has no reason whatsoever to trust NATO’s mere assertion of intention. Here, from a Russian perception, are more examples of the worthlessness of NATO’s promises. But, really, the two examples of NATO Expansion and Libya, so important and so patent, are more than enough to show that NATO’s solemn declarations are subject to re-interpretation without warning. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” NATO has fooled them more than once.

As George Kennan said, in 1998 of NATO Expansion: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.” Not for the first time, “Mr X” got it right.