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.