The NATO-Russia Founding Act: The Foundation For Euro-Atlantic Peace

By Emma Barska

The Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation was adopted in 1997 to build an enduring and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic region that would be fostered by a non-threatening partnership between NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—and Russia. Also abbreviated as the NATO-Russia Founding Act, this agreement aims to serve as the foundation for a new collective security system in a post-Cold War Europe and North America. In order to preserve each party’s right to act in its self-defense and safeguard its sovereignty, this arrangement relies on cooperation as opposed to deterrence. By signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act, NATO and Russia agreed to respect a number of principles, mechanisms promoting dialogue, and mutual expectations that were meant to decrease trans-Atlantic tensions. Among one of these commitments was NATO’s promise to Russia that it would not establish any permanent NATO bases in former Warsaw Pact countries that, in 1997, had the potential to become new NATO members. Although NATO has maintained its dedication to the Act by continuously rotating NATO troops in-and-out of the Eastern Flank rather than permanently stationing them, Russia has violated international law numerous times since 2008. In light of these transgressions and their impacts on international security, the question of whether the NATO-Russia Founding Act should be repealed has become a pressing one. 

In Section IV of the NATO-Russia Founding Act titled “Political-Military Matters,” the document states that “…in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” According to this provision of the Act, in the spirit of cooperation, NATO assured Russia that no permanent NATO bases would be established in former Warsaw Pact countries. As a result, NATO presence on the territory of new NATO members such as Poland (which did not join NATO until 1999) would have to be continuously rotational as opposed to permanent. Today, to comply with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, troops from the United States and Western Europe rotate in-and-out of Poland every 90 days. If continuous troop rotations were replaced by permanent installments of NATO soldiers within Poland’s borders, a breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act would occur. In addition, as of 2008/2009, Russia has stated that in quantifiable terms, the clause “substantial combat forces” is equivalent to one brigade, or approximately up to 5,000 soldiers, across the territories of all new NATO members. Any redistribution of NATO troops that would exceed this number would also constitute a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. 

Under the NATO-Russia Founding Act, NATO and Russia are expected to abide by a number of mutually agreed upon principles outlined in Section I of the document. Some of those principles include, but are not limited to: “refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence…; respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of self-determination…; mutual transparency in creating and implementing defense policy and military doctrines; [and] prevention of conflicts and settlement of disputes by peaceful means…” By participating in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War; annexing Crimea and launching military aggression against the Ukraine in 2014; withdrawing from The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), concealing data on the distribution of military forces and equipment, and violating the CFE by illegally posting its troops in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and utilizing an increased military presence in Crimea, Kaliningrad, and Western Russia to intimidate neighboring states and the Alliance, Russia has breached the NATO-Russia Founding Act in conjunction with other international ordinances. Russia’s recent history as a serial violator of international law would certainly justify an Alliance decision to withdraw from the NATO-Russia Founding Act or from its provisions. In fact, critics of the current interpretation of the Act continue to advocate for the permanent stationing of NATO troops in the Eastern Flank. They claim that such an action would be a proportional response to Russia’s increasing military presence within its territory and near NATO border states, as well as retribution for a number of international law infringements. However, I do not believe that this move would be in NATO’s favor given the current global political and military conditions. Even though the security environment has changed considerably since 1997 – primarily due to the Kremlin’s aggressive expansionist actions and increased military presence in Kaliningrad, Crimea, and Western Russia – the NATO-Russia Founding Act continues to be a just and reasonable blueprint for a more stable Europe. Although some timely readjustments may be necessary in order to dissuade Russia from further violating this agreement, a complete withdrawal would only escalate the tensions in the Eastern European powder keg. If the Alliance were to decide that it no longer wants to cooperate with Russia under this document, it would have to return to a policy of constant deterrence. Such a transition could result in an unpredictable increase in costs associated with keeping the peace in Europe. 

While I do think that Russia must be held accountable for its actions, in my opinion, suspending NATO’s participation in the NATO-Russia Founding Act or withdrawing from its provisions would disrupt the balance of the current collective security system. In order to achieve lasting peace, more constructive conversations must be facilitated, rather than resorting to the use of force. It is inevitable that the Alliance will have to put more pressure on Russia in an effort to secure its compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act. However, repealing this accord in the near future could create more problems than it solves. 

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