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The Istanbul document was a declaration signed in 1999 by Russia and Ukraine. Its legal character is similar to that of the Declaration of Human rights.

It contains the following paragraph:

We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve.

So why is Russia complaining that countries of the former Soviet Union want to join NATO when it signed a declaration granting that right explicitly?

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8 Answers 8

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Russia (the Russian government) claims to believe that Ukraine and Europe are not sovereign actors, but rather controlled by the US. I do not know if they actually do believe that, but considering their apparent mis-judgements to date that is not impossible.

Russia also claims to believe that "the West" (read: Washington) are actively fomenting colour revolutions in the ex-Soviet sphere to diminish Russian influence, and possibly in Russia itself to overthrow the current government. Again, I cannot judge if they do believe it.

They claim that "the West" exploited a brief moment of Russian weakness to take away the empire which is historically Russia's birthright as the successor of the Roman Empire and the representative of Christian civilization. Basically, blame the language of the OSCE document on that drunkard Yeltsin, who resigned that year. And if the populations in the Russkiy Mir fail to see it the same way, that makes Russia claim those populations are misled by corrupted elites and need to be rescued.

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    Again, did Russia withdraw from that declaration or did they withdraw from the memorandum of Budapest which is of similar importance for the stability of that region. May 7, 2023 at 21:15
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    While this answer offers good insight on the intent behind Russia's foreign policy in Europe, it fails to answer the actual question - what is the political difference between Russia, Ukraine and NATO on the Istanbul declaration that all are citing in their favour in support of their political stance? Due to the context it ignores, this answer is also flawed as it creates the impression that Russia is the party at fault ... it can be improved.
    – sfxedit
    May 9, 2023 at 17:40
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    @sfxedit, I do not think that Russia cares one way or the other about the exact words they signed two decades ago. They see themselves in a struggle of systems with the West, and any current action or past declaration is seen through that lens. (The same applies to a lesser degree to the West, because the West does not see Russia as an existential threat unless they go for MAD.)
    – o.m.
    May 9, 2023 at 20:28
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    @o.m. Even if we go by your logic that Russia and the west no longer care about the agreements they sign, they still make it a point to bring up these agreements in their political bickering. And the questioner is asking what exactly are these public political claims and differences, with respect to the Istanbul declaration. Your answer would be factual and complete only if you include that too.
    – sfxedit
    May 9, 2023 at 20:59
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    @o.m. Russia is absolutely the aggressor. Nobody can dispute that. The US too was once an aggressor in a similar situation - Cuba wanted to align with Russia, and have a Russian nuclear base that would threaten US self-interest. Today Ukraine aligning with NATO and Svestapol, Crimea falling into NATO hands threatens Russian self-interest. I call it hypocritical to call one of these action as justified and the other as evil, when both are based on similar political motivations. The treaty referenced in this question also shows the political fears and desires of all, and is insightful for that.
    – sfxedit
    May 10, 2023 at 9:58
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Circumstances can change, perceptions can change, and people can change their minds.

Once upon a time in the 1990s Russia itself wanted to join NATO.

But through a series of smaller geopolitical conflicts and perceived political slights, Russia has come to believe that Cold War conflicts with the US have not been extinguished.

With Ukraine, their perception seems to be that US meddling has finally arrived on their doorstep and that their interests are to pre-empt any further deterioration.

So the reason Russia is complaining now about the alliances of its neighbours, despite having previously indicated a willingness to accept independent arrangements, is that those governing Russia have changed their mind about the effects and implications since they last indicated their acceptance.

As others have already indicated in answers and comments, the Russian population also largely repudiates the politics of the 1990s, so that decisions made then could not be expected to reflect political views now.

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    Because they have no problem simply ignoring it. May 7, 2023 at 22:26
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    @CuriousIndeed The Istanbul document doesn’t really have any teeth, at least not against a state fond of brinkmanship politics like Russia, so there is no downside to them choosing to simply act like it never existed. In contrast, Russia actively choosing to pull out would look bad both internationally and domestically, which would be problematic for the current regime. May 8, 2023 at 1:02
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    @CuriousIndeed: at 200+ pages, one can find whatever they want in there to support their own position. Case in point, as note under the Q, Russia invoked "indivisible security" from that doc to justify their [implied] threat of invasion (at the beginning of Feb 2022). May 8, 2023 at 8:15
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    @Trilarion, the question might not be "do they want to invade Ukraine?", but "do they want to confront the West?". When the Nazis got to gates of Moscow, they didn't say "do you want to invade Poland?", they said "do you want to confront the Nazis?". My point is that they may have ambiguous feelings about Ukrainian separatism in its own right, but not when Ukrainian separatists are a tentacle of the West.
    – Steve
    May 8, 2023 at 9:39
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    @user253751 I understood that pull out was refering to the Istanbul document.
    – convert
    May 9, 2023 at 9:52
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The extent that Russia accepted that principle had already reached its limit by 2008, when (in the context of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, which he attended), where the candidacy of Georgia and Ukraine were on the table, Putin said that

We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders, a bloc whose members are subject in part to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as a direct threat to the security of our country. The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice. [...]

We have eliminated bases in Cam Ranh (Vietnam) and in Cuba. We have withdrawn our troops deployed in eastern Europe, and withdrawn almost all large and heavy weapons from the European part of Russia. And what happened? A [US] base in Romania, where we are now, one in Bulgaria, an American missile defence area in Poland and the Czech Republic. That all means moving military infrastructure to our borders.

(TBH, I'm not sure what he meant by "we have [...] withdrawn almost all large and heavy weapons from the European part of Russia".) In the same speech he says that NATO's "out of area" operations (like Kosovo) cast doubt on the alliance's true goals, and complains that the (then recently admitted to NATO) Latvia didn't give citizenship to its Russian speakers.

And while this was surely not first time someone in a position of power in Russia said something like that (even Yeltsin protested the idea of a NATO expansion in the 1990s, but was more easily placated), Russia made its point in 2008 by invading Georgia, in response to the renewed clashes between Georgian armed forces and South Ossetian separatists. Later on, Medvedev (president during the seat swap with Putin) declared that the armed intervention in Georgia was essential in having prevented Georgia from joining NATO.

Some Western observers pointed out in Feb 2022 that Russia was repeating the "Georgia playbook" with Ukraine.

Yeah, someone is gonna say "but Finland, 2023". Russia would have perhaps prevented that too, if their forces were not overstretched in Ukraine. For now they've declared that Northern Europe has become "unstable":

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow "will be forced to take military-technical and other retaliatory measures to counter the threats to our national security arising from Finland’s accession to NATO.”

It said Finland's move marks "a fundamental change in the situation in Northern Europe, which had previously been one of the most stable regions in the world.”

In a 2022 speech, referencing Peter the Great's campaigns (against Sweden, but also around Narva, presently in Estonia) Putin said that (similarly) "it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well" places where "from time immemorial, the Slavs lived". Anyhow, as of 2022, Putin was drawing a finer line between NATO candidates that Russia had territorial disputes with and those without:

“We don’t have problems with Sweden and Finland like we do with Ukraine,” the Russian president told a news conference in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat. “We don’t have territorial differences.”

For the latter, in late 2021, Russia demanded a return to pre-1997 armed forces deployments in Europe, so that NATO's expansion since then would be, more or less, confined to paper.


BTW, although the Q itself notes this to some extent, I should probably mention here that many European countries regard the CSCE/OSCE conference outputs as politically but not legally binding. Among the numerous principles declared in OSCE documents, Russia for instance likes and insists on the "indivisible security" one. In particular they raised it again in Feb 2022, shortly before invading Ukraine. And after the Georgia war, Medvedev proposed a European Security Treaty that would have raised the "indivisible security" principle to a legally binding status, but this was rejected by other countries, including Germany, who argued that it is too vague for such a role, and in fact (despite being in the same Istanbul declaration) rather contradictory with the freedom of countries to choose alliances:

German Minister of State Werner Hoyer noted the difficulties involved in attempting to make the principle of indivisible security into a mandatory legal requirement. “How, for example, does the concept of indivisible security fit with the freedom of countries to choose what alliances they belong to, something to which we are all committed?” he asked.

As noted by other analysts (in that paper), the 2009 Russian treaty draft in fact proposed to resolve this by making any other prior commitments subordinate to this "indivisible security" principle (via its Article 9), so essentially giving Russia, from then on, a legal veto over NATO expansion, troop deployments, etc., assuming NATO members would have signed on. Even the right to collective self-defense was made subordinate to the same "indivisible security" in this proposal. In case of being attacked, a signatory state retained the right to convene an Extraordinary Conference, where collective defense decisions had to be unanimous (minus the attacking country, if among the signatories). Needless to say that such a design favored big countries over small ones since the former could self-defend on their own, an action which did not need Conference approval.

The 1999 Istanbul joint ministerial statement even contained some rather more concrete commitments like (p. 50)

  1. [...] We welcome the commitment by the Russian Federation to complete withdrawal of the Russian forces from the territory of Moldova by the end of 2002.

Which, of course, has yet to happen even 20 years later, and was a bone of contention in some later OSCE summits e.g. in 2010.

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    In short, they do not feel bound by the papers they subscribed back then. May 7, 2023 at 17:38
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    @PhilipKlöcking: yes, but in fairness most European countries consider CSCE/OSCE documents to be not legally binding too. In fact, when Russia tried in 2009 to draft a new European Security Treaty based on some of those [vague] principles they liked (in particular "indivisible security") they received immediate pushback including from Germany (arguing that "indivisible security" is too vague for a treaty.) May 8, 2023 at 10:42
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Others have answered this question more broadly, ignoring the context you asked it in - namely, the Istanbul document, which was a result of the Istanbul summit.

Just as you have focused on one relevant clause of importance to you in the document (i.e. article 8 that talks about security alliances) there does seem to be a political misunderstanding between all the parties involved on what they consider to be the most relevant / important part / clauses of the document.

For Russia, with reference to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the most important part (emphasised) are in article 8 and 9:

  1. Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States. Within the OSCE no State, group of States or organization can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the OSCE area or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.

  2. We will build our relations in conformity with the concept of common and comprehensive security, guided by equal partnership, solidarity and transparency. The security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all others. We will address the human, economic, political and military dimensions of security as an integral whole.

Art. 8,9, Charter for European Security in 1999 OSCE Istanbul Document p.3

This is also what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the US:

Lavrov told reporters that Russia's stance was based on a 1999 charter signed in Istanbul by members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States and Canada.

The charter says countries should be free to choose their own security arrangements and alliances, but goes on to say that they "will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states".

... "Our western colleagues are simply trying not even to ignore but to consign to oblivion this key principle of international law agreed in the Euro-Atlantic space," Lavrov told reporters. - Russia cites 1999 charter text for insistence on 'indivisible security' (Feb 2022).

So it appears that the political misunderstanding here is that Ukraine is giving importance to the clause about joining alliances, Russia was giving primacy to the clause that such alliances need to consider the security concerns of others while the Anglosphere / NATO focused more on the part that OSCE countries cannot create or claim a "sphere of influence" (which it believed Russia was doing with Eastern Europeon countries).

(I'll leave it to the readers, and historians, to decide if this political misunderstanding is a deliberate farce or an unintentional tragedy).

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    I am under impression that Russia is now "strengthening the own security" at the expense of some "other states", notably Ukraine.
    – Stančikas
    May 9, 2023 at 5:23
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    @Stančikas Russia's claim is that they had no choice because Ukraine wasn't willing to engage with Russia to address their security concerns if Ukraine joining NATO. (And note that Russia doesn't see this as a Russia - Ukraine issue but a Anglosphere led NATO-Russia issue. From their perspective, if anyone in NATO had assured Russia that Ukraine wouldn't be admitted to NATO, keeping in mind Russia's (in)security concerns, matters wouldn't have escalated this far.)
    – sfxedit
    May 9, 2023 at 17:25
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    @sfxedit isn't it conjecture that Russia wouldn't have invaded had NATO promised not to help Ukraine if they were invaded? I get that that claim was made, but a lot of claims get made that aren't true.
    – bharring
    May 9, 2023 at 17:44
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    I can't find a clear definition of "threat" in the Document, but Russia is bending it to be meaningless. If Ukraine deciding to end a lease of its own sovereign territory, or joining a defensive alliance, is a threat; what isn't a threat? What if Ukraine changed the price of grain? Threat to their food security! The Document also appears to lack an enforcement clause (the death of so many peace agreements), merely "encouraging" them to use the The Court of Conciliation and Arbitration (Russia signed but never ratified), but unilateral decision and enforcement by invasion was not the intent.
    – Schwern
    May 10, 2023 at 3:02
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    @Schwern If Ukraine deciding to end a lease of its own sovereign territory ... is a threat; what isn't a threat? The US didn't allow sovereign Cuba to have a Russian nuclear base on Cuba and used its military might to prevent it, right? It's the same case here too. (And if you read the political history of Crimea, it shows Russia always had better claim on it than Ukraine.)
    – sfxedit
    May 10, 2023 at 8:54
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To answer the part about "Why does Russia see NATO as an aggressor", we must go back to the same year 1999. In 1999, at least according to Russian point of view, NATO attacked Yugoslavia. Then there were Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. All of these actions are seen by Russia, and countries outside the Western world, as NATO aggression.

As mentioned in some other answer, 1999 Yeltsin was president. He and the majority of his government were relative pro Western, which explains why they signed this document.

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  • as I understand it, the NATO attack on Yugoslavia was approved by the UN, and it could have been done by any military force, but the NATO force was most nearby which is why they did it. May 9, 2023 at 9:54
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    @user253751 Defenetly not approved by the UN.
    – convert
    May 9, 2023 at 9:58
  • oh, the UN approved a different one - a very similar one. Considering that the only reason the UN didn't approve this one was that bad countries wanted to be allowed to do Nazi stuff, it seems like it was morally justified. May 10, 2023 at 15:01
  • "Why'd you punch me?! I didn't do anything to you." "Because those people over there punched some bad people 20 years ago and we don't think they should be punching anyone without our say so." "So why'd you punch ME?!" "Because you might join those people." "Yeah, because you keep PUNCHING ME!"
    – Schwern
    May 15, 2023 at 1:59
  • @Schwern What this was exactly refering to?
    – convert
    May 15, 2023 at 9:00
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Russia does not recognise the sovereignty of the other Soviet republics, considers them all "historically part of Russia", and ESPECIALLY Belarus and Ukraine are considered such, as well as the Baltic states.

It's basically the same ploy that China uses to claim ownership of Taiwan, parts of Japan, the Philippines, and other countries.

Russia is also extremely paranoid about any of their neighbours, and considers any neighbour who is not under their complete control to be an enemy by definition. As NATO was set up explicitly to curb Soviet/Russian aggression it's Moscow's main boogeyman so any country daring to want to join NATO (or even have friendly relations with them) is considered a major threat.

This is reflected in repeated Russian demands that the Baltic states and all former Warsaw Pact nations leave NATO and completely demilitarise, which not only removes them as a potential threat but obviously also leaves them open for invasion and inclusion into Russia proper.

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    "Russia does not..." I often wish there would be some suitable citations for such claims. How do we know that Russia does this? May 8, 2023 at 9:18
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    "Russian demands that the Baltic states and all former Warsaw Pact nations leave NATO" When did Russia made this demand?
    – convert
    May 8, 2023 at 12:26
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    Russia did make that claim in January 2022 before the war.
    – alamar
    May 8, 2023 at 19:51
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    @alamar And thats an other misunderstanding, Russia has demanded that NATO troops and bases will be removed from that countries, while NATO in this context stands for USA. The countries still can stay NATO members including article 5.
    – convert
    May 8, 2023 at 21:37
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    @convert that would make article 5 untenable. Russia quickly invading weakly defended territory and then immediately threatening use of nuclear weapons if contested, as we have already seen in Ukraine.
    – Edheldil
    May 9, 2023 at 12:14
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You've confused two separate issues.

NATO expansion into Eastern Europe shows NATO is untrustworthy, not that it is aggressive. This is not inconsistent with the Istanbul document you cited, since that only says countries are free to apply. It does not say countries have to be accepted (note NATO denied membership to Russia itself). Since NATO promised not to expand, and then didn't deny membership, it shows NATO cannot be trusted.

NATO is an aggressor because it (or its ideological leaders) attacked Libya, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

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  • See this question for a discussion if NATO ever started a war history.stackexchange.com/questions/68436/… May 8, 2023 at 16:27
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    +1 Indeed, I think the question is built on the ambiguous meaning of word aggression. E.g., Russia may refer to NATO expansion as aggressive, it does not mean that NATO has literally/legally engaged in a military aggression against Russia. On even more ambiguous use of the term one could cite Obama, who promised to aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians - here aggressively has clearly non-aggressive meaning. May 9, 2023 at 7:51
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    Didn't NATO attack on UN's behalf to stop the fighting/ethnic cleansing/killing on civilians? They did not attack with a view to take over, permanently occupying a region unlike some other countries that wanted full lasting ownership. May 9, 2023 at 12:58
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    No, NATO intervention in Serbia was not authorized by UN.
    – Allure
    May 9, 2023 at 13:05
  • @stackoverblown First one was authorized by UN. Second one was not authorized - but the only reason it was not authorized, was that China and Russia wanted to do ethnic cleansings and not be attacked, so they needed to set precedent. May 10, 2023 at 15:03
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One option is that Russia sees NATO's acceptance of those countries' membership as irresponsible, even as it does not deny these countries' right to participate. In the triangle of Russia, Eastern European countries and NATO, Russia sees the latter as the main culprit.

The question itself is misguided in the sense that Ukraine is not a part of NATO and is not being accepted to NATO in forseeable future. So even if Russia considers NATO an aggressor for something, it's definitely not for accepting Ukraine into NATO.

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