NATO Expansion Didn’t Set Off the Ukrainian Crisis
By James Kirchick
Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea has produced a great deal of handwringing in the West, with much of the ire directed at NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s slow, 15-year process of expansion into the former Warsaw Pact nations, critics allege, sparked a tragic, three-stage process: It humiliated Russia, led to the country’s encirclement, and provoked its aggressive behavior toward neighbors. NATO, they say, is a relic of the Cold War, serving no purpose other than to antagonize America’s potential partners in the Kremlin.
Blaming NATO’s enlargement for Russian belligerence has been a feature of European security debates since the end of the Cold War, and a reliable excuse for explaining away every disagreement between Moscow and the West. “Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman scoffed after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, in a column aptly entitled, “What did we expect?” Returning to this complaint after last month’s invasion of Ukraine, Friedman declared that NATO expansion “remains one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done and, of course, laid the groundwork for Putin’s rise.” Fellow New York Times columnist Ross Douthat derided NATO expansion as a “neoconservative” project (pursued, oddly enough, by Bill Clinton) “to effectively encircle” Russia. And no less a figure than the late George F. Kennan concluded that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era.”
Tempting as it may be to castigate NATO for the deterioration of relations with Russia, nothing could be further from the truth: It was, and remains, the Russian regime’s ideology, rhetoric, and conduct that provided the impulse for NATO expansion, not the other way around. Far from representing a historic error, the enlargement of NATO into Central and Eastern Europe has been one of the few unmitigated success stories of American foreign policy, as it consolidated democracy and security on a continent once scarred by total war. Faulting NATO for Russia’s bad behavior betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of post-Cold War European politics, misrepresents the organization’s role as a defensive alliance, and confuses aggressor with victim.
First, a little history is in order. Russia’s hostile actions towards neighbors hardly ended with the collapse of Soviet communism. On the contrary, Moscow continued to bully its former republics and satellites throughout the early and mid 1990s, even before the first round of NATO enlargement (to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999). In 1992 and 1993 — after Russia formally recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — Moscow cut off energy supplies to these small, reborn democracies in an attempt to pressure them into keeping Russian military forces and intelligence officers on their sovereign territory. From 1997 to 2000, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Keith C. Smith, Russia halted oil shipments to the country no less than nine times after it refused to sell refineries to a Russian state company. To this day, the Russian Foreign Ministry maintains that the Baltic republics — which Russia militarily conquered, occupied, and subjugated for nearly five decades — “voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940.” The Balts didn’t become part of NATO until 2004. Given this history, is it any wonder why these countries — or any other country victimized by Soviet-imposed tyranny — would want to join the alliance? Is it NATO’s fault for saying OK?
Critics of NATO expansion like to point out that, in exchange for earning Soviet acceptance of German unification, the United States and its allies promised not to expand the Atlantic alliance. This is a myth, stemming from a selective Russian interpretation of the diplomacy at the tail end of the Cold War. In February of 1990, with hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops still stationed in East Germany, then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, traveled to Moscow to meet with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A day earlier, President George H.W. Bush had sent Kohl a letter suggesting that East German territory be given a “special military status” — the specifics of which would be determined later — within NATO, implying that the alliance would indeed continue to expand. Hoping to earn speedy Soviet authorization for the removal of their troops and the unification of Germany, however, Genscher told Gorbachev that, “NATO will not expand itself to the East.”
But the Germans were not speaking for Washington, never mind the NATO alliance. Furthermore, as historian Mary Elise Sarotte has pointed out, Genscher’s concession was never made in writing, and nor did Gorbachev “criticize Mr. Kohl publicly when he and Mr. Bush later agreed to offer only a special military status to the former East Germany instead of a pledge that NATO wouldn’t expand.” Ultimately, a legally binding agreement not to expand NATO beyond its pre-1990 borders never materialized, and Russia’s latter-day claim that it was deceived by the West has no basis in fact.
Russia’s cries of Western betrayal are really just a smokescreen. Far from threatening Russia, NATO has repeatedly gone out of its way to be conciliatory. A 1997 agreement outlining relations between the two former adversaries stipulated that the NATO states had “no intention, no plan, and no reason” to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members. These “three no’s” were intended as an expression of goodwill and a reaffirmation of NATO’s founding principle: that it is a defensive alliance with no designs on Russian territory. In the spirit of transparency, the organization founded the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 to facilitate cooperation between Moscow and member states.
Not only did Western leaders repeatedly and explicitly make clear that NATO posed no threat whatsoever to Russia’s security, some even suggested that Russia ultimately join the very military alliance that had been established to contain it during the Cold War. “We need Russia for the resolution of European and global problems,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said in 2009. “That is why I think it would be good for Russia to join NATO.” This hardly constitutes “cram[ming] NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats,” as Friedman alleges. Regardless, Sikorski was rebuked immediately by then-Russian envoy to NATO and now Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who retorted that “Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power…For the moment, we don’t see any real change in the organization, we only see the organization getting ready for the wars of past Europe.”
With its invasion of Crimea, the first forcible annexation of European territory since World War II, it is Russia, and not NATO, that has returned the continent to “the wars of past Europe.” More significant, however, was what this terse exchange revealed about the debate over NATO expansion: It has never really been about the enlargement of a defensive military alliance, but rather the nature of the Russian regime itself. If Russia had followed a democratic path (like the former communist states which joined NATO) and ceased posing a threat to its neighbors, there would have been nothing preventing it from becoming a suitable candidate for membership. After all, if the foreign minister of Poland, a nation historically terrorized by Russia and which is once again rearming itself in light of Crimea, proposed that Russia join NATO, who could possibly oppose it? As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt aptly pointed out on Twitter recently, it was the “historic failure of Russia that a quarter of a century after fall of Soviet Union the new generations in its neighbors see it as an enemy,” while, in contrast, “A generation or two after 1945 Germany is surrounded by countries that, after all the horrible pain and suffering, see it as a friend.”
Russia’s hostility to NATO enlargement stems from the same root as all of its conflicts with the West: the zero-sum worldview and neo-imperialist agenda of President Vladimir Putin. In 2005, he declared the breakup of the Soviet Union to be “a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” And if there was any remaining doubt that he intends to reconstitute the empire, Putin erased it with his furious March 18 speech to Russia’s Federation Council in which he essentially reserved the right to invade and annex any territory where ethnic Russians claim to feel oppressed. To say that NATO expansion “laid the groundwork for Putin’s rise,” as Friedman does, gets the situation exactly backwards. Putin’s ascent was almost entirely the product of domestic factors, namely, the economic chaos of the 1990s and the popular desire for a firm response to the insurgency in Chechnya. NATO expansion barely registered on the minds of ordinary Russians.
With Russia amassing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and stoking ethnic conflict in the hopes of providing a pretext for gobbling up even more territory, lending credence to Moscow’s complaints about NATO expansion is intellectually irresponsible and geopolitically dangerous. In the midst of negotiations to deescalate the crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that Ukraine essentially dismember itself into autonomous regions (the easier for Russia to meddle in the country’s eastern provinces, which are heavily populated with ethnic Russians) and “firm guarantees” forswearing NATO and EU membership. Given that Russia has already invaded and annexed Ukrainian territory, and that it has shown no sign of discontinuing its aggressive behavior on the country’s borders, these ultimatums constitute nothing less than a threat to use additional force if its demands are not met. Rather than firmly rebut these outrageous attempts to violate the sovereignty of an independent country, Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that Russia has “legitimate concerns” in Ukraine. This despite the fact that according to a new poll, 66 percent of ethnic Russian citizens there feel no pressure or threat from the new government in Kiev, a direct refutation of Moscow’s relentless propaganda to the contrary.
The assertion by Russia (and its Western apologists) that NATO constitutes a threat has always been a ruse. As was the case during the Cold War, it is Russia that threatens its neighbors today, not vice-versa. Russia’s real reason for opposing NATO expansion, as one Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official told me in Kiev last month, is that the alliance’s collective security provision would prevent Moscow from invading its neighbors, something that Russia has done twice in the last six years. It is for this reason that NATO — and its expansion — remains vital for European security and stability.
To appreciate the hypocrisy of faulting NATO enlargement for the present predicament, one need only consider the claim that the military alliance has “encircled” Russia. There is only one country in Europe being encircled right now — and it isn’t Russia.