Is the NATO-Russia Founding Act Dead?

July 15, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments related to Russia and the region. 

At the July 8-9 NATO summit in Warsaw, leaders approved the deployment of 3,000 to 4,000 troops on a rotating basis to Poland and the Baltic States. Moscow has claimed this would effectively violate a clause of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that prohibits the establishment of permanent NATO bases in Central and Eastern Europe.

This week we asked: Does NATO’s troop deployment violate its agreement with Russia? And if not, could Moscow nevertheless claim a violation as a pretext to abandon the agreement and pursue a permanent troop buildup of its own?

Łukasz Kulesa, Research Director, European Leadership Network


LukaszThe NATO-Russia Founding Act is not dead, but resembles a zombie. It’s clear the document no longer remains the foundation of the NATO-Russia relationship. Still, both sides – for different reasons  pretend it is still alive and choose to ignore the signs of its decay.

The Founding Act was a product of a different era in NATO-Russian relations. In the mid-1990s, the two sides tried to move beyond their past animosity and were willing to engage in substantial confidence-building efforts to establish the new “rules of the road,” Since 2014, we have entered a fundamentally different period. Russia’s actions during the last years have violated both the spirit and letter of the Founding Act. NATO has decided to keep its forward deployments in Eastern Europe limited so far, but gave them an almost-permanent character. In short, while NATO has stretched a bit the interpretation of its restraint pledge from the Founding Act, Russia disregarded its commitments altogether.

Why is the Founding Act not declared dead? On the NATO side, the pledges of restraint remain important for some allies, most notably for Germany. For them, the Founding Act is a symbolic barrier against the escalation of confrontation with Russia. Abandoning the Act would mean that the Alliance has lost all hope that the relations can be stabilized or improved. The Russians, on their part, make a very selective reading of the document and use the chosen fragments to criticize NATO’s deployments, and justify Moscow’s actions. Of course Russia can use the Warsaw decisions as a pretext to strengthen its own forces along NATO borders. But its own activities have shown clearly that it does not feel itself bound by the Founding Act and has little regard for it. From this perspective, its loud protests against NATO’s actions look rather duplicitous.

Stephen Saideman, Paterson Chair of International Affairs, Carleton University



The NATO-Russia Founding Act is dead. Through its actions in Ukraine, Russia has violated a number of principles serving as the basis of the agreement, and of NATO-Russia relations more broadly. These include, above all, refraining from the use of force; respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states; and settlement of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with UN and OSCE principles. 

The constraining principles in the Founding Act were conditioned upon the “current and foreseeable security environment,” which was relatively stable at the time of the Act’s writing in 1997. Today, the security environment has changed. Russia has seized the territory of a neighbor and when that was not sufficient, invaded, using separatists as cover.  Clearly, the conditions for the observance of the Founding Act no longer apply.

Of course, some could say the security environment changed in 1999 with Kosovo, but there are many differences.  The big one is that NATO only used force after much effort to reach a peaceful settlement.  Russia, on the other hand, used force immediately after the change in regime in Kiev.  The fait accompli was not driven by real fears of Ukrainian ethnic cleansing but by the desire to impose a new reality before anyone could react. 

The NATO Russia Founding Act has been overcome by events.  The Warsaw Summit could be seen as the final nail in the coffin or not, depending on whether four thousand troops based in Poland and the Baltics counts as substantial.  NATO will continue to fudge things by calling the deployment “persistent” rather than “permanent,” but that is going to fool few people.

Putting troops into the east to serve as a tripwire may serve as too much of a Cold War strategy to some.  However, given the challenges of deploying the Very High Readiness Task Force quickly and given Vladimir Putin’s love of faits accompli and his intended desire to break NATO, the old playbook does seem appropriate even if the chilling of relations today is not quite a new Cold War.

Simon Saradzhyan, Assistant Director, U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University


Simon-SaradzhyanNo, the NATO-Russia Founding Act is not dead. At least, not yet. While NATO has authorized four “battalion-plus-size” units in the Baltics and Poland, these planned deployments will be rotational and thus will not violate the letter of the 1997 act under which NATO promises to refrain from “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in absence of a threat of aggression.  

As important, despite a recent report that NATO wants to turn the Baltics into a “nuclear tripwire,” officials at the recent NATO summit did not even consider introducing any changes in the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, as far as I know. Therefore, the alliance remains in compliance with the 1997 act, which declared that NATO has “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.” 

NATO probably realizes, however, that it cannot continue to add more and more forces to its eastern flank, claiming that they are neither permanent nor substantial, if the alliance wants to keep the NATO-Russia Founding Act alive. So far, Moscow’s  response to the planned deployment of the four units has mostly come down to repackaging what the Russian military had planned to do anyway, such as transforming existing army units into divisions on the southwestern and western flanks and building radar systems there.

For the Founding Act to stay alive, its signatories need to sit down and agree on definitions of “permanent” and “substantial.” For instance, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has proposed designating any of the following assets as “additional…substantial combat forces” if they remain deployed for more than 42 days a year: one brigade, air wing or air force regiment. NATO would most probably disagree with such a constraining definition, but I hope a compromise can be found. Such definitions would also come in handy if the West and Russia decide to negotiate a replacement of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

It is worth noting that many NATO members didn’t view the 1997 act as binding or requiring parliamentary ratification. And yet, NATO has so far kept the promises it made in the document. Perhaps that could serve as a model for adopting a new accord on collective security in Europe, which I have proposed here. Such a charter would both restrict the expansion of military alliances, which is Russia’s supreme concern with the current state of European collective insecurity, and commit its participants to refraining from either overt or covert attempts to change borders on the continent, which is what much of Europe has come to fear in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters, a new project undertaken by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center in partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Igor Sutyagin, Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

sutyaginThe NATO alliance proclaimed in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act its inclination to abstain from the permanent deployment of substantial combat forces in the new NATO member states – the Act’s provision that Russia now quotes as being violated by the Warsaw Summit decision to deploy four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic states. Originally, there was a dispute between Russia and NATO in 1997 regarding the material meaning of the term “substantial” forces. NATO insisted it meant “no more than a division” while Russia insisted on “a brigade-level formation.” The Russian proposal ultimately became the agreed limit – so Russia has nothing to complain about, as NATO with its four battalions does not cross the threshold proposed by Moscow itself. So, there is no violation of the Founding Act – even if it was fully functional now.

But surely the act is no longer functional. Indeed, even the above-mentioned “non-deployment” provision assumed the preservation of the “current and foreseeable security environment,” of which the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), putting certain restrictions on the sides’ military build-up, was the fundamental building block. But Russia had officially withdrawn from CFE in April 2015 – thus destroying the cornerstone of the whole Founding Act construct. Three other assumptions which made the Founding Act possible no longer exist. These are, first of all, the principle that “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries”– but Moscow openly names the West as its main adversary. Second, both sides promised to “refrain from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state” and, third, to show their “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states.” One need not to be reminded about the Russian nuclear threats to NATO member states (the USA, Denmark, Poland, Romania are the most recent examples) – and the Crimea occupation and intervention in the east of Ukraine are concrete evidence of Russia’s disrespect for other states’ sovereignty. Hence, the Founding Act is now a hollow shell – and it should be seen as such. One can preserve it for a hypothetical better future, but it is necessary to admit that it is not the proper basis of the NATO-Russia relationship today, due to Moscow’s own actions.

Under such circumstances Moscow does not need other pretexts to continue its troop build-up near NATO borders – but an analysis of the situation shows that it won’t be too zealous with that. Firstly, Moscow is more interested in preserving the agreement than NATO, because the Act is the only legal obstacle in the way of Western military build-up – an option Russia could not successfully cope with due to the imbalance of the two sides’ economic potential. Secondly, Russia’s ability to build up forces is severely damaged by its economic nosedive.

Indeed, due to financial difficulties and shortage of manpower the Kremlin has already postponed its plan to raise the manpower of the Russian Airborne Troops – the new divisions near Russia’s western border. Therefore, it is more realistic to expect that the Kremlin will try to maintain a certain degree of confrontation (lower than in recent months) but will pair it with diplomatic efforts and a “charm offensive” to cool down NATO’s determination to openly oppose Moscow’s adventurous policy. Doing so might improve Russia’s chances if not to win something, then at least to not lose everything as the minimum. In short, the new divisions’ establishment will be finalized – but bombers will fly at a safer distance from NATO destroyers in the Baltic and Black seas.

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