Eighteen years ago, NATO and Russia negotiated a "Founding Act" to govern relations as NATO extended its security umbrella to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. At the time, U.S. President Bill Clinton's team reassured President Boris Yeltsin's Russia that NATO enlargement posed no threat to Russia, and that NATO had no intention of expanding its military presence to the alliance's eastern frontier. Some supporters of enlargement believed the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act went too far in assuaging Russian concerns, which were based on Russian psychology more than they were grounded in reality. Nonetheless, the Founding Act was signed and continues to shape NATO - as a political and policy document, not as a legally binding commitment.
Two provisions within the Founding Act are relevant to today's dramatically changed strategic environment. First, to reassure Yeltsin's Russia, the "Three No's" were given form: NATO had "no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members ... and do not foresee any future need to do so." Second, NATO committed to carrying out collective defense by "ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces." Put simply, NATO promised to place neither nukes nor bases on its new eastern border. The alliance hoped thus to soothe a diminished Russia.
When the Founding Act was signed, key features of the European security environment included: Russia's adherence to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), limiting conventional arms deployments and containing numerous confidence-building measures; Russia's commitment to updating CFE in a modernized or adapted form; Russia's adherence to the 1987 U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banning certain missiles; Russia's adherence to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons; Russia's adherence to the Helsinki Final Act of 1977 ensuring, among other things, the right of European countries to select their own alliances; and, tacitly, no formal recognition of Russian-supported separatist enclaves in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria. While the West disagreed with Russia on security matters repeatedly in the ensuing years, the issues were manageable, usually subject to reasonable negotiation, and Russia for the most part complied with its post-Cold War legal and treaty obligations.
NATO's agreement not to deploy nuclear weapons or station permanent bases in the new member-states seemed a fair tradeoff given the security environment, and it ended the age-old security dilemma faced by the leaders and populations of Central and Eastern Europe.
Today, the conditions undergirding the 1997 Transatlantic understanding with Russia are in shambles. In 2007, Russia unilaterally suspended its participation in CFE and Adapted CFE, decimating those treaties. In 2008, Russia brutally invaded Georgia, later formally recognizing the independence of Abkhazian and South Ossetian pseudo-states. Russia violated the INF Treaty as early as 2008. Finally, last year Moscow invaded and proceeded to illegally annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea - essentially shredding the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act, among other international agreements. After swallowing Crimea, Russia escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine by sending tanks, artillery, and military and intelligence personnel, causing the deaths of thousands, and almost certainly playing a role in the murder of 298 innocent people on the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The September 2014 Minsk Agreement cease-fire, signed by Russia and the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, has been tossed aside, and Putin has escalated the conflict significantly in recent weeks. It is by no means clear that the recent Minsk II deal will fare any better than its predecessor.
The benign "current and foreseeable security environment" that helped frame the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act is gone. When the strategic circumstances change dramatically, policymakers need to adapt. It is time to change the fundamental precepts of the NATO-Russia relationship. NATO cannot say on one hand that Russia's aggression against Ukraine has changed the rules of the game, while on the other hand leaving the NATO-Russia Founding Act untouched.
NATO members should open a debate about moving beyond the "Three No's" to pursue both the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons and permanent forces in the frontline member states most threatened by Putin's revanchism. When Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic threatened European security, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, NATO responded. Now, facing an even more serious threat in Ukraine, NATO needs to declare the Founding Act void because of Russia's gross violations. NATO should act decisively to strengthen deterrence by building permanent bases in at least Estonia and Latvia. NATO should publicly reaffirm that the nuclear umbrella covers all of NATO, and it should consider the need for nuclear weapons in its frontline states to counter Putin's aggression. That - along with training, arming, and equipping Ukraine's armed forces - is the best way to protect NATO's most vulnerable states and to deter Putin from continuing his aggressive expansionism beyond the south and east of Ukraine.