The NATO-Russia Founding Act Is Hanging by a Thread

Moscow has torn up the rulebook, but Western officials are paying lip service to the 1990s-era deal.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Bill Clinton shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin
U.S. President Bill Clinton shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin
U.S. President Bill Clinton shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin as French President Jacques Chirac looks on, during the signing ceremony of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in Paris on May 27, 1997. Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

It was a spring day in Paris in 1997 when U.S. President Bill Clinton shook the meaty hand of his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin, posing for a photograph alongside NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and French President Jacques Chirac, to mark the occasion of the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. 

The document was an attempt to establish some parameters for cooperation between the Cold War foes in an optimistic era when the prospect of a constructive Western relationship with Moscow appeared to be within reach. Fast-forward 25 years, and Europe has been plunged into war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting NATO to bolster allies along its eastern flank, while senior Russian officials routinely make veiled threats about nuclear annihilation. 

“There’s almost nothing left in the NATO-Russia Founding Act that Russia hasn’t violated already,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. 

It was a spring day in Paris in 1997 when U.S. President Bill Clinton shook the meaty hand of his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin, posing for a photograph alongside NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and French President Jacques Chirac, to mark the occasion of the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. 

The document was an attempt to establish some parameters for cooperation between the Cold War foes in an optimistic era when the prospect of a constructive Western relationship with Moscow appeared to be within reach. Fast-forward 25 years, and Europe has been plunged into war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting NATO to bolster allies along its eastern flank, while senior Russian officials routinely make veiled threats about nuclear annihilation. 

“There’s almost nothing left in the NATO-Russia Founding Act that Russia hasn’t violated already,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. 

Despite this, the act still stands. In a call with journalists last month, Celeste Wallander, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said that the United States’ decision to create a permanent headquarters for the U.S. Army’s V Corps in Poland was consistent with “our understanding of the NATO-Russia Founding Act,” implying that the act wasn’t entirely dead. The question is, why not?


What is the NATO-Russia Founding Act?

Split into four parts, the act outlines NATO and Russia’s shared commitment to democracy and rule of law, and their respect for the sovereignty of all states, while refraining from threatening to use force against each other or any other state in violation of the United Nations Charter. It also led to the NATO-Russia Council, a forum for mutual consultation, focused on areas for cooperation on peacekeeping and conflict prevention. 

While this may now sound like wishful thinking, there was still a palpable optimism in 1997 that Russia and NATO could find ways to forge a less contentious relationship for the sake of Europe and the wider world. “When you look at the Clinton administration, part of its foreign policy was to try and build a more stable relationship with Russia,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. 

It will protect Europe and the world from a new confrontation and will become the foundation for a new, fair and stable partnership,” Yeltsin said at the signing of the act. Despite the optimism of the time, the tensions that would eventually come to bedevil the relationship weren’t far from view, with Yeltsin cautioning that it would “fully undermine” NATO’s relationship with Russia if the alliance were to expand to former members of the Soviet Union. 

The timing of the act’s signing was no coincidence. “It was the same year that we extended the invitations to countries to join NATO at the Madrid summit,” Volker said, when former communist bloc members Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were invited to join the alliance. “It was trying to reassure Russia that, look, we’re going to bring some new countries into NATO, but this does not mean we are against you, we’re not threatening you in any way,” Volker said. 


Are NATO’s hands tied by the act?

Not really. Where it matters most in the current context—the alliance’s ability to strengthen its defense posture along the eastern flank in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the act’s wording is really rather squishy. 

The act does not place any constraints on NATO enlargement. But one key passage intended to reassure a jittery Russia that the alliance is defensive stipulated that NATO would prioritize interoperability “rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” 

“This sentence was very cleverly worked out so that it doesn’t constrain us as much as people think it does. And this was deliberate,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, who noted that no U.S. administration has sought to outline what it would define as a “substantial combat force.”

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, NATO began to bolster its defenses in northeastern Europe, deploying four battle groups to the three Baltic states and Poland. Those 4,500 troops were dispatched on a rotational basis, which NATO has used to argue that it does not violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act. 

Asked by a reporter in June about the alliance’s new deployments to countries along the eastern flank, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc was not constrained by the NATO-Russia Founding Act. “This act doesn’t limit our ability to increase our presence in the eastern part of the alliance. And it doesn’t limit our ability to strengthen our posture in general across the whole alliance,” he said. 


So why hasn’t the act been scrapped?

Likely because NATO allies don’t want to be seen walking away from an act that was meant to make the world a safer place, however perfunctory it may have become. “I think it’s important for the U.S. and NATO allies to put the onus on Russia, if one side is going to come out and say that the NATO-Russia Founding Act is dead,” Rizzo said. It would also be a boon to Russian propagandists if the West were to abandon the act.

While difficult to imagine in the current moment, there may also be hopes that the act could provide some guardrails for a future relationship. “We have to think in terms of decades here, we also should probably think about what a post-Putin Russia looks like, so you want to leave the door open just a little bit for cooperation of discussions,” said Rizzo.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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