DFor 73 years they have watched, threatened and spied on each other, although they have never fought directly. Their respective histories are so intertwined that one cannot be understood without the other. What few know is that they have also courted each other, as in the Summit of the Big Four, in the image above, in Geneva, in 1955. From the top right, in a clockwise direction, you can see the representatives from the United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
By then, the USSR had been secretly negotiating its accession to NATO for a year. “But are they ruskis sincere?” asked Eisenhower, president of the United States. and first military chief of the Atlantic Alliance. He decided it was a ruse, the talks fell through, and the Cold War began. It is surprising, however, that —despite the fact that historians still have much to dig into in classified military archives and in the no less discreet maneuvers of diplomacy— on at least four occasions the Soviet Union and then Russia asked to join the Atlantic Alliance.
The attempts were made by four different presidents: Khrushchev in the 1950s, Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the 1990s, and, gosh, Putin at the turn of the century, when he was still flirting with Western democracies. In three of them they received a slam because the Atlantic leaders did not trust their intentions, but in the last one it was Russia that closed the door. And it is that mistrust has always been the common thread of this stormy relationship full of secrets. For example, it remains unclear how close an atomic conflict came to breaking out on European soil in 1983 and 1995. Let’s examine the clues.
All for one
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 with one purpose: to contain the Soviet Union. Its first general secretary, Hastings Ismay, was very clear: “You have to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” At that time, Berlin was not only divided between the four powers that defeated Hitler, but had been blockaded for a year by orders of Stalin. “The Allies ended World War II thinking that there would be peace with the Soviet Union and that a new world order would be created based on the United Nations. That idea failed almost immediately,” explains historian Anne Applebaum. A dozen countries signed the treaty, whose article 5 is inspired by the motto of the Musketeers: if one of the members is attacked, the response will be joint. All for one and one for all. The first time it was invoked was on September 12, 2001, one day after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
In 1954, everything could change. The impulsive Nikita Khrushchev had been in power for a year and surprised locals and strangers. Before getting involved with shoes in the UN he charged his foreign minister, Molotov, with the most unlikely of missions: to join NATO! After all, they were not arch enemies yet… Of course, with the condition that the United States was only an observer. Western powers rejected the proposal on the grounds that it was incompatible with their democratic and defensive goals. Molotov insisted: “Let’s negotiate. This is just a draft.” He even proposed the reunification of Germany… Was he sincere? “It should not be ruled out. Although the propaganda advantage was an argument, that did not mean that the proposals did not also have a serious intention », considers his biographer, Geoffrey Roberts, dean of University College Cork (Ireland). Moscow’s campaign to lead European collective security continued until the 1955 Geneva Conference. It was dismissed, and the entire world was plunged into the Cold War.
The invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia made it clear that Eastern Europe was the USSR’s backyard. The Warsaw Pact was created to counter NATO. These are the years of espionage immortalized by novelists like John le Carré. The CIA and the KGB play cat and mouse in Berlin, Paris –the Alliance’s first headquarters– and Brussels, where the current headquarters are (and which expelled the last infiltrated Russian spies last year)… Topos, deserters and double agents dot the intrahistory on both sides of the iron curtain. It is documented that Kennedy and Khrushchev almost unleashed World War III in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, but there are still many gaps about other episodes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when paranoia reached its zenith. Two of them happened in 1983, during the Euromissile Crisis, which came with the deployment of long-range nuclear weapons after the accession to power of two cocks: Ronald Reagan, on the one hand, and Yuri Andropov, on the other.
“You say that NATO is not directed against us. I propose admission,” Gorbachev planted to James Baker, US Secretary of State
A NATO exercise, dubbed Able Archer, included long radio silences, warhead loads, cryptic announcements and a countdown through all phases of Defcon (the alert level, which runs from 5 in peacetime to 1, attack imminent). The old Soviet leaders (known as ‘the gerontocracy’) believed he was serious and put their nuclear forces on alert. Nothing happened because a few individuals, in intermediate ranks, kept their cool. But only the unconfirmed version of Oleg Gordievski, a KGB double agent, is known. It almost got messed up again that same year, when USSR satellites reported the launch of two US ballistic missiles. An Air Defense officer, Stanislav Petrov, realized it was a false alarm and managed to stop a retaliatory attack. And, already in 1995, President Boris Yeltsin activated the nuclear briefcase when he was informed of the launch of a Norwegian rocket that, in fact, was carrying scientific equipment to study the northern lights. “Just yesterday they gave me for the first time the black briefcase with the nuclear button that two officers always carry with me while we followed the flight of the rocket from start to finish,” he confessed.
By then, the Cold War was already over. “NATO was disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union. And there was a debate about whether it should be dismantled. But its leaders began to see that it could take on another role: to be the ideological spearhead of the liberal democracies in central and eastern Europe. Ironically, the first time he went into combat was not against the USSR, but to pacify the Balkans,” says Applebaum. In 1990, President Mikhail Gorbachev, in the midst of the Soviet disbandment, asked US Secretary of State James Baker to join NATO. “You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is just a security structure that is adapting to new realities. I offer admission.” Baker reportedly said that Gorbachev “must have been dreaming.” But, in 1991, Yeltsin – the first president of the new Russian state – reiterated the proposal.
In 1994, Russia joined the Partnership for Peace, a program to build mutual trust. President Bill Clinton described it as a “pathway to NATO membership.” Most surprisingly, Vladimir Putin told filmmaker Oliver Stone in a 2017 interview that he discussed the option with Clinton during the US president’s visit to Moscow in 2000. Over the years, however, nostalgia for the Union Soviet began to gain strength. In 2005, Putin called its breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Most military alliances don’t last long. The situation changes, the interests… A study by the Brooking Institution counts 63 coalitions in the last five centuries. Only 10 lasted more than 40 years. “NATO, which is in its seventh decade, is the most successful,” he says. The Economist. And remember that, of its 30 current members, 7 belonged to the Warsaw Pact and 3 are former Soviet republics.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.