NATO-Russia relations: the facts
Since Russia began its aggressive actions against Ukraine, Russian officials have accused NATO of a series of threats and hostile actions. This webpage sets out the facts.
- NATO as a "threat"
- Promises and pledges
- NATO's Cooperation with Russia
- NATO enlargement
- NATO and its attitude to Russia
- NATO's operations
Fact: NATO has taken defensive and proportionate steps in response to a changed security environment. In response to Russia’s use of military force against its neighbours, Allies requested a greater NATO presence in the Baltic region.
In 2016, we deployed four multinational battlegroups ─ or "enhanced forward presence" ─ to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. In 2017, the battlegroups became fully operational. More than 4,500 troops from Europe and North America work closely together with home defence forces.
NATO's presence in the region is at the request of the host nations, and Allied forces uphold the highest standards of conduct, both on and off duty.
As part of NATO Allies' commitment to transparency, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania host Russian arms control inspectors. In Estonia, for instance, Russian inspectors recently conducted a Vienna Document Inspection, observing parts of exercise Spring Storm in May and June 2021.
Fact: NATO ballistic missile defence is not directed against Russia and cannot undermine Russia's strategic deterrence capabilities. It is designed to protect European Allies against missile threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.
The Aegis Ashore site in Romania is purely defensive. The interceptor missiles deployed there cannot be used for offensive purposes. The interceptors contain no explosives. They cannot hit objects on the Earth’s surface – only in the air. In addition, the site lacks the software, the hardware and infrastructure needed to launch offensive missiles.
NATO invited Russia to cooperate on missile defence, an invitation extended to no other partner. Unfortunately, Russia refused to cooperate and rejected dialogue on this issue in 2013. Russian statements threatening to target Allies because of NATO's ballistic missile defence are unacceptable and counterproductive.
Fact: NATO is a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect our member states. Our exercises and military deployments are not directed against Russia – or any other country.
All Allies reaffirmed at our Brussels Summit that "the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia."
NATO has reached out to Russia consistently, transparently and publicly over the past 30 years. We set out to build a good relationship and worked together on issues ranging from counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism to submarine rescue and civil emergency planning.
However, in March 2014, in response to Russia's aggressive actions against Ukraine, NATO suspended practical cooperation with Russia. We do not seek confrontation, but we cannot ignore Russia breaking international rules, undermining our stability and security.
In direct response to Russia's use of military force against its neighbours, NATO deployed four multinational battlegroups to the Baltic States and Poland in 2016. These forces are rotational, defensive and proportionate. Before Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, there were no plans to deploy Allied troops to the eastern part of the Alliance. Our aim is to prevent conflict, protect our Allies, and preserve the peace.
NATO remains open to meaningful dialogue with Russia. That is why NATO proposed to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in February 2020, and that proposal stands. The ball is in Russia’s court.
Fact: NATO is a defensive alliance. Our purpose is to protect our member states. Every country that joins NATO undertakes to uphold its principles and policies. This includes the commitment that "NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia," as reaffirmed at the Brussels Summit this year.
NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia. Every sovereign nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements. This is a fundamental principle of European security, one that Russia has also subscribed to and should respect. In fact, after the end of the Cold War, Russia committed to building an inclusive European security architecture, including through the Charter of Paris, the establishment of the OSCE, the creation of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
Fact: NATO's nuclear arrangements have always been consistent with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime. It has an essential role for international peace and security.
For decades, the United States has had nuclear weapons on the territory of some European NATO members as part of NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities. These weapons remain under the custody and control of the United States at all times. Furthermore, NATO’s nuclear arrangements predate the NPT. They were fully addressed when the treaty was negotiated.
It is Russia that is using its nuclear weapons as a tool of intimidation. Russia uses irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and has stepped up its nuclear exercises. Russia is also expanding its nuclear capabilities by investing in novel and destabilising weapons. This activity and this rhetoric do not contribute to transparency and predictability, particularly in the context of a changed security environment.
Fact: NATO fully abides by the NATO-Russia Founding Act. In response to Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea and military build-up close to Alliance borders, NATO has deployed four multinational battlegroups – around 4,500 troops – to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
These forces are rotational, defensive and well below any reasonable definition of "substantial combat forces." There has been no permanent stationing of substantial combat forces on the territory of eastern Allies. In fact, total force levels across the Alliance have substantially reduced since the end of the Cold War.
By signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Russia pledged not to threaten or use force against NATO Allies and any other state. It has broken this commitment, with the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, the territory of a sovereign state. Russia also continues to support militants in eastern Ukraine.
Fact: NATO Allies take decisions by consensus and these are recorded. There is no record of any such decision taken by NATO. Personal assurances from individual leaders cannot replace Alliance consensus and do not constitute formal NATO agreement.
NATO's "Open Door Policy" is based on Article 10 of the Alliance's founding document, the North Atlantic Treaty (1949). The Treaty states that NATO membership is open to any "European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area". It states that any decision on enlargement must be made "by unanimous agreement". NATO has never revoked Article 10, nor limited the potential for enlargement. Over the past 72 years, 30 countries have chosen freely, and in accordance with their domestic democratic processes, to join NATO. This is their sovereign choice.
In addition, at the time of the alleged promise, the Warsaw Pact still existed. Its members did not agree on its dissolution until 1991. The idea of their accession to NATO was not on the agenda in 1989. This was confirmed by Mikhail Gorbachev himself in an interview with Russia Beyond the Headlines:
"The topic of 'NATO expansion' was not discussed at all, and it wasn't brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn't bring it up, either."
Declassified White House transcripts also reveal that, in 1997, Bill Clinton consistently refused Boris Yeltsin's offer of a 'gentlemen's agreement' that no former Soviet Republics would enter NATO: "I can't make commitments on behalf of NATO, and I'm not going to be in the position myself of vetoing NATO expansion with respect to any country, much less letting you or anyone else do so…NATO operates by consensus."
Fact: In 2014, NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia, in response to its aggressive actions in Ukraine. This cooperation included projects in Afghanistan, on counter-terrorism and scientific cooperation. These projects did deliver results over time, but their suspension has not undermined the security of the Alliance or our ability to counter challenges such as terrorism.
We have made it clear that we continue to seek a constructive relationship with Russia. But an improvement in the NATO's relations with Russia will be contingent on a clear and constructive change in Russia's actions – one that demonstrates compliance with international law and Russia's international commitments.
Fact: Every sovereign nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements. This is a fundamental principle of European security and one which Russia has also subscribed to (see Helsinki Final Act here)
When Russia signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, it also pledged to uphold "respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security".
Ukraine and Georgia have the right to choose their own alliances, and Russia has, by its own repeated agreement, no right to dictate that choice. We reject any idea of spheres of influence in Europe – they are part of history and should remain part of history.
Fact: NATO's military infrastructure outside the territory of Allies is limited to areas in which the Alliance is conducting operations. NATO has military facilities in Kosovo, for instance, for the KFOR peacekeeping mission.
NATO also has civilian liaison offices in partner countries such as Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia. These cannot be considered as "military bases".
Individual Allies have overseas bases on the basis of bilateral agreements and the principle of host-nation consent, in contrast with Russian bases on the territory of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.
Fact: Every nation has the right to conduct exercises, but it is important that they are conducted transparently and in line with international obligations.
To promote transparency, members of the OSCE, including Russia, commit to follow the provisions of the Vienna Document. If an exercise involves at least 9,000 personnel, it is subject to notification, and if it equals or exceeds 13,000 personnel, observers from OSCE states must be invited to attend the exercise.
NATO’s concerns about Russian exercises are a direct result of Russia’s lack of transparency. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has never opened an exercise to mandatory Vienna Document observation. Russia has also used large snap exercises, including with tens of thousands of troops, to intimidate its neighbours. This practice raises tension and undermines trust. Russia's intervention in Georgia in 2008 and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 were masked by snap exercises.
Fact: NATO was founded in 1949 by twelve sovereign nations: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. It has since grown to 30 Allies who each took an individual and sovereign decision to join this Alliance.
All decisions in NATO are taken by consensus, which means that a decision can only be taken if every single Ally accepts it.
Equally, the decision for any country to take part in NATO-led operations falls to that country alone, according to its own legal procedures. No member of the Alliance can decide on the deployment of any other Ally's forces.
Fact: For more than three decades, NATO has consistently worked to build a cooperative relationship with Russia.
NATO began reaching out, offering dialogue in place of confrontation, at the London NATO Summit of July 1990 (declaration here). In the following years, the Alliance promoted dialogue and cooperation by creating the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), open to the whole of Europe, including Russia.
In 1997, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, creating the NATO Russia Permanent Joint Council. In 2002, this was upgraded, creating the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) (The Founding Act can be read here)
We set out to build a good relationship with Russia. We worked together on issues ranging from counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism to submarine rescue and civil emergency planning.
However, in March 2014, in response to Russia's aggressive actions against Ukraine, NATO suspended practical cooperation with Russia. At the same time, NATO has kept channels for communication with Russia open. The NATO-Russia Council remains an important platform for dialogue. NATO proposed to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in February 2020, and that proposal stands. The ball is in Russia’s court.
Fact: At the London Summit in 1990, NATO leaders agreed that "we need to keep standing together, to extend the long peace we have enjoyed these past four decades". This was their sovereign choice and was fully in line with their right to collective defence under the United Nations Charter.
Since then, sixteen more countries have chosen to join NATO. The Alliance has taken on new missions and adapted to new challenges, all while sticking to its fundamental principles of security, collective defence, and decision-making by consensus.
At the Brussels Summit in June 2021, NATO Allies agreed to do even more together to modernise and adapt the Alliance, to chart its course for the next decade and beyond. NATO’s next Strategic Concept will be the blueprint for this adaptation. At a time of increased global competition, Europe and North America continue to stand strong together in NATO. The security challenges Allies face are too great for any country or continent to face alone. Together in NATO, we will continue to protect over 1 billion people.
Fact: NATO is conducting an honest, clear-eyed assessment of its engagement in Afghanistan, looking at what worked, and what did not. There are also difficult questions to be asked for the broader international community.
NATO led the military efforts in Afghanistan for many years, but this was not just a military effort. Many others, including our national governments, the European Union and United Nations, also made major investments in trying to develop and build a better Afghanistan. We all have difficult questions to answer.
At the same time, we should recognise the significant gains we made together. NATO’s mission prevented Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorism. There have been no terrorist attacks from Afghanistan against our countries since 2001.
The international community, supported by our military presence, also helped create the conditions for significant social and economic progress. These gains cannot be easily reversed and we can see that from the role the younger generation, women and free media are playing today. While we no longer have troops on the ground, the international community still has leverage over the Taliban, including financial, economic and diplomatic tools. We will continue to hold the Taliban to account on terrorism, free passage, and human rights.
Fact: The NATO-led operation was launched under the authority of two UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR), 1970 and 1973, both quoting Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and neither of which was opposed by Russia.
UNSCR 1973 authorized the international community "to take all necessary measures" to "protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack". This is what NATO did, with the political and military support of regional states and members of the Arab League.
After the conflict, NATO cooperated with the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, which found no breach of UNSCR 1973 or international law, concluding instead that "NATO conducted a highly precise campaign with a demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casualties."
Fact: The NATO operation for Kosovo followed over a year of intense efforts by the UN and the Contact Group, of which Russia was a member, to bring about a peaceful solution. The UN Security Council on several occasions branded the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the mounting number of refugees driven from their homes as a threat to international peace and security. NATO's Operation Allied Force was launched to prevent the large-scale and sustained violations of human rights and the killing of civilians.
Following the air campaign, the subsequent NATO-led peacekeeping operation, KFOR, which initially included Russia, has been under UN mandate (UNSCR 1244), with the aim of providing a safe and secure environment in Kosovo.