4 Feb 2022

Academician Alexei Arbatov: Memorandum of intent needed on NATO’s non-enlargement

Alexei Arbatov

Alexei Arbatov
Courtesy photo

The Russian-U.S. security guarantees negotiations have become the most important international topic today. Moscow’s package of proposals to Washington prioritizes not allowing Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. However, Washington and the NATO leadership reject such a possibility, stressing point blank that the alliance's charter guarantees that every country has the right to join NATO. Moscow, in turn, is saying at various levels that NATO’s founding documents prohibit countries with territorial disputes from entering the alliance. Alexei Arbatov, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discusses this issue in an interview with Interfax Special Correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov.

Question: I have carefully read all 14 articles of the NATO charter and I haven't found any provisions banning the accession of new member states to the organization if they have territorial disputes. Might there be an additional provision that we don't know of?

Answer: You are right. Indeed, there is no such provision in the charter. It is a common delusion that there is such an article. No article of the North Atlantic Treaty states this.

In 1995, when NATO enlargement was discussed - and that was the first stage [out of eight] - a study within NATO was conducted regarding criteria for states aspiring to join the alliance. It was said in Article 6 that countries willing to join the alliance must resolve their territorial disputes and other conflicts peacefully. However, another article says that nonetheless there are no absolute and fixed criteria and these issues should be resolved at the political level. Importantly, an invitation to a country that applied for membership is based on the full consensus of all alliance's member states in line with Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That is all.

Q.: Let me quote a part of Article 10 of the NATO charter. "The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession."

It turns out that the NATO founding document sets as the basis for accepting new members first of all "unanimous agreement" and secondly that NATO member states should themselves invite a state applying for membership.

A.: The procedure is as follows. A state first sends an application. NATO considers this application. NATO could invite the state to adopt the Membership Action Plan, the fulfillment of which could take many years.

Q.: If I'm not mistaken the 1999 session of NATO made a decision to introduce the notion of 'aspiring country’, which is a stage of preparation for NATO membership.

A.: Yes, this is a stage for an aspiring country. NATO considers to what extent a state has accepted and fulfilled all criteria of this plan over this period. They include civilian control over the defense ministry, a democratic system, as well as extent to which the country shares NATO’s principles outlined in Article 1 of the North Atlantic Treaty [which deals with the need to "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nation"].

The Membership Action Plan has five chapters: political and economic issues, military issues, resources-related issues, security issues and legal issues. Within each, the MAP identifies issues that might be discussed and highlights mechanisms through which preparation for possible eventual membership can best be carried forward.

Q.: So, according to the MAP, the countries are invited to resolve ethnic and territorial disputes peacefully. Let me stress that there is an offer to join rather than a prohibition, even if there are such disputes!

A.: Yes, no document mentions a ban. When all NATO member states agree that a candidate or the so-called aspiring country complies with the criteria, then an invitation is sent to it based on the consensus, meaning it's done unanimously.

Q.: Statements by the leadership of NATO and leading NATO member states, such as the United States, Germany, France and others do not mention that NATO has immediate enlargement plans. Moreover, they say that there can be no prohibition on joining. But this is a different issue. It’s like a famous Russian joke: an employee asks the boss, 'Do I have the right?' The boss says, 'Yes you do.' The employee says, 'Does this mean that I can?' The boss says, 'No way!'

A.: Let me say that leading NATO countries - I'm not talking about the Baltic States and Poland, which have their own position but I mean Germany, the U.S. and the United Kingdom - say that Ukraine hardly complies with the criteria and that in the foreseeable future Ukraine's membership in NATO is off the agenda. It was stated at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia could aspire to membership but that is all. They weren’t even given an invitation, let alone a Membership Action Plan.

Q.: France and Germany objected, if I'm not mistaken.

A.: Yes, these countries objected, and a compromise was reached, that the doors are open for them. However, this isn’t an issue for the immediate future, they must comply with all criteria of NATO member states.

Q.: Germany has new government. In your opinion, will it back Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO, or will it continue the policy of the previous authorities?

A.: Germany will adhere to the same policy and might be even more skeptical about Ukraine joining NATO but with one serious reservation – as long as there is no large-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine. That would change everything. The new German government will be even more reluctant to consider this prospect if this does not happen.

Q.: I think it is clear to everyone, even those who have not read the NATO charter, that the alliance will not yield as far as admitting new members is concerned. Could an option that suits both sides be found? Maybe, to informally recognize neutral status, as with Finland, or France's option? France from de Gaulle to Sarkozy was only part of NATO’s political bodies, not military. What option could suit us?

A.: The last option, the French one, is unsuitable by definition. NATO cannot invite a state to join its political bodies without inviting it to its military ones. Every NATO member state voluntary chooses the form of its participation, either it is political or both political and military. If it is military only, there are big differences as well. For example, some NATO member states don’t accommodate the armed forces of other countries on their territories. There are countries that don't have armed forces at all. And of course, the majority of NATO member states don't have nuclear arms on their territory. So, every country chooses the form [of its participation]. But it is impossible to invite it on the condition that you can do this but you cannot do that!

A compromise solution is likely to be about diplomats working out any form according to which the invitation of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO is being put off until later. Of course, it would be good if both countries stipulate in their constitutions that they are neutral as Moldova did. But this is unrealistic now, because they would lose a part of their territory and it is unlikely to demand that they adopt the neutral status amendment.

Another option is possible. The issue is put off. Firstly, until they meet all necessary criteria and secondly it is postponed provided that no one threatens the security of Georgia and Ukraine. This is a very important moment, which could become a compromise. NATO would say, yes, we are not inviting these countries to NATO for now, we will discuss this issue with Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. Since there is no threat to their security, there is no need to push for this. This issue would be put back until the distant future until there is such a threat.

Of course, the Abkhazia, Ossetia, Crimea and Donbas factors are a serious obstacle to such amendments. Both Georgia and Ukraine could ask what territorial integrity, what sovereignty are we talking about if we have already lost a part of our territory, and that was done militarily and blood has been was spilt, and so on. So, this is a serious topic.

But this is what diplomats are paid to do. Let them work on this. Let them leave propaganda aside and think, negotiate officially and unofficially, behind the scenes and in public, in this and that format and elaborate the wording that would suit the three sides. I mean NATO, Russia and the two states willing to join NATO, Ukraine and Georgia.

Q.: Even if Russia concludes such agreements with Ukraine and Georgia, this is still just a piece of paper. But if we were to have an agreement to limit intermediate-range missiles, this would be a serious security guarantee option for both them and us.

A.: Ukraine and Georgia don't have such missiles to begin with.

Q.: They don't, but there are U.S. missiles in Europe.

A.: Yes, only America and Russia have such missiles. But it is possible to deploy such missiles in Georgia or Ukraine only if they are admitted to NATO and consent to this, or if America signs a bilateral agreement with them, similar to the one concluded with South Korea and Japan, and will then deploy its missiles. If America and Russia have an agreement that there are no such missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads in Europe, both in the Russian part and the rest of Europe, then the issue will be removed from the agenda.

One needs to understand that what is important to Russia is not so much these missiles - I would even say that the missiles are often a scare tactic - but politically it is unacceptable for us if Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. And this is happening when Russia has turned its back on Europe and its face to the East! This is absolutely unacceptable for the Russian leadership. Missiles are important and it's important to reach an agreement on them. But a memorandum of intent is needed as well. This is unlikely to be an agreement, this is rather a memorandum of intent which says that this issue is being put off until later, provided that all security threats to Georgia and Ukraine are alleviated.

Q.: It seems to me that since a consensus is needed for these counties to join NATO, Russian diplomats have another negotiating option, which is to work with their colleagues in NATO member states to convince some of them to speak against it.

A.: Yes, even if there are one or two objections to admitting them, there will then be no consensus and they won't join. But we should understand that NATO doesn’t conclude any agreements with anyone. It seems that we cannot understand this. The U.S. or each NATO member state could conclude an agreement with Russia, but NATO as an organization cannot do this. NATO cannot conclude international agreements. Even when there was an agreement between the Warsaw Treaty Organization and NATO on the reduction of conventional armed forces and arms in Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals, there were no such words as NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization. It was said there that two groups of states agree on certain things. And these zones of limitation of heavy offensive arms expanded from the center to periphery. Let me repeat that NATO cannot conclude an agreement. Even if we speak hypothetically about a Russia-NATO agreement, this would be agreements with each of the 30 NATO member states rather than with NATO itself.

Q.: This means that there should be not only Russian-U.S. negotiations but negotiations with all NATO member states. In any case, this won't be redundant!