President Putin and many other Russians have complained bitterly about the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the Baltics after the end of the Cold War. Putin in particular has been determined to stop NATO from expanding into any other former Soviet republics, including those such as Georgia and Ukraine whose leaders have expressed interest in joining. Indeed, many Russians are indignant that NATO was not dissolved like the Warsaw Pact was at the end of the Cold War. Putin in particular sees NATO’s expansion as directed against Russia. With this as his premise, it is clearly in Russia’s interest not only to prevent NATO’s further expansion, but to undermine the Atlantic alliance and even promote its dissolution.
It is not in the West’s interests to allow this to happen. What is more, it is not in Russia’s interests either. Indeed, a case can be made (and will be made here) that Russian security interests are better served by NATO’s continuation and expansion than by its weakening or dissolution. This is because Putin and his supporters fundamentally misunderstand NATO’s actual purpose—or more accurately, purposes. Unfortunately, many in the West do too.
During the Cold War, one of NATO’s most important—and most obvious—set of goals was to deter a Soviet attack and to respond to it effectively should it occur. As the Soviet Union never launched such an attack, NATO appears to have succeeded at deterring one. Once the Cold War ended, though, Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies as well as the three Baltic states all sought NATO membership. One reason why they did so was their fear that Russia might become a threat to them again in the future—or even that it still was a threat.
This contrasted with the view of many older NATO members in Western Europe. After the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe and then collapsed, many of them did not see post-Soviet Russia as being very much of, or even any, threat to them. They saw Russia instead as a useful source of gas and oil as well as a potential market for their exports. These West European governments did not want East European concerns about Russia to get in the way of their doing business with Moscow. But these West European views were based on the belief that since Russia was not a threat to them, it was not really a threat at all.
But the presence or absence of a threat from Moscow was never the only reason for NATO, in the words of Hamlet, “to be or not to be.” NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, observed that the purpose of NATO was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In 2010, Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, described the purpose of NATO as having become “to keep North America in, Europe up, and Russia with.” Both of these formulas now seem outdated: Germany is now one of the principle upholders of the liberal European order, and Russia clearly does not want to be “with” NATO.
Lord Imay’s and Admiral di Paola’s formulations, though, underline that NATO has two other purposes besides dealing with Russia. Although di Paola’s formula acknowledges the role of Canada while Lord Ismay’s does not, both clearly see NATO as an important means of keeping the United States committed to maintaining European security. Further, their seemingly contradictory calls to keep “the Germans down” and “Europe up” both point to the need to protect European security not just from external threats, but from strife within NATO as well. The East European and Baltic states that sought NATO membership after the end of the Cold War did not just do so out of fear of Russia. They did so because being accepted into NATO—as well as into the EU—showed that these nations were now a part of the West. Not wanting Russia to be part of the West, Russia’s leaders and much of its public simply cannot understand that this is something that East Europeans, Balts, and, most especially, Ukrainians and Georgians would actually want. Nor can they seem to understand that the more threateningly Russia behaves, the more that those who feel most immediately threatened by it—Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, and Georgians—either want to cling to their NATO membership or acquire it.
It is also important to remember that at the end of World War I when the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires all collapsed and several new states as well as new borders emerged, tensions arose between many Eastern and Southeastern European states during the interwar years. At the end of World War II, Stalin redrew Eastern Europe’s borders and the Soviet Union forcibly maintained peace among its East European satellites. There was a danger when Soviet forces withdrew from Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War that conflict would re-emerge in this region—as it actually did in Yugoslavia when the general collapse of European communism resulted in that country breaking up. But the overwhelming desire of the East European and Baltic states to be accepted into NATO, the EU, and the West as a whole resulted in their acceptance of the existing borders (including those drawn by Stalin) and their not pursuing claims to lost territory. Indeed, NATO made resolving territorial disputes with neighboring states a condition of acceptance for new members.