Russia and the West's Dangerous Clash: Time for NATO & EU Expansion East?

"NATO must show that the eastern edge of the Alliance is not a cliff, beyond which the Alliance is impotent and uncaring."

As today’s news from Brussels and Washington shows, the European Union and America are at center stage in devising sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Yet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while modestly buttressing defenses in member states in Central Europe and the Baltics, has left Ukraine out in the cold. The Alliance has spent treasure and dispatched legions to fight in faraway Afghanistan, but neglected security interests closer to Europe. At its summit in Wales on September 4-5, NATO urgently needs to define a bolder vision to secure them.

The West is struggling to understand Kremlin intentions, yet Russian president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of them. In April 2008, according to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, he told President George W. Bush at a NATO summit in Bucharest: "You don't understand, George, Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us."

Putin seeks to establish a "Russian World." It would bring together ethnic Russians, wherever they live, and protect, with armed force if necessary, those “who feel themselves to be part of the greater Russian community," as he said on June 24 in Vienna. The next week, Putin proclaimed a right to intervene in other nations to "defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad." This is an expansive vision, but it ignores democratically expressed wishes of the countries concerned. Many of Russia’s neighbors are worried and seek more support from two main Western organizations—the EU and NATO.

They, too, have expansive visions, but of a different sort. They have an open door. The 1949 Washington Treaty states that NATO membership is open to any “European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” The 2009 Lisbon Treaty says any European State that respects and is committed to promoting the EU's values may apply to become a member of the Union. In other words, NATO and the EU define membership criteria based on behavior and values and the free choice of countries that want to join them, not on ethnicity, nationality or geopolitics. In the first two decades after the end of the Cold War, this merit-based vision enabled NATO to expand from sixteen to twenty-eight members, and the EU from twelve to twenty-eight (twenty-two states belong to both).

Soon after it gained independence, Russia began relations with NATO. Indeed, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin wrote to then-NATO secretary general Manfred Woerner that Russian membership in NATO was a long-term political aim. In 1994, Russia joined the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace program; and in 2002, a high-level NATO-Russia Council was established.

In the late-1990s, however, Russia became bitterly opposed to NATO enlargement, which it saw (rightly or not) as motivated by Central European states' hostility to Russia and, therefore, a potential threat to Russia's security. In March 1997 at Helsinki, Yeltsin called expansion "a mistake, and a serious one at that.” Yet in some areas, such as multinational military exercises, Russia continued to cooperate with the Alliance.

Initially, Russia tolerated EU enlargement. As time went on, however, the Kremlin learned it had underestimated the inspiration of Europe’s democratic values, and the attractiveness of its rich market, to Russia’s neighbors. The Kremlin came late to realize Ukraine’s passion for the EU's rules-based model and democratic freedoms. If they can be made to work in Ukraine, a country even more corrupt than Russia, according to Transparency International, the Kremlin fears the appeal of freedoms could threaten support at home for its increasingly authoritarian and corporatist rule.

The West should understand the determination behind Putin’s binary logic of forcing neighbors to choose between the West and Russia. This approach has major implications for the future of Europe. If the West were to acquiesce, it might abandon Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine, three young democracies. But if the West insists on the rights of peoples and states to choose their own future, it will have to show greater political courage in buttressing them.

To improve their security and economies, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine must commit to deeper reforms and the EU must help them succeed. The three countries have signed association agreements with the EU, but the hard part will be implementation. The EU will need to step up financial and technical assistance and political support, and do much better in explaining the costs and benefits of the agreements. The megaphone of misinformation pumped out by Russia, raising unjustified fears of a closer relationship with the EU, has far outweighed information available from EU delegations. America can reinforce the three countries’ reforms by expanding economic and security aid. This will require Washington to shift resources from other parts of the world.