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Essay: Answering the Kremlin's Challenge

On December 20, 1991, NATO foreign ministers gathered at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels for talks with diplomats from the former Warsaw Pact countries were caught by surprise as the (still) Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Afanasievsky, began reading out a letter from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner. “We consider these relations [with NATO] to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels,” wrote the Russian leader who, five days later, would take control of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal and its permanent seat on the UN Security Council as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formally went out of existence. Yeltsin’s letter continued: “Today we are raising the question of Russia's membership in NATO.” Unlike the sham Soviet application to join the alliance in 1954, this one was clearly made in good faith, coming a few months after Russian citizens defiantly—and definitively—rejected the old regime, going out in the hundreds of thousands to the streets of Moscow to stand in the way of an attempted hardline coup d’état.

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