NATO Extends an Olive Branch to Russia

An invitation to Moscow from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (in Estonia on April 23). Virginia Mayo / AP

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO's eastward expansion has been the stuff of the Kremlin's worst nightmares. The threat of former Russian vassals joining the U.S.-led bloc has been the root cause of one war—between Russia and Georgia in 2008—and the basis of deep, ongoing distrust between Moscow and the West. But NATO could soon follow Barack Obama and attempt a "reset" of relations with Moscow. At this week's NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Tallinn, Estonia (itself once part of the Russian empire), the alliance's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, suggested that Russia be involved in NATO plans to build a missile defense system.

Although thick with irony (President Reagan first proposed the idea of a missile shield in 1983 as a safeguard against the Soviets), the overture should please Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The offer is meant to defuse Russian fears that the antimissile system is meant to contain Moscow's nuclear capabilities. On a deeper level, Rasmussen's invitation also echoes Medvedev's own demands for "a new European security architecture" in which Russia is a partner in Europe's security decision making—not its opponent. "Naive notions of the infallible and happy West and the eternally underdeveloped Russia are unacceptable, offensive, and dangerous," Medvedev said in an essay last year. "But no less dangerous is the path of confrontation, self-isolation, mutual insults, and recrimination."

Rasmussen's olive branch from NATO is well timed. At least one of the major irritants in Russia-NATO relations—the prospect of Ukrainian membership—has been removed now that the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych recently confirmed that he would not continue Kiev's efforts to join the alliance. To underscore the new cordiality with Moscow, Yanukovych this week extended Russia's lease on the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol, which had been due to expire in 2017, by another 25 years. In exchange, Ukraine will have access to cheaper Russian gas. But the other beneficiary of these transactions is NATO, which now can exploit the peace dividend and pursue a new kind of cooperation with Russia.

More good news for Russia is that four key NATO countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway) have called for the last U.S. tactical nukes on the European continent to be removed, a response to Obama's call for universal nuclear disarmament. The 200 mini-nukes, the bulk of which are kept on U.S. bases in Italy and Turkey, have little strategic significance but an enormous symbolic one: U.S. nuclear weapons protected Europe from Russian aggression for half a century. Disarming Europe at a time when Russia is busy rebuilding its influence in its backyard might seem illogical. But smarter thinkers—including Obama, who's been bending over backward to reassure the Russians over missile defense—will actually welcome any kind of cooperation with Russia, even if it comes at the cost of defusing America's nuclear deterrent in Europe. NATO's new goal is to have Russia as "part of the same security family" as the rest of Europe, says NATO spokesman James Appathurai. Optimistic talk, but a welcome change from the tensions of the last 10 years.