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.
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.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.