Russian leader Vladimir Putin said in his interview with Tucker Carlson this week that he asked U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000 if Russia could join NATO and, while Clinton allegedly said he was personally warm to the idea, his advisers decided it was politically impossible.
“I asked him: ‘Bill, do you think if Russia asked to join NATO, do you think it would happen?’ Suddenly he said, ‘You know, it’s interesting. I think so,’” Putin recalled.
“But in the evening, when we met for dinner, he said: ‘You know, I’ve talked to my team, no, it’s not possible now,’” Putin continued.
“If he had said yes, the process of rapprochement would have commenced, and eventually it might have happened if we had seen some sincere wish on the side of our partners,” the Russian dictator mused.
Given that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to oppose the expansionist Soviet Union, and persists largely as a counter to the successor Russian government, it certainly would have been a historic event if Russia had been allowed to join. There is some historical evidence to suggest the idea was kicked around during the time period Putin claimed.
In a November 2021 interview recounted by the UK Guardian, former UK Defense Secretary George Robertson, who was the secretary-general of NATO from 1999 to 2003, told a story similar to the one Putin gave to Tucker Carlson.
Robertson said Putin spoke with him in Brussels soon after becoming president of Russia in 2000 and expressed a desire to become “part of that secure, stable, prosperous West that Russia was out of at the time.”
“When are you going to invite us to join NATO?” he recalled Putin asking.
Robertson said his response was, “Well, we don’t invite people to join NATO; they apply to join NATO.”
Putin retorted that he had no intention of “standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.”
Robertson recalled the same anecdote about the Brussels meeting to Foreign Policy (FP) in January 2022. He also said Putin was very eager to make Russia “part of Western Europe” during an earlier conversation held in Moscow.
“He told me, ‘I want to resume relations with NATO. Step by step, but I want to do it.’ He added that ‘Some people don’t agree with me, but that’s what I want,’” Robertson said.
Robertson mentioned in that interview that President Clinton was also eager to rebuild relations with Russia, and helped negotiate the NATO-Russia Founding Act, an agreement that called on NATO and Russia to resolve their differences through negotiation rather than armed conflict. The NATO-Russia Founding Act also obliged NATO to avoid stationing nuclear weapons on the territory of new member nations, a perennial concern of Moscow’s.
A few months before the conversation Robertson recalled, Putin sat for a BBC interview with David Frost in which he said he would consider NATO membership “if, and when, Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an evil partner.”
“Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world,” Putin told Frost in 2000.
Putin’s opinion of Western culture has changed dramatically since then, as he now considers it weak, perverted, and downright “satanic.” A big part of Putin’s nationalist political message is his desire to bring the former Soviet satellites back into the Russian fold to protect them from toxic Western culture.
Putin’s urge to obtain NATO membership evidently dissipated for several reasons. As his comment to Robertson about not wanting to wait in line behind “countries that don’t matter” implies, he was reportedly not terribly serious about applying to begin with.
The Guardian suggested Putin’s thoughts of joining NATO decisively ended with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, which he saw as a Western plot to undermine Russian influence. He was also displeased by NATO expanding into eastern Europe.
Robertson told FP that Putin turned decisively against joining NATO after Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, and the rise of militant Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine in 2014 finished off the idea for good. The NATO-Russia Council stopped holding meetings soon after the Ukraine separatist conflict erupted in 2014.
Long before Putin’s reign, the Soviet Union made a proposal to join NATO in 1954. The Soviets were not particularly subtle about their desire to undermine NATO from within and using their membership to push American forces out of Europe. NATO was not particularly polite about refusing their proposal.