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A Vision for a New NATO

Expansion was a misstep, but the situation is not unsalvageable—history offers clues to a better way.

Political Figures Attending NATO Summit

On an unusually cloudy July day in London in 1990, the heads of state and government at the annual NATO summit declared with sunny optimism that a new era beckoned in central and eastern Europe. The declaration itself was banal bureaucratese: invitations to initiate diplomatic contacts, plans to prepare a force structure that would move away from “forward defense” towards “flexible response.” It was, as always, the backchannel talks that were far more interesting.

Margaret Thatcher, of all people, was the first national leader to realize the profound changes happening around her and to grasp that these might not all be good in the long term. Fresh out of her speech in Bruges in 1988, which warned that the unification of Germany would recreate the same historic problem of a destabilizing military power in the heart of Europe, she proceeded to assure Mikhail Gorbachev that the West “must find ways to give the Soviet Union confidence that its security would be assured.” The sentiment was echoed by François Mitterrand, who said that the west needed to take into account the interests of the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union. 

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The American delegation was even more conciliatory. Secretary of State James Baker had personally assured Gorbachev in February that NATO would move “not one inch” eastward. This pledge was repeated in some form or other by NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, and President George H. W. Bush. British Prime Minister John Major, when asked by Soviet Marshal Dmitri Yazov about East European leaders’ interest in NATO membership, reassured him that “nothing of the sort will happen.”  

All of this is well documented, including in documents recently de-archived and declassified. But the debate over NATO expansion and the Russian reaction is still a contested domain.

One side argues that there was a tacit Western pledge of no territorial expansion of NATO that might alter the strategic balance of the continent. The counterargument is that there were no pledges, much less a formal agreement, and whatever understanding was achieved became irrelevant when one of the parties to the agreement disappeared with the dissolution of the USSR. 

A theory is as valid as its explanatory power. Events from Russian outrage over the intervention in Kosovo to the Russian fury at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, to the Russian interventions in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, and the current invasion of Ukraine, have been attributed to a revanchist Russia furious at Western betrayal and at the expansion of NATO. On the other hand, the pro-expansionist crowd has repeatedly asserted that Russian aggression is predicated on domestic regime stability, Christian conservatism, imperialism, neo-Sovietism, fascism, and everything in between. 

So which is it? “Process tracing” the Kremlin is of course impossible, but a careful study of Russian reactions to various phases of NATO enlargement gives the impression of a rational power originally determined to be a friend if not an ally of the West. It also simultaneously demonstrates that NATO expansion, once dubbed by George Kennan the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post–Cold War era,” has been the single pivotal act of recent Western grand strategy, one whose repercussions we are still feeling today. 

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The history of NATO expansion has been more or less uniformly charted by various scholars and policymakers in the West. What has been relatively understudied is the varied Russian reactions to the different phases of the enlargement process. By November 1990, the Soviet push for a central european security pact had failed, demonstrating the complete collapse of Russian coercive power. By April 1991, Izvestia was proposing that Moscow might join NATO itself. Secretary of State James Baker suggested that Russia would be a part of any future European security architecture. 

The first hint of NATO expansion came from Secretary General Manfred Wörner’s declaration in March 1992 that NATO’s doors were open. A further push came from German Defense Minister Volker Rühe, who claimed that German stability would forever be threatened if its new eastern frontiers were not moved further east. The Central and Eastern European  states were kept at a distance by the Clinton administration initially as debate raged in Washington over the advisability of expansion. The muscle memory of Cold War realism opposed any such move, as evident from opposition from academia, policy, and the Pentagon, but the democratic peace theorists led by Madeline Albright and Jeremy Rosner slowly won over President Bill Clinton. By 1995, even as American troops were drawn down from Europe, NATO expansion seemed unstoppable.

Russian opposition to NATO expansion was never uniform and reflected the decline and rise of the relative power of Moscow. Initially, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were under the impression that NATO might provide some stability in central Europe. The consensus in Russian strategic circles was that Russian military doctrine should be geared towards an era of “partnership and cooperation.” The Russian foreign intelligence services referred to NATO as the “biggest military grouping in the world, which possesses an enormous offensive potential,” but were satisfied until 1994 that the talks of expansion were just empty rhetoric from the West. At the end of 1993, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told Russian lawmakers that the greatest achievement of post-Soviet diplomacy was to “prevent NATO’s expansion eastward.” 

The surprise in Moscow was therefore palpable when the NATO enlargement study was launched in 1995, leading Boris Yeltsin to declare that the Cold War was slowly being replaced with a “Cold Peace.” The pro-Western democrats in Russia naturally felt betrayed, rightly recognizing NATO expansion as a threat to their domestic influence. However, structural forces were opposed to any serious Russian resistance. Russia was a shadow of its Soviet power, dependent on Western aid, incapable of challenging the forces of time. Sentiments of betrayal were conveyed to the West by Russian diplomats. Yevgeny Primakov, then the director of foreign intelligence, commented that Russia would eventually be compelled to redeploy troops to the West. 

Alarm bells started ringing among those whose memories of the Cold War were still raw. Concessions were immediately offered in the form of Russian participation in the Partnership for Peace. NATO’s new security doctrine resulted in a visible massive reduction of conventional as well as nuclear weapons. American forward presence went down from around 330,000 troops to around a hundred total; the European combined cuts amounted to another 500,000. The inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic was followed simultaneously by a reduction of around 40 percent of land, sea, and air units. Theater-level nuclear weapons were reduced by almost 80 percent.

The Russian foreign ministry’s core conditions were that Moscow might agree to enlargement as long as there were “no deployments of nuclear weapons or allied combat forces on the territory of new member states.” Both conditions were immediately agreed upon by NATO and the U.S. Additionally, European politics favored a NATO–Russia detente. NATO’s acceptance of Russian conditions happened around the time when Russia was invited to join the Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia, effectively endorsing the Dayton accords. The “NATO Russia Founding Act” was signed in 1997, with a permanent Russian mission to NATO, and Russia agreed to the NATO expansion with a new “red line” of no NATO troops in former Soviet countries, including the Baltics.

The late 1990s was a strange time in Russia. Democratic and Atlanticist illusions were shattered after Kosovo, a war that reshaped international relations as we know it and ushered in the era of supranational interventions and humanitarian wars. It also changed the character of NATO from a purely defensive alliance to an ideological one. The period saw the strategic calculus of Moscow shift, alongside her leadership. Russian military doctrines started to reflect the changing dynamic. The brief idea that Russia’s future was to be a satiated power within American hegemony was dead. For the first time since the end of the Cold war, Russian strategic planners had to deal with a nightmare scenario of NATO unilaterally projecting power in the name of human rights. 

Russian military doctrine also changed. Moscow abandoned its “no first use” policy of nuclear weapons, and the new doctrine initiated a posture where Russia might be compelled to use nuclear weapons when the state’s existence was threatened. The NATO–Russia Permanent Joint Council broke down due to the intervention in Kosovo, demonstrating that the new American strategic community was not serious about Russian “consultations.” Another significant change happened: NATO started to consider moving one of its headquarters from Germany to Poland, a stated red line for Russia. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev lashed out that such a move might renew military confrontation. By the end of 1999, a short, skinny, somewhat socially awkward former intelligence officer, ironically with the same surname as the Zampolit in The Hunt for Red October, was the new president of Russia. 

Vladimir Putin accepted the NATO enlargement agreed to under Yeltsin as a fait accompli. In his meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, he stated that there was a need to resume Russia–NATO contacts and compare military doctrines. In 2001, he hinted that Moscow was willing to coordinate with Washington about a Europe-wide missile defense network. The attack on September 11 changed the strategic scenario even further. Russia, undergoing her own staggering insurgency in Chechnya, offered the U.S. help with bases in Central Asia and intelligence against Islamist terrorism. Putin said, “If NATO takes on a different shade and is becoming a political organization … we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion, if we are to feel involved in such processes.” In December 2001, when the United States unilaterally pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, Russia called it a mistake and the issue was put to rest. 

Meanwhile, NATO itself was undergoing a portentous change. The terrorist attacks changed NATO’s reasoning from democratic peace theory to the more revolutionary idea that promoting democracy is needed to counter international terror in a global battle of ideas. This was a fateful alteration. At the 2002 Prague summit, this new thinking was elaborated by President George W. Bush: “Expansion of NATO also brings many advantages to the alliance itself. Every new member contributes military capabilities that add to our common security. We see this already in Afghanistan—for forces from Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and others have joined with sixteen NATO allies to help defeat global terror.” In short, promoting democracy was to be NATO’s primary mission, not just defending a small group of nations in the northwestern corner of the Atlantic.

This reframing made it palatable for Russian policymakers for the time being. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said, “Russia no longer considers NATO enlargement to be a menace because the alliance has undergone a radical transformation from a Cold War instrument to a defense against global terrorism and other 21st-century threats.” While the Russian elite were chafed after the Iraq War—General Yuri Baluyevsky said that the world, if not multipolar, breeds instability—the political leadership remained flexible to alignments. NATO’s reframing as a network to fight political Islam led to a temporary alignment of interest. While Russian military doctrine remained unchanged, political speeches highlighted that Russia did not consider NATO a threat, but rather a partner against Islamic terrorism.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was not the Iraq war that caused the total breakdown of NATO–Russia relations. It was the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. Until then, Russian military doctrines and political statements lacked uniformity of purpose. That changed as Russian political statements and military doctrines reflected the change of perception. As calls to join NATO intensified in Ukraine and Georgia, Putin was the first one to warn that Russia would not accept it. This was a return to a Yeltsin-era red line, in a tone that was instantly unmistakable in diplomatic circles. Russia kept maintaining that the only way for Russia to find NATO expansion acceptable was if NATO transformed into a political organization, an analytical flaw from Moscow as NATO by that time was already transformed into a political organization with a massive expansion of bureaucracy and a crusading mission towards democracy promotion. 

NATO was by then already supporting Poland with communications and logistics and, at the request of Turkey, was installing missile defense in Turkish territory. Alongside the open calls for membership, NATO F-16 patrols started over the Baltic Sea around 2004, a significant new development that infuriated Moscow. Moscow’s calls for a new Conventional Forces Treaty went unheeded as massive protests started across Georgia and Ukraine, aided by American funding and NGOs. 

The battle lines were drawn. “We firmly raise questions about the transformation of NATO, the Alliance’s plans for enlargement, the reconfiguration of the U.S. military presence in Europe, the deployment of elements of the American missile defense system here, and NATO’s refusal to ratify the CFE treaty,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in 2006. “The future of our relations largely depends on what direction the transformation in NATO will proceed in after the Riga Summit, and the extent to which the security interests of Russia are going to be considered.” Lavrov further warned that any move from Ukraine or Georgia towards NATO would mark a “colossal geopolitical shift.”

Around the same time, a Russian military journal stated that it would be short-sighted for Russia to ignore the fact that NATO extension might be central to the ambition of the United States striving to achieve unipolarity. The pitch continued to rise until, in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, Putin exploded: “I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” Accusing the United States of being a hyperpower with no respect for treaties or norms, Putin asked, “[Wörner] said at the time that ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’ Where are these guarantees?” 

In response to the U.S. plan to place missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic—a significant permanent weapons system—Russia declared that it considered this development to be a clear threat. After NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008, Putin warned, “We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders … as a direct threat to the security of our country.”  Russian military generals simultaneously, for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, started threatening war with Ukraine if NATO expanded eastward. In 2008, after months of saber-rattling, Georgians attacked the rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The world saw, for the first time in decades, Russia’s 58th Army rolling into a neighboring sovereign country. The rhetorical justification, at least nominally, was that Russia was determined to conduct a humanitarian intervention, similar to the NATO intervention in Kosovo. A Georgian soldier described the experience of the push to retake Tskhinvali in the face of Russian tanks as “something like hell.”

NATO’s foreign ministers declared that the Russian military action in Georgia had been disproportionate. Around the same time, NATO conducted exercises in Georgia, viewed by Russia as a clear design on the Russian border. A 2009 essay from a Russian military journal stated, “As previously, the Americans will continue actively to foist their values on the rest of the world relying on all the force and assets available to them.” The charge was repeated after 2011 and the Arab Spring: “The armed conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been a graphic demonstration of the United States’ desire for a unipolar world and its determination to solve any problems by force, ignoring the opinion of the world community.” The use of Facebook in fomenting protests during the Arab Spring was seen by Russia as another attempt of American greyzone warfare. After the 2008 war, every Russian military doctrinal paper cited NATO expansion as the biggest threat to the integrity of Russia.

Many have tried to portray the attempted “reset” under President Obama as a separate phase of U.S.-Russian relations. The reality is that Obama had one of the most ideological and activist administrations, from the American ambassador in Moscow lending rhetorical support to protests against the Russian government to American politicians appearing in person during the Maidan protests in Ukraine. Topping leaders in the Middle East, intervening in Libya, the proxy war in Syria, American NGOs and the State Department pouring tax dollars into “civil society” in Eastern Europe—all of this strained the trust between Russia and NATO, already irreparably damaged since 2007. To the Russian political and strategic elite, with arguably a longer sense of history than the contemporary diplomatic class in the greater Anglosphere, the post–Cold War America was no different than Jacobin France, or indeed the USSR, fomenting revolution and anarchy across the globe, whereas Russia was fulfilling her historical role as a guarantor of Westphalian order and stabilnost (stability). 

History is rarely monocausal, but for the sake of policy formulation, a few linear conclusions could be drawn. 

One, Russia is a reactive, not a revanchist power. Consider that, in history, the exceptions are always more interesting than the rule. Why did Russia go to war in Georgia and Ukraine and not Macedonia, Montenegro, Finland, or the Baltics during various other phases of NATO expansion? The answer partly lies in the combination of the shift in Russian aggregate power, the geographic proximity of the theaters, the offensive capability and intention of the rival alliance in question, the perceived threat and betrayal felt in Moscow, and the failed alignments after September 11.

The history of NATO–Russia relations was not etched in stone, and it could have been altered several times by a grand bargain with Moscow, the glimpses of which were visible throughout. NATO’s slow and steady shift of force posture, patrols over the Baltics, exercises with new member states, its invitations to Ukraine and Georgia, were all considered by Moscow as significant provocations by a hyperpower in a unipolar world, a sign of both increased offensive capability and intention to encroach upon Russian spheres of influence. The Russian elite, after a brief Atlanticist interlude, were convinced that Russian red lines would never be respected unless enforced by military force. The Russian military literature reflects this altered perception. 

But evidence also suggests that, while the Russian military and political elite always harbored suspicion towards NATO and were opposed to territorial expansion, they were not complete lunatics and they were eager to align with the U.S. and NATO when opportunities arose. If a country is an inherently reactive power, then realism dictates that there are ways to achieve a grand bargain with that country. A Russia satiated and relatively neutral in the European balance, similar to her post-Napoleonic posture, would be a net benefit for an America seeking to shift its gaze to the east as a peer rival emerges. 

Two, this is obviously not your grandfather’s NATO, a defensive alliance with shared values protecting Euro-Atlantic Christendom from the Soviets. In 2017, the NATO secretary general said, “LGBT people everywhere deserve dignity, inclusion and freedom from fear. Diversity makes our open societies stronger and safer.” In 2021, NATO headquarters hosted its first ever conference on LGBTQ+ perspectives in the workplace. NATO bureaucrats argue over how the alliance should act if member states curb LGBTQ+ rights and write policy papers on tackling work-related gendered violence in conflict zones. One gets the idea. 

NATO member states comment on everything from abortion to human rights in Libya to climate change. Regardless of the feasibility or morality of such policies in international statecraft, NATO demonstrates a quintessential problem of all radical political organizations: revolutionary bureaucracies have a momentum of their own and either grow or die. It is unsustainable and by all commonsensical accounts destructive to American influence and goodwill across the globe. It needs to be, for lack of better word, de-Sovietized, with a rapid defunding and reduction of the ideological brass, moving it back to a narrow defensive alliance. 

Three, the only sane path forward for the U.S. is one where NATO stops expanding. Expansion’s biggest drawback was not just a permanent rift between Russia and the US. It was the creation of a supranational organization fundamentally opposed to narrow U.S. national interests and even nationalism in member states per se. It created bloat, wherein the rich Western powers happily buckpass their security burden to the U.S. while lecturing Americans sanctimoniously about lofty liberal internationalist values. Europe’s strategy makes sense. The bigger the club, the more egalitarian it is, which means greater influence for the small states relative to the big ones; also, the more the club members, the more chances of friction between Russia and the U.S., as local problems become America’s.

NATO expansion’s biggest long term result was the destruction of traditional American detachment. As late as 1993, American statesmen and scholars, and even a section of the Pentagon, were unanimous on cutting down American costs in Europe. They thought the expansion of the club would result in more European powers taking control of their own finances and their own destiny. Trillions of dollars of debt and a bloated overstretch in Europe later, it was found out to be the exact opposite. Fenrir, voluntarily, got tied up in knots. 

In 1979, America had just had a humiliating retreat from the Middle East, street crime and racial animosity were off the charts, the Soviets were all across Africa pushing European influence out, the American mass memory was one of failed counterinsurgency and wars, and domestically the country faced a collapsing economy and inflation. The Soviets, meanwhile, thought that there were no feudal lands on this planet not ready for flying the red banner and invaded Afghanistan. If there are concrete lessons from history, one is that nothing is permanent in international relations. Imperial overstretch is as much a reason for great power implosion as all-out war. Both need to be avoided.

By any plausible metrics, NATO in its current form is an ever pressing burden on American shoulders. It need not be. If a grand bargain between Russia and a dormant defensive NATO helps Washington focus more on the rising dark clouds in the east, then that’s a good compromise. To reach that stage, drastic and original measures might be necessary. At the risk of mixing metaphors, Fenrir might have to cut the knot instead of trying to untie it. That starts with a reckoning with history.