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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Why did the Soviet Union apply to join NATO?

Article by: Helen Kurvits

The Soviet Union’s application to join NATO

During the Cold War the world was at the brink of nuclear disaster many times, the Berlin Wall was constructed in the middle of Germany’s capital, and extensive competition in the race to space began. For many people it may be surprising that only a few years after the beginning of the Cold War, the USSR attempted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union applied to join the alliance in 1954. The main motivations were to prevent Germany from joining NATO or any other military alliance, as well as to maintain global political influence. While NATO was created already in 1949, the Warsaw Pact, which was an opposing alliance, was created six years later. But what happened in between?

The future of Germany

The roots of the events surrounding the creation of the two alliances go back to Germany which was, at the time, split between the USSR and Western powers. Moscow advocated for Germany’s reunification as a neutral and demilitarised state, but Western states feared that Communists would pull it into their sphere of influence. According to them, these fears were legitimate as this had already occurred in several Eastern European states. Some Western powers were also worried that a unified Germany would threaten peace in Europe yet again. On the other hand, the USSR was concerned that NATO would expand to West Germany - very close to the USSR’s sphere of influence. They perceived it as a threat due to its own economic and military strength which placed. This diplomatic game around Germany was at the core of the proposal made by the Soviets.

The USSR had a plan

The Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav Molotov, introduced the idea of a collective security agreement of all European states which would involve the United States being relegated to a mere observer role because they were simply not geographically located in Europe. However, the mere status of an observer was unacceptable to the US. And unsurprisingly, this offer was rejected by the Western European nations as well, who perceived it as an attempt to disrupt NATO. Molotov responded that the proposal could be amended and that he was open to discussions. The USSR then went even further by amending their proposal by offering the US the opportunity to join the alliance, as opposed to being just an observer, under the condition that the USSR was given NATO membership. It sent the notes asking to join the alliance to three countries: France, the UK, and the United States. This offer was also rejected. The Soviet Union had anticipated that response. But why did they then still decide to ask for the membership? For them, it was a win-win situation.

Keeping Germany out

The USSR expressed in its proposal that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949, was an "aggressive pact". Nevertheless, it argued that the character of the alliance could be changed easily. All that had to be done was to accept the USSR as a member due to its principal role in the recent World War II coalition against Nazi Germany. Moreover, going back to the roots of the problem, the Soviets also expressed their hope that Germany would not form part of any military alliances. For the Soviet Union, this would have been a way to achieve greater security near its own borders and strengthen their foreign policy position.

What was the response?

For existing NATO members, membership of the USSR was unacceptable. The countries saw such cooperation with the Soviet Union as a way of legitimising the USSR's control over Eastern Europe. They further expressed that the USSR failed to meet the alliance’s democratic standards. For the West, the application for membership by the USSR was interpreted as mere Soviet propaganda targeted primarily at Western public opinion. And it was not realistic that the USSR would accept the requirements of NATO. The most important requirements concerned the control over its military planning and the securing of democratic rights in the Soviet Union, as well as in the countries that fell within its sphere of influence. Though unwilling to fulfil the conditions presented to them by NATO, the Soviets continued their campaign for European collective security for the forthcoming half a year.

Any losses for the USSR?

The Soviets were in a situation where, no matter what the response from NATO, it could only have a beneficial result for them. If the West rejected their attempt to join NATO, it would mean the alliance was anti-Soviet and, in turn, proving Soviet's point that NATO was an aggressive pact. The USSR could then form its own alliances with states that held similar ideologies such as China. On the other hand, if they would have been accepted, Germany would have remained disarmed, and the NATO alliance would have been less useful. The possibility of the USSR being accepted by NATO was not completely ruled out by Soviet strategists.

What was the result?

After the rejected proposal, Moscow’s efforts to prevent Germany from joining any military alliance fell into pieces. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO, thereby defeating these aspirations and in response to that, Europe's Socialist states signed the Warsaw Pact. This was a collective defence treaty that was signed between the Soviet Union and seven other states of the Eastern bloc. It was established to counter the power of NATO and to ensure de facto Soviet control over military forces in Eastern and Central Europe. The eight countries pledged mutual defence in a case of any one member state being attacked. Though there was never a military confrontation between the two organisations it did lead to the expansion of military forces, with the largest military engagement being the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But for the most part, the Cold War was instead fought on an ideological basis. There is one thought that remains, though: Perhaps if the USSR had been accepted as a member of NATO, the Cold War could have stopped right there. Of course, this is pure speculation and given the strong ideological differences between the two blocs, it seems very unlikely. But we will never know.

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