Boris Yeltsin (LaPresse)

Back When The UK Proposed NATO Membership For Russia

British politician Malcolm Rifkind, who held critical ministerial posts under former British Prime Minister John Major, is said to have proposed the idea to make Russia an associated member of NATO during the early 1990s. The revelation emerged from a dossier that the British National Archives published earlier this month.

Why Give Russia NATO Membership?

Rifkind was said to have discussed his proposal in 1995 with the then British Prime Minister John Major and members of the Cabinet of Ministers. Rifkind argued at the time that Russia had to be included in NATO otherwise it could fall back into authoritarianism and the West would miss out on a “great historic opportunity.”

Rifkind’s proposal emerges from a dossier that he had drawn up in his time as Minister of Defense. This information has been confidential for 25 years before the British National Archives recently published the documents.

According to the documents, however, Rifkind had warned of a full NATO membership for Russia, as it could have “absurd consequences,” regarding the future support of Russia under the collective defense doctrine and particularly in light of any future border dispute with China.

Russia: A NATO Light Membership Plan

One of Rifkind’s possible solutions was thus a NATO light membership, a new category in which Russia would become an associated member state. The associated status would have provided Russia with formal status within the alliance and the benefits that come with it, such as the possibility of attending ministerial meetings and other assemblies amongst the member states. In Riefkind’s view, the associated status could thus have led to “unity and harmonization” in global politics, doctrine, and practice in a complicated environment,” the dossier states. However, the status did not envision collective security guarantees, Russian vetoes, or membership in NATO’s military staff, it added.

Nonetheless, according to Rifkind’s view at the time, such as associated status and quasi membership of NATO subsequently contribute to the expansion of the alliance and pave the way for former Soviet states to establish ties with NATO itself and without any fear of resentment or retaliation from Moscow.

Why Did Rifkind’s Plan Never Go Through?

What sounds like a potential win-win situation for both sides, failed to materialize for one reason in particular according to the documents: Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin, who had been leading the country into its new stage at the beginning of the 90s, with the Cold War being over and the Soviet Union dissolved. However, Yeltsin was seen by the West – and the British in particular – as an unpredictable partner to work together with on any future vision.Documents show that at a summit in Canada in the early 90s, Yeltsin requested Western leaders to postpone any NATO enlargement until after the Russian elections because “the public debate could cause trouble.”

However, it was not merely Yeltsin’s lack of global politics forte, that concerned the West. Yeltsin had a well-known alcohol problem and a continuously deteriorating health, which made it difficult for any western leader to rely on him, never mind trust him – or at this point, potential successor – with associated status in NATO. In the documents, Yeltsin’s persona is described as acting “strangely” at times, which would range from a “lovable fluffy bear” to a “drunken presidential puppet.” Yeltsin was thus not the man to cooperate with on a project of such magnitude.

Moreover, the political climate in Moscow and all over Russia also had indicated that Russian reformers opposed any NATO expansion plans at the time.

Most telling of it all, the Foreign Office had written a note called “emergency planning for Yeltsin’s death”. In it, the Foreign Office concluded that “Yeltsin is six years older than the average life expectancy of the Russian man and now had two heart attacks in three and a half months.”

A Noble Idea But The Risks Were Too High

While the light-membership for Russia was certainly a noble idea, the risk at the time had simply been too high. With an unpredictable president and a new system in Russia that had been far from stable at the time, handing the keys to Russia could have amounted to a security fiasco. Nonetheless, the documents impressively display that real diplomacy is being conducted behind closed doors, and the public will never see much of it.

NATO was founded in 1949 and consisted of twelve member states when it was first established. Currently, the alliance consists of 29 countries, including the post-Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.