A Bad Move: Further NATO Expansion

Making a tough situation even worse. 

How to effectively respond to the crisis in Ukraine has elicited a fierce debate in Washington. Given the stakes, a carefully crafted, longer-term strategy is called for beyond near-term crisis management. But some of the proposals offered entail severe risks and self-defeating consequences. This is especially true of recently renewed calls for a fresh round of NATO enlargement ahead of the alliance’s summit this September in the United Kingdom. These calls appear to be more of a perpetuation of NATO enlargement’s post–Cold War inertia than a seriously thought out strategy that considers the balance of potential costs and benefits. At a minimum, proponents of enlargement have not met the burden of demonstrating its supposed positive effects that, upon closer inspection, appear much more likely to undermine European security—potentially including the credibility of NATO itself.

The Unmet Burden of NATO Enlargement

Recent legislation introduced by Republicans in the House calls to extend NATO membership to Montenegro, grant a Membership Action Plan to Georgia—a key step towards NATO membership—and calls for greater U.S. support for solving disputes between Macedonia and Greece that have been preventing Macedonian accession to the alliance. But paving the way for further NATO enlargement is hardly a partisan issue. In February, a letter signed by forty members of Congress from both parties was sent to Secretary Kerry that encouraged “continued efforts to make enlargement a key priority for the United States and the alliance” and encouraged similar steps as called for in the House bill in order to “increase stability and security in the region.”

The proposal is nothing new for Congress. In 2007, Congress passed the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act that supported enlargement efforts involving Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia. The legislation also justified NATO enlargement on the basis of enhancing the “stability and security in Europe.”

The Obama Administration, too, has supported NATO enlargement, although it’s generally been less specific about the potential scope and timing of expansion.

But enlarging NATO entails substantial risks that have been all but glossed over by proponents. A fresh phase of expansion, especially one including Georgia, would undoubtedly be perceived by Russia as an escalating policy of strategic encirclement—or worse. Russian officials have consistently voiced this perception of American and European policy, most recently when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterized Western strategic behavior as “spreading…geopolitical influence to the East, which has become, in essence, ‘a new edition’ of the line for containing Russia.”

This perception would be especially acute in the case of Georgia. Georgia’s movement toward NATO, which became a top foreign policy objective for Tbilisi following the Rose Revolution in 2003, was one of a host of factors that precipitated the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Months before the war, the Bush Administration attempted to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) but was rebuffed at the Bucharest NATO Summit by France and Germany. But Georgian membership remained on the table as the alliance committed to extending membership to Tbilisi on an unspecified timeline. Highlighting Russian thinking on Georgia and NATO expansion, in 2011, then-President Medvedev attributed the fact that NATO had not expanded to Russia’s actions in Georgia.

The Steep Risks of Enlargement

Against this background, a strong Russian response to fresh round of NATO enlargement should be expected.

Most immediately, Moscow might formally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The treaty prohibits the fielding of land-based, intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Moscow has threatened withdrawal from the treaty a number of times for various reasons, including in response to U.S. missile defense in Europe, and may already be in violation of the INF. Reports from early this year indicate possible Russian tests of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range in excess of 500 kilometers. While details are scarce, some Russian military analysts have suggested the culprit may be a version of the R-500 missile modified for an extended range of up to 700 kilometers. Should Russia withdraw from the INF, NATO could be faced with a dramatically more capable Russian precision-strike regime augmented by ground-launched assets that are cheap, effective and costly to defend against.