So, I'm likely demonstrating my own stupidity here, but I'm wondering what I'm missing.

Russia claims that it's afraid of NATO and feels like it might attack it. So... what if it joined NATO? I know, Russia's like the last country on the planet that would join, because NATO practically exists as a counterpoint to Russia... but hypothetically, if Russia also joined, what then? Wouldn't it be safer for Russia that way? It would have access to all the inside knowledge of NATO, and it would make much less sense for any NATO country (or NATO as a whole) to attack Russia because... well, they're on the same side now. Right?

I suppose there might be strings attached and obligations that Russia would need to fulfil, which they are not willing to do, but what are they?

And on the other hand - if Russia suddenly appeared out of the blue on NATO's doorstep and asked to join - would it be accepted? Or would other NATO countries be too distrustful of Russia to allow that to happen?

  • 10
    At one point in time, this was considered a serious possibility. Interesting question, leading to inquiry about power relationships within the alliance. For instance consider that some NATO countries periodically threaten severe economic sanction ("secondary sanctions") against other NATO countries, to stop trade with third parties they don't like such as Iran (in that case, the sanctions clearly contradicting very recent treaty obligations, just to make the point even more dramatic!!) .
    – Pete W
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 0:44
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    Note that the NATO mutual assistance commitment only applies in Europe and North America (for example, with Argentina attacking Falkland/Malvinas UK could not have demanded NATO assistance even if it had wanted to), so the majority of Russias territory would not be covered by such a guarantee even if it were a member.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 9:35
  • 10
    Not enough for a full answer, but having enemies is pretty vital to both Russian domestic and foreign politics at the moment. Nato is a very convenient enemy; predictable and beureaucratic. I'd hazard the guess that there are other adversaries Russia would rather shed than Nato.
    – Stian
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 13:34
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    If I recall correctly Russia did try to join Nato: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia%E2%80%93NATO_relations : Mikhail Gorbachev said that "You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is simply a security structure that is adapting to new realities ... therefore, we propose to join NATO." - it also asked to join when NATO was formed and was declined (again by the US) wilsoncenter.org/publication/… Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 21:34
  • 5
    @PeteW: isn't NATO basically mobbing up against USSR and later Russia? Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 1:47

9 Answers 9


Let's entertain the hypothetical first. Your reasoning skips an important step. You seem to say that the current tensions between Russia and the West could be resolved by Russia joining NATO. In other words, if Russia becomes part of that group of Western countries it has tensions with, then the tensions will be over.

That's not the case. Let's compare it to two people who are fighting over something, let's say their divorce. There's a lot of history and the main point of contention are the children (in the geopolitical comparison they would be the countries which could lean toward the West or Russia).

Now the divorce is getting messy with legal tactics and bullying. The solution in your question would be akin to telling these two people to stop messing around and that they should just start getting along for everyone's sake, maybe even that they should remarry. That doesn't address the underlying reasons for the divorce / the geopolitical tensions at all.

That may seem like an odd comparison, but joining NATO involves a similar commitment. When one NATO country is attacked then the other members must come to their defense. Is that a realistic prospect in the Russia-NATO relation? Would Russia come to the defense of the US if it were attacked? Or similarly, would Belgium want to risk its troops to defend Russia? That's a second aspect where the comparison makes sense: both marriage and NATO are built on trust. If there's no trust then they're just words on a piece of paper. In international relations that's little guarantee of peace for our time.

The above is mostly a story. In practice, NATO has conditions which aspiring members have to meet. According to NATO Enlargement & Open Door:

To join the Alliance, nations are expected to respect the values of the North Atlantic Treaty, and to meet certain political, economic and military criteria, set out in the Alliance’s 1995 Study on Enlargement. These criteria include a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

Russia does not meet these criteria to the satisfaction of existing NATO members. The following conditions are not met in the view of some existing NATO members:

  • Russia is not a functioning democracy. According to some in the EU (which has some overlap with NATO in terms of membership): "In a new assessment of the direction that EU-Russia political relations are taking, MEPs make clear that there is a distinction between the Russian people and President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The latter is, they say, a “stagnating authoritarian kleptocracy led by a president-for-life who is surrounded by a circle of oligarchs”." And according to the US State Department: "The United States would like to stabilize our relationship with Russia and cooperate where possible and when it is in the core U.S. national security interest to do so. To achieve this, Russia must take demonstrable steps to show it is willing to be a responsible global actor, starting with a cessation of efforts to interfere in democratic processes."

  • It does not respect the rights of minorities. According to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office: "We raised concerns about freedom of religion in Russia through the EU. We will continue to monitor the impact of Russia’s use of “extremism” legislation on religious minorities."

  • Russia is not committed to resolve conflicts peacefully. Again according to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office: "The operating environment for HRDs and civil society activists became increasingly constrained in 2014. Many were subject to harassment and violence. As well as those working on human rights issues, those expressing alternative views on the conflict in Ukraine were at particular risk."

It only takes one existing NATO member to prevent another from joining. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty reads:

The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.

Since unanimous agreement is needed, all existing NATO members must agree with a new country joining. In practice, their veto doesn't even have to be about the criteria mentioned above. This happened in 2008 when Greece vetoed Macedonia's invitation to join NATO over its name. According to Wikipedia:

At the 2008 Bucharest summit, Greece vetoed the Republic of Macedonia's invitation to join over the Macedonia naming dispute, however, NATO nations agreed that the country would receive an invitation upon resolution of the disagreement. Greece felt that its neighbour's constitutional name implies territorial aspirations against its own region of Macedonia.

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    Re "shared values": Salazar's Portugal was a founding member, and Turkey has often been "problematic" (democracy, minorities, take conflicts peacefully, you name it). And for the last point, UK and Suez Crisis and Malayan Emergency, USA meddling in the world...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 1:35
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    @SJuan76 yea, the criteria apply mostly to new members when they join and they were only drafted in 1995 (I'm not sure if there was something similar before that). It's a lot easier to refuse to let a country in then to later kick it out.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 1:44
  • 2
    Technically, Article 5 only speaks of attacks in Europe and South America (that's why the UK wasn't able to invoke the article in the Falklands conflict). So as currently written, Article V wouldn't apply if, say, China attacked Russia. Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 3:33
  • Unrelated to your general point, i do not think that the re-marry example is a good fit for this situation. First of all, they were never married. We are talking about two rivals and the prospects of whether they should join the same team. There are good examples where this worked: France and Germany, arch enemies for centuries, now core-members of the EU, calls to annex Alsace are not as present as they were 100 years ago. Same for UK and France, also arch enemies for centuries, then "married" in EU, now "divorced" but still on good terms. Next example: BRD and DDR, married-divorced-remarried
    – BestGuess
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 12:54
  • ... if you look over the atlantic, you will find a whole bunch of 50+ states that fought fiercely over independence, alignment and slavery among other things and are now "married" for quite a while with only "domestic" tensions remaining. It all comes down whether the two parties are actually willing to cooperate. Maybe Russia is/was/will be, maybe the rest of the Nato states are/were/will be. But asking them to "marry" is not the problem. The problem is whether they are willing two. Both sides. Also behind closed doors.
    – BestGuess
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 12:57

Russia did ask to join NATO and suggested it several times and was declined.

First in 1954:

In May 1954 the Western powers rejected the Soviet proposal to join NATO on grounds that the USSR's membership of the organization would be incompatible with its democratic and defensive aims. However, Moscow's extensive and intensive campaign for European collective security continued until the Geneva Foreign Ministers Conference of October-November 1955.

Again in 1990 when negotiating German unification:

In 1990, while negotiating German reunification at the end of the Cold War with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said that "You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is simply a security structure that is adapting to new realities ... therefore, we propose to join NATO." However, Baker dismissed the possibility as a "dream". During a series of interviews with filmmaker Oliver Stone, President Vladimir Putin told him that he floated the possibility of Russia joining NATO to President Bill Clinton when he visited Moscow in 2000.

It was rejected in both these instances.


NATO comes with absolutely no assurances.

In general, in international politics there is no policing body that could punish other members of NATO if they broke their treaty and attacked Russia. And for NATO in particular:

  • If a member state is attacked, other NATO members are not required to declare war on the aggressor.

  • There is no guarantee that one NATO member will not attack another NATO member, see Greece vs Turkey.

It is hard to predict what would happen if such an offer was made (so, questions asking about hypotheticals or the future are off-topic). But if you begin with Russia not trusting other NATO members (and the other way around), having them be in the same structure would provide no safety, and the downsides (having to integrate your armed forces with countries you do not trust) would be very real.

But to show that there is some merit to the idea, the Soviet Union requested in 1954 to join NATO, WP. It was rejected, and in the aftermath the Warsaw Pact was created.

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    "If a member state is attacked, other NATO members are not required to declare war on the aggressor." - Wait so... Article 5... the whole NATO... is kinda pointless? Like, if Russia decides to invade the Baltics, the rest of NATO could simply decide that "sending thoughts and prayers" is the best way to help them, and do so in a "coordinated manner"?
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 0:59
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    Well, it would provide a casus belli against Russia. But yes, basically no member state is required to anything specific, as the first part of this answer points out. And as said, even if the treaty required some specific action, other members could just ignore it. The downside is that the utility of being a member of the NATO would be greatly disminished for the remaining members, as a lack of response would mean that it would provide less of a deterrence value against further aggressions, and some members might chose to switch sides.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 1:06
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    @SJuan76 that answer is about Ukraine which is not a NATO member. I'd dispute that a NATO member could simply ignore the request for assistance or decide unilaterally that sending thoughts and prayers is the best response without facing consequences. For starters, doing so would probably get them kicked out of NATO and they could get sued and face sanctions. Just because there is no policing body in international politics doesn't mean countries don't police each other.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 1:16
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    @SJuan76 Can you quote the relevant part? The part I'm seeing (about article 5) clearly states that an attack against one is to be considered an attack against all, and therefore assistance should be expected.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 9:07
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    @d-b, user2357112 supports Monica is quoting the actual text of the actual Article 5. While interpretations are important, the actual text tops everything else if it comes to push or shove. One lesson from WW1/WW2 (and the Cold War, regarding automatic triggers of responses) was that countries having bilateral forced assistance treaties were a big part of the reasons why the wars escalated quickly and globally. I'm not a historian myself but I would assume that this is exactly a reason why the Article 5 is as soft as it is.
    – AnoE
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 10:18

There have been suggestions (by both NATO and Russian leaders) that Russia join NATO, but no serious talks have been held. See Wiki. No real details are given, which isn't surprising since no serious talks have been held, but some reasons floated by both sides are:

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish Prime Minister who served as NATO Secretary General from 2009 to 2014, said that "Once Russia can show it is upholding democracy and human rights, NATO can seriously consider its membership."


In March 2009, the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, while not ruling out NATO membership at some point in the future, stated: "Great powers don't join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power."

Russian membership of NATO poses other problems, such as:

  • How would you rework NATO such that it is no longer dominated by the US?
  • If NATO isn't reworked, why would Russia join an alliance where it's "perfectly obvious that the deciding vote belongs to the United States"? (this is a direct quote from that article)
  • What would be the purpose of NATO if Russia (the foe it was created to oppose) were to join?
  • "Lukyanov notes that expanding NATO to include Russia could merely push the security division to the east and exacerbate tensions with Beijing. If Russia entered NATO, Lukyanov notes, China would suddenly be in the same position that Russia is in now." (this is another direct quote)

You might also be interested in what NATO has said about how to join the alliance.

  • It is quite possible that Russia rethinks its stance on NATO if suddenly realizes that the flirt with China doesn't worth the greater part of Siberia.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 10:08
  • @fraxinus NATO article 5 is not apliable for Siberia.
    – convert
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 11:29

The (almost) last US ambassador to the former Soviet Union was Jack Matlock. He held the post between 1987-91 when he was based in Moscow. He had been based there earlier in his career in the early 1960s and was there during the Cuban missile crisis. He testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee twenty five years ago, saying:

I consider the administration's recommendation to take new members into NATO as misguided. If it should be approved by the US Senate, it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the US, it's Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Matlock testified against building up NATO because he felt NATO had succeeded in its aims, that was to forge a Europe that was "whole and free" and to go further would again precipitate an arms race with Russia. Moreover, Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn't endangering the security of any East European nation as it had accepted their democratisation under Gorbachev. He also felt that:

If it was a process we started then, if continued, and if continued up to the borders of the Soviet Union - I mean the borders of Russia and included former parts of the Soviet Union ... such as, most importantly, Georgia and Ukraine, that this would bring about a confrontation.

Instead, he considered that the real task ahead was to build a new security architecture for Europe that would include Eastern Europe and Russia as well as other states that had been in the Soviet Union. At that time, there were concrete proposals that had been planned out - the Partnership for Peace and they had an organisation, the Organisation for Security and Peace in Europe. Obviously, this was not the route that was finally taken.

As for your own remark:

NATO practically exists as a counter-point to Russia ...

This betrays Cold War thinking and let us recall the Soviet Union was dissolved thirty years ago and further recall that in 1997 NATO & the Russian Federation signed the Founding Act in Paris of which the preamble states:

NATO and its member states, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation ... based on an enduring political commitment undertaken at the highest political level, will build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.

NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation. The present Act reaffirms the determination of NATO and Russia to give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe whole and free to the benefit of all it's peoples.

Making this commitment at the highest political level marks the beginning of a fundamentally new relationship between NATO and Russia. They intend to develop, on the basis of common interest, reciprocity and transparency a strong, stable and enduring partnership.

Russia signed a partnership deal with NATO but had ambassador Matlock suggestion been followed up and pressed on with, there would have been a single new security architecture for peace, prosperity and security that would have included them both and that would have been a far better path to follow as it would have left the "vestiges" of the Cold War where it belonged - in the dustbin of history, rather than, as we are now, being in danger of reviving it.

Sources: NATO & Democracy Now

  • This, unfortunately, is rubbish. We can only speculate on how the "security architecture for peace" might have worked out, but it requires no speculation at all to see how "on the principles of democracy" did. Russia's level of democracy has always been under their control and we see exactly where that went.
    – cjs
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 16:24

Other then somebody said it has nothing to do with democracy and even behavior in general, that Russia can´t join NATO. There were and still are NATO members having not much to do with democracy. Turkey is not more a democracy then Russia and what Turkey doing in Syria is not beter, what Russia making in Ukraine, but Turkey is NATO member.

So lets tallk about real reasons from both sides, why this not going to hapend:

From russian side:

Russia will not acept geting orders from US. Russia is number 2 in weapon export and produces its own weapons, NATO requires all it members to use more or less the same wepons. By joining NATO Russia would be forced to use western weapons which would mean the end to its own industry.

From western side:

Poland, Baltic and some other eastrn Europeian states would put their veto. Western European countries would also not be hapy as NATO membership is seeing as posible EU membership after that. Because of that reason EU countries refused Clintons idea to make Russia NATO member in the mid 90s.

  • 1
    Russia will not accept getting orders from the US. I am not sure if this is a precondition. They would just need to defend US if something.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:22

If you believe the recently declassified conversation between Yeltsin and Clinton, then Russia did try to join NATO, but this offer from Russia was rejected or ignored, depending on how to interpret Clinton's response. Unfortunately, I have not found an English-language source.

"Russia should be the first to join NATO. After that, other Central and Eastern European countries may join. There should be a kind of cartel of the United States, Russia and the Europeans in order to contribute to ensuring and strengthening international security," Yeltsin's words are quoted in the document.

Clinton then stated that "the people of Russia have always believed that greatness was in store for them, and they are right to believe in their positive future." According to the document, the response of the then American leader to Yeltsin's words was "very cautious." In particular, Clinton did not touch on the proposed idea of uniting countries or Russia's membership in NATO. At the meeting, he spoke about the "relationship of trust" and the chance to "guarantee the countries of Europe a century of peace or more."


Russia did try. Russia's joining of NATO is in the interest of Western Europe, because the purpose of establishing NATO is to strengthen the military strength of Western Europe and make itself less weak compared with the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO still found other reasons to remain, such as counter-terrorism, energy security, and even inexplicable diseases and global warming. When the Soviet Union had just collapsed, Gorbachev suggested joining NATO. But it is clear that NATO does not take Russia's olive branch seriously. Perhaps Russia's reconciliation with Western Europe is not in the interest of some major NATO member states. In response, in February 1990, James Baker, then US Secretary of State, evaluated the idea as the possibility as a "dream".

This question mentioned "why doesn't Russia join NATO", which may be because Russia will never be able to join NATO. Because even if Western Europe longs for a safe and stable European environment, not every major member state can benefit from Russia's membership of NATO. Therefore, it is inevitable that this idea cannot be realized.

Digression: This question seems to be based on imagination that has not happened. According to my experience, this type of question does not seem to be popular in SE. But obviously everyone likes to have a punching bag to complain about Russia, so this Q is well protected.

  • This question is already 2 years old. :)
    – Vilx-
    Commented Mar 12 at 8:21
  • @Vilx- Happy birthday to your Q. However in most cases, the more time passes, the more information the new answers will contain. Many rights and wrongs are even reversed because of late information being disclosed.
    – Jack_here
    Commented Mar 13 at 0:40

Any military alliance only makes sense if the members trust one another enough not to see each other as very obvious and immediate threat. This means there are no conflicts between members deep enough to expect that the military confrontation is likely in the future. There are no very obvious ethnic conflicts, no ambitions to regain the "historically owned lands", no claims "this is not a true country" and economical process like zones of influence (Russia vs EU, etc) are allowed to drift how the market economy dictates.

It would be nice if we would have this between Russia and EU. Unfortunately we do not.

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