One of Putin’s motives for separating Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine since then has been to create the sort of territorial disputes with neighbors that would make Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable as members to the existing ones in Western Europe in particular which have no desire to become embroiled in active conflicts on their behalf. And Putin, it appears, has succeeded in this regard.
The corollary of Moscow belief that the expansion of NATO is a threat to Russia is that the retraction, incapacitation, or dissolution of NATO would make Russia safer. Indeed, Putin’s support for anti-NATO and anti–EU political parties throughout Europe indicates that he does indeed aim at undermining these two institutions. Nor does Putin necessarily need to bring about their dissolution in order to undermine them. Since NATO and the EU both tend to operate on the basis of consensus, the fact that the current political leaders of Hungary and Greece are hostile to the existing European order and are quite friendly with Moscow may go a long way toward furthering Putin’s goal of rendering NATO inoperable. And if any more such leaders are elected to power, NATO might indeed become unable to respond effectively to actions taken by Putin to “protect” Russian speakers elsewhere in Ukraine or even in the Baltic states. This clearly would not benefit the West. But it would not benefit Russia either. For the decline of NATO is less likely to lead to the unopposed rise of Russian influence than to the re-emergence of conflicts that common membership in NATO has suppressed or (in the case of Greece and Turkey) kept under control.
Putin has had relatively cooperative relations with the often anti-Western Erdogan government in Turkey. He also has good relations with Greece’s new leftist leadership that is at odds with the EU. But if (whether as a result of Putin’s actions or not) NATO becomes inoperable, the Greek-Turkish animosity that NATO helped keep from escalating after Turkey’s 1974 intervention in Cyprus might soon re-emerge. And if it does, it is highly doubtful that Russia will be able to calm it down. Moscow may then be faced with the choice of alienating one party because it sides with the other, or alienating both because it sides with neither or (as Putin has attempted elsewhere) tries to side with both simultaneously. Despite Turkey’s troubled relations with the West recently, Turkey may regard Russian support for Greece against it as an existential threat and thus go all out to support Chechen and other Muslim opponents of Moscow’s rule in the North Caucasus and other Muslim regions of Russia.
The decline of NATO might also embolden an increasingly nationalist and pro-Russian Hungary to revive its claim to “lost territories.” Moscow might not mind if Budapest does this with pro-Western Ukraine or Romania (with which Russia also has difficult relations), but would not be pleased if Hungary sought the return of territory that is now part of pro-Russian Serbia or Slovakia (where Moscow has also sought to cultivate illiberal tendencies).
Another problem for Moscow is that for every anti-Western government elected to office anywhere in Europe, one or more of its neighbors are likely to feel threatened by it and so turn to America for support. Further, while German public opinion may care little about what Russia is doing in faraway Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, Berlin is likely to take more active measures to thwart Moscow’s efforts to expand Russian influence in countries closer to it. Finally, the more that Western states see Russian actions as directly harming their security, the more incentive they will have to respond by arming Ukraine or others actively resisting Russia.
In other words, the decline of the pax Americana in Europe resulting from a weakened NATO is less likely to be replaced by a pax Russica there, but by a chaotic situation in Europe that Russia will be unable to control or prevent from negatively impacting not just Russia’s external ambitions, but its internal security as well.
Ironically, Russia could avoid all this if NATO remained strong and intact. Far from threatening Russia, a strong NATO has a much greater incentive to act with self-restraint toward Russia than individual countries (both members and non-members) being undermined by Russian actions. Indeed, offering NATO membership to what remains of Ukraine may be the surest means of inducing Kiev and the West as a whole to acquiesce to (though not formally accept) the loss of Crimea and eastern Ukraine to Russia. In other words, Moscow is better off with a strong NATO that keeps America in, Europe peaceful, and Russia by itself (if that’s what it wants) than a weak NATO (or NATO at all) that keeps America, Europe, and Russia all embroiled in needless conflict and tension.