World View: What did Ireland tell Russia about joining Nato?

Russian threats to Finland over neutrallity are also threats to this country

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the recent report of the Commission on Defence raise important issues for Ireland about the State’s military vulnerability and how our responsibility to fellow EU member states’ security should be manifested. Inevitably, they have reopened debates about both neutrality and even Nato membership.

But recent diplomatic exchanges with Russia suggest that the latter does not accept we even have the right to sign up to Nato.

The case for membership is one that remains to be made convincingly, but our right to make that choice ourselves is as important as a sovereign nation as is to Ukraine.

On February 1st, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, as part of the Russian campaign to legitimise its “concerns” about Ukraine, sent a letter to the US, Canada and several European countries, including Ireland, about their respective interpretations of a key security pact.

Lavrov claims that the response to Russia’s concerns reflects “serious differences in the understanding of the principle of equal and indivisible security that is fundamental to the entire European security architecture”, and he demands that they clarify their understandings.


Specifically he draws attention to the obligations entered into by the 54 states , Ireland included, which signed up to the important Charter for European Security at the OSCE Summit in Istanbul in November 1999 – a landmark agreement that provided a framework in post-cold war Europe for peaceful co-existence.

Its provisions include “the right of each participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements including treaties or alliances, as they evolve, as well as the right of each state to neutrality”.

But, Lavrov adds, the charter “directly conditions those rights on the obligation of each state not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of other states”. In Lavrov’s interpretation, that obligation means no signatory can effect a change in the balance of European security by signing up to an alliance; despite the previous clause’s broadly permissive tone, Russia holds that the charter freezes Europe’s then security relationships in place, and that the subsequent enlargement of Nato represents a breach of that agreement.

Moscow has threatened to retaliate in an unspecified way

This ambiguous formula, a deliberately vague diplomatic fudge, has been repeated regularly by him since the invasion of Ukraine to justify Moscow’s objection to further Nato enlargement in eastern Europe, notably by Ukraine. But it has also been the basis on which the Russians have made clear their objection to public discussions in Finland and Sweden of the possibility of abandoning their long-held posture of military non-alignment and joining Nato. The implied message to Ireland was also clear.

Shift in attitudes

That possibility, if Sweden also decides to go ahead, now enjoys the support of 66 per cent of Finns, up from 19 per cent in 2017, a shift in attitudes without doubt attributable to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Moscow has threatened to retaliate in an unspecified way. “It’s obvious that if Finland and Sweden join Nato, which is first of all a military organisation, it will entail serious military-political consequences, which would require retaliatory steps by the Russian Federation,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing earlier this month. Zakharova argued, echoing Lavrov, that while every state has a sovereign right to choose ways of ensuring its security, all members of the OSCE have confirmed their adherence to the principle that the security of one state shouldn’t be achieved to the detriment of another country’s security.

Surely it is only right that – at a critical time for European security – such international commitments made in our name are made openly so they can be debated by the Dáil

“We want to receive a clear answer to the question how our partners understand their obligation,” Lavrov’s letter insists, while demanding an individual response from each of the states addressed. “If you renege on this obligation, we ask you to clearly state that.”

Ireland and the other EU recipients of the letter, Finland and Sweden included, decided to reply collectively through the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell. His response, which both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the European External Action Service refuse to put in the public domain, presumably commits us to another interpretation that would not imply constraints on our ability to make a choice whether or not to join Nato.

Critical time

Or does it? Surely it is only right that – at a critical time for European security – such international commitments made in our name are made openly so they can be debated by the Dáil and can form part of any informed debate on our security and Nato.

It should also be noted that another serious constraint on Ireland’s ability to sign up to Nato, should we wish to do so, is the triple-lock mechanism under which any foreign deployment of Irish troops can only be made with the consent of the UN Security Council, a possibility now undoubtedly limited by the Russian veto at the council. Signing up to Nato obligations to come to the aid of fellow members under attack would not be compatible with such a constraint.

Patrick Smyth is a former Europe Editor of the Irish Times