His letter was to Nato, and he was sounding out the prospects for membership.
“We consider these relations to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels,” he wrote. “Today we are raising a question of Russia’s membership in Nato, however regarding it as a long-term political aim.”
A few years later, when Russia signed on to a treaty known as the Partnership for Peace, US president Bill Clinton suggested it was a “track that will lead to Nato membership”.
Several years after that, the administration of George W Bush sounded out Russia’s interest once again.
“I don’t see why not. I would not rule out such a possibility – but I repeat – if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner,” he said.
The-then Nato head, former British defence minister George Robertson, thought Putin was genuine. “They wanted to be part of that secure, stable prosperous west that Russia was out of at the time,” he later said.
We all know that did not happen. We know that Russia did sign up to the Russia–Nato Council in 2002, established as a means to improve dialogue, but which was suspended in 2014 after Russia invaded the Crimea.
In truth, Russia’s relations with the West had long soured before that, as evidenced by Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich when he attacked what he termed the US’s dominance of international affairs, and accused it of provoking a new nuclear arms race by developing ballistic missile defences, undermining international institutions and making the Middle East more unstable.
“The process of Nato expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance,” Putin said. “We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’ ”
As the world looks right now, it might seem like madness to suggest Russia be invited to join Nato.
The Russian leader has ordered his troops to invade Ukraine in what clearly appears to be an utter breach of International laws. Hundreds of people have been killed, a nation’s very future is on the line.
Cities have been bombed, more than one million people have fled Ukraine’s borders for safety, and all the while Putin has never appeared more arrogant or scornful of the deadly impact of his actions.
“I want to say that the special military operation is proceeding strictly in line with the timetable. According to plan,” he said in a televised address on Thursday.
“All the tasks that have been set are being successfully resolved.”
He added: “Now on Ukrainian territory, our soldiers and officers are fighting for Russia, for a peaceful life for the citizens of Donbas, for the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, so that we can’t be threatened by an anti-Russia right on our borders that the West has been creating for years.”
When The Independent sounded out various experts on this issue there was general dismay.
Daniel Fried, an American diplomat, who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2005 to 2009 and United States ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000, confirmed the US had once reached out to Russia about possible membership.
Yet, he said offering Nato membership to Putin now could be perceived a rewarding his aggression, and that it would send completely the wrong signal.
He said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had told Putin earlier this year that he did not support Ukraine’s membership of Nato.
He said Russia could have obtained some sort of written deal with Germany had that been its objective. “If the Russians were truly interested, they could have gotten something like that,” he said.
Nato has to have the full agreement of its 30 members for an invitation to be made to a new member; of the current members, he predicted, perhaps only Hungary would be on board.
Then there are other requirements, such as the country meeting certain democratic standards. Finally, Putin might simply scoff at the suggestion.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group Code Pink, also thought it was a non-starter. “Nato should have been scrapped at the end of the Cold War. We don’t think best solutions are military alliances.”
Along side this, several things appear clear.
At some point, the current crisis in Ukraine will come to some sort of conclusion. And yet Putin’s feeling of being threatened by the West – imagined or not – will not go away. Europe will need a new security framework within which to operate. If making the offer now could stop him in his tracks, why not try a roll of the dice.
The other thing, is that both Russia and the West will each have more than 5,500 nuclear warheads and no meaningful mechanism to regulate or oversee them. All trust has gone.
An invitation to include Russia in Europe’s future would also send a strong signal that the West does not wish to demonise all Russians and that doors are not being shut to the young protesters demonstrating courageously for peace in cities such as Moscow.
Perhaps it is a crazy idea. But these are deadly, perilous times.
For peace, and for the sake of 44m Ukrainians, it is worth trying anything.