Nothing confounds the Western response to Russian aggression in Ukraine more than its incremental character. By shrewdly focusing on one localized crisis at a time, camouflaging the role of Russian forces, and contriving pretexts to intervene from hallowed principles like protecting human rights, Moscow has studiously managed to stay below the threshold for a serious Western response. Only when the threat to Western interests is seen in a wider frame—not to some obscure piece of Eastern Europe real estate, but rather as a challenge to the entire post–Cold War order—does the sacrifice and risk of confronting Russia seem worth it.
Unfortunately, a growing chorus in the United States has seized on the Ukraine crisis to challenge one of the pillars of that order, NATO expansion. Far from academic, the suggestion that NATO is the source of core Russian grievances makes it much harder to formulate tough measures. Now is the time to dispense with the canard that NATO expansion was a mistake, returning the policy debate to where it belongs—on how to urgently deter further Russian adventurism.
Critics claim that by expanding NATO, the West violated the terms for ending the Cold War. The argument has a certain moral logic to it, suggesting that if only the West—the United States, really—hadn’t been so arrogant towards a defeated and demoralized foe, then relations with Russia would be far less difficult today. But this morality play only holds water if we believe that NATO expansion, first, violated Western promises to Russia and, second, threatened Russian security. The record demonstrates the opposite.
The most notable authority on this matter, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, has complained that the West broke its solemn promise not to expand NATO. It is true that in the 1990 agreement for German reunification, the allies pledged not to base NATO troops in the former East Germany. However, this and other agreements reached in the early 1990s—even with the most generous parsing of diplomatic phraseology—are, at best, ambiguous with respect to NATO’s further eastward expansion. More to the point, neither the United States nor Russia anticipated at the time the stampede from across Eastern Europe to join the alliance that would soon ensue, so there was no basis for any meaningful commitment to refrain from NATO expansion. To insist otherwise, as NATO expansion critics do, is to impute a masterful clairvoyance and Machiavellian duplicity on the part of American and European leaders in the early 1990s, which they simply did not possess. The vision of a Europe “whole and free”, enunciated by President George H.W. Bush, neither contemplated nor excluded the gradual process of enlarging Euro-Atlantic institutions. When NATO expansion became Western policy, Russian leaders were regularly consulted and informed, most notably in regular, amicable conversations between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin.
Even if it did not embrace the policy, Moscow well understood that the drive to expand NATO originated in neither Washington nor Brussels, but rather in the capitals of former members of the Warsaw Pact themselves. Attracted by both the prosperity that the European Union promised and the security that NATO’s Article 5 common defense commitment delivered, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the first three new entrants, were keen to anchor themselves in the west. Notably, each of these countries had had a searing experience under Russian domination, creating a natural impulse to escape the shadow of their larger, eastern neighbor. With EU enlargement policy slower in formation and longer in implementation, the less exacting and more rapid NATO membership process became the de facto stepping stone to joining (or rejoining) Europe. The so-called “Visegrad 3” joined NATO in 1999 and then, five years later became EU members, establishing the precedent of NATO membership as the precursor for every former communist country that eventually joined the Union.
The point is that neutrality, nonalignment or any form of ambiguous East-West orientation for countries emerging from communism was categorically rejected—not by the United States and its European allies, and not by just the Visegrad 3, but soon by most of the former Warsaw Pact, all of former Yugoslavia, and Albania. The headlong plunge to join the West from across such a large, diverse region suggests deep historical forces at work, not a calculated conspiracy to encircle and demean Russia. The truth is that the expansion of NATO and the EU was a policy response to an express, unanticipated imperative generated by the aspirant countries themselves. Even today, after the devastating, continuing effects of Europe’s financial crisis, the irresistible, magnetic attraction of the West is in evidence. Serbia, a country with close relations and historical affinity with Russia, is actively pursuing EU membership—wholly out of its own volition and not as result of any cynical anti-Russian stratagem from Brussels. Fully respecting Serbian sovereignty, neither the EU nor the US has pressed Belgrade to join NATO first.
Just as the origins of NATO expansion were benign, so too has been its impact on Russian security. More than anything, NATO and EU accession required aspirant countries to incorporate liberal, western values like pluralism, civilian control of the military, rule of law and respect for human rights. In Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russia today asserts the need to protect the security of the ethnic Russian minority as justifying intervention. With more than a million ethnic Russians and Russian citizens living as minorities in the three Baltic states, there are rising concerns that Moscow might create a pretext to intervene in one or more of these states despite the fact that each is a NATO member. It may matter little to the Kremlin, but the fact is that the rights of ethnic Russians are better protected and more strongly regulated by virtue of the Baltics having acceded to both NATO and the EU. Contentious issues like citizenship have been addressed in a largely transparent manner. In sharp contrast with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine these days, international human rights actors like the OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities have unchallenged access to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in order to examine and report on the situation of the Russian minorities there.
From the Baltics to the Balkans, relations between Russia and individual NATO member states are noteworthy for their predictability, not their pugnaciousness. There is no evidence of any NATO member having exploited its membership in the alliance to advance revanchist claims, foment insurrection or subvert Russian security. Estonia has been the source of provocative anti-Russian rhetoric at times, but it was Tallinn that was on the receiving end of a cyber attack in 2007, attributed to Russia. Estonia refrained from retaliation and NATO reacted with little more than the alliance promise to address the problem of cyber warfare. Confident in their sovereignty, newer NATO members are also confident in their relations with Russia. Most have established extensive trade links with Russia, including in the energy sector, a development which presents concerns for the West, not Moscow.
Overall, NATO-Russian relations have been, until the crisis in Ukraine, largely stable. At Russia’s insistence, the alliance created the NATO-Russia Council, giving Moscow a privileged status that was sharply distinct from that of its former Warsaw Pact colleagues, which were relegated to a largely symbolic program known as ‘Partnership for Peace’. Moscow’s anger over the 1999 war in Kosovo did not prevent the alliance from successfully incorporating Russian units into the NATO-led peace implementation force there. NATO annoyed Russia by promising NATO membership to Georgia in 2008, but the alliance did nothing to challenge Russia’s use of force in the country later the same year, and has done little to advance Georgia’s membership prospects since. Ukraine’s relationship with NATO has been even less tangible; NATO capitals, including Washington, have repeatedly emphasized the absence of any obligation on the part of the alliance to defend Ukraine.
NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya infuriated the Kremlin and played a defining role in sharpening Vladimir Putin’s attitudes towards the West. But as Putin well knows, Libya was a one-off. There is little appetite in the alliance for another such adventure either in Syria, where it is Russia that is actively engaged, or elsewhere. Meanwhile, NATO’s primary combat mission in Afghanistan is rapidly winding down, with Russia’s cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network, closing out the alliance’s era of ‘out-of-area-operations’ that so incensed Moscow. Ironically enough, it is Russia’s own recent actions in Ukraine that have given renewed vitality to an alliance that was again heading towards a period of existential uncertainty.
In sum, NATO expansion has been neither an anti-Russian plot nor a means for the West to undermine Moscow. To the contrary, Russia has enjoyed mostly good relations with individual NATO member states and the alliance as a whole. Where NATO expansion has had a decidedly adverse impact is on Russia’s imperial pretensions, which are quite distinct from Russian security. In no other way, shape or form has NATO or EU expansion posed any threat to Russia except in so far as the country seeks to revive some vestige of Soviet-style domination. So sensitive is Russia to its imperial prerogatives that it was the prospect of mere EU partnership—far from EU membership and disconnected from NATO membership—that sparked the entire Ukraine crisis.