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NATO’s Wrong Turn

A rapidly congealing Beltway consensus seems to be forming around the idea of a new Cold War. The anti-Russia sentiment is partially rooted in the particulars of the Ukraine crisis, which flowed from the West-backed insurrection in Maidan that overthrew a democratically elected—if terminally corrupt—Ukrainian leader and replaced him with an unelected nationalist anti-Russian regime. These events sparked a predictable Russian countermove, Russia’s taking back of (mostly ethnically Russian) Crimea with troops. In cascading fashion, this has descended upon an American political establishment that has responded as if it had been subconsciously yearning for a “bipartisan” and “unifying” mission of the sort the Cold War once provided. If initial poll numbers showed that few Americans had much of an interest in making a big fuss over Ukraine, or Crimea, the media and the politicians have been rapidly coalescing to change that. For the first time since 2004 or so, neoconservative commentators have the initiative in the opinion columns: they propose tough measures (NATO membership for Ukraine is now being bandied about [1], along with various military moves) as liberals emit me-too bleeps, in a political pattern all too evocative of the fateful months preceding the Iraq war. Within several weeks the new elite consensus will undoubtedly be able to point to poll numbers in favor of getting tough with Russia over an issue that few people had opinions about six months ago.

The Ukraine crisis is of course interesting and complicated in its own right (for instance, who commanded the snipers who fired on both police and demonstrators [2] at Maidan, escalating the confrontation and upending the diplomatic arrangement reached days earlier?) but it is a subset of the larger question about Russia and NATO expansion at the end of the Cold War. This was debated in the mid 1990s in forums largely limited to foreign policy specialists. (I worked at the middlebrow New York Post‘s editorial page during most of those years, and don’t recall drafting a single editorial on NATO expansion from 1992 to 1996.) Yet the debate, which once was barely noticed beyond the specialist journals, now looms as critically important. And, if the current confrontation does lead to World War III, as one Ukrainian general [3] has predicted, it will be clear that decisions taken quietly in the 1990s lit the fuse.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 to 1991 came so quickly that no one was prepared for it. The Soviet Union first lost its Eastern European empire, then collapsed into itself. Considering that the Cold War was the central fault line of world politics, and one with stakes such that a civilization destroying nuclear war was at some level contemplated and planned for every day, this was was a kind of political miracle. As Owen Harries put it in one of the most important essays [4] of the 1990s,

The Soviet regime, steeped in blood and obsessed with total control as it had been throughout most of its history, voluntarily gave up its Warsaw Pact empire, collapsed the Soviet system upon itself, and then acquiesced in its own demise—all with virtually no violence. This extraordinary sequence of events was by no means inevitable. Had it so chosen, the regime could have resisted the forces of change as it had on previous occasions, thus either extending its life, perhaps for decades more, or going down in a welter of blood and destruction. That, indeed, would have been more normal behavior, for as the English scholar Martin Wight once observed, “Great power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A Great Power does not die in its bed.” What occurred in the case of the Soviet Union was very much the exception.

Why did the Soviet Union choose to die peacefully? A large part of the answer was the understanding, explicit according to some but never formally codified, that the West would not take strategic advantage of Moscow’s retreat. Had Moscow envisioned that the West would expand NATO to its doorstep, the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union would probably not have expired peacefully. As Harries puts it, the bargain, whether implicit or explicit, made a great deal of sense for the United States:

For, after all, its avowed objective was not the eastward extension of its own power and influence in Europe, but the restoration of the independence of the countries of the region. In effect, the bargain gave the United States everything it wanted (more, in fact, for the breakup of the Soviet Union had never been a Cold War objective), and in return required it only to refrain from doing what it had never expressed any intention of doing.

The critical complicating factor, at the time, was the fate of Germany, Europe’s largest power and the source of most of its 20th-century conflict: could Germany be reunited, as part of NATO? Evidently, yes. As Adam Garfinkle noted, in a valuable 1996 analysis [5] of the NATO expansion debate:

If it had been proposed to you in 1989 that the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union both would come peaceably to an end, that Germany would be reunited in NATO, and that all Russian military forces would withdraw behind their own frontier—and that all that was asked in return was that NATO not take advantage of this retreat by moving eastward—would you have accepted? Extraordinary as it would have sounded then, had it been put so succinctly and all in one breath, this is more or less what was in fact proposed in the “two-plus-four” agreement for the reunification of Germany, and later accepted as the Warsaw Pact collapsed.


As the process proceeded, guided by the United States, Russia was told quite explicitly that the Western idea was not to move NATO up to its borders. Why did Russia not insist on a formal treaty to that effect? Obviously it was not in a position to do so—during the dynamics of the time, Russia was imploding and no more able to insist upon terms than the Bolsheviks were at Brest-Litvosk. But importantly, there also seemed to be no need as everyone, Russians and American and key NATO nations alike, were on the same page. As Sergei Karagnakov, a leading Russian foreign affairs analyst who subsequently became an advisor to Putin put it: [5]

In 1990 we were told quite clearly by the West that dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and German unification would not lead to NATO expansion. We did not demand written guarantees because in the euphoric atmosphere of that time it would have seemed almost indecent, like two girlfriends giving written promises not to seduce each other’s husbands.

Of course the euphoria didn’t last. Rapid liberalization proved deadly to the Russian economy and standard of living in the 1990s, and Putin came to power determined to put a stop to what was widely perceived as an anarchic period of Russian weakness. And the more versatile and powerful girlfriend did indeed seduce, first Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and has since pushed further into nations and regions that are perceived, by Russians, to be literally part of historic Russia. In his essay of 1997, Owen Harries described the NATO expansion decision as “ominous”—for the United States had decided to project American power into a highly sensitive region.

The expansionist victory came partly through the forces of bureaucratic inertia—NATO has many layers of vested constituencies, which needed new rationales to justify their salaries and continued existence. It was partially due to domestic American politics—Clinton in 1996 made his initial NATO-expansion speeches at campaign events crafted to appeal to Polish and East European voters. And it was partially due to a desire by traditional hawks, neoconservative and others, to continue a version of the Cold War, perhaps by sparking a “democratic crusade” in Eastern Europe. There was also a moral case—we would finally “do right” by those East Europeans twice abandoned—so the conventional narrative ran—first at Munich and then again at Yalta.

Another who perceived this choice to be woefully misguided was the 94-year-old George F. Kennan, the American strategist who had designed the doctrine of “containment” in the early Cold War. In a 1997 New York Times op-ed, Kennan suggested that expanding NATO would be “the most fateful error” of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, which could be expected to “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy … and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” Kennan was perhaps overly prescient, for Russia’s negative reaction did not emerge immediately. Moscow, faced with a more immediate and deadly Chechen insurgency, seemed too distracted to focus on NATO; it would take half a generation before NATO expansion became an obviously sensitive issue. In 1998, the Senate would go on to vote for NATO enlargement by a margin of 80-19. One of the 19, Daniel P. Moynihan, inserted Kennan’s op-ed into the Congressional record, along with a laudatory letter Kennan had sent to Owen Harries and Harries’ own piece.

Another participant in the 1990s debate was Rodric Braithwaite, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow. His Prospect essay [6] from 1997 asked which path is better for victors after a war: the models of 1815, when a defeated France was brought into the “concert of Europe,” and 1945, when Germany, or much of it, was integrated into the Western system; or Versailles, where after World War I a defeated Germany was humiliated and made to pay. It is clear that the first George Bush, in the early 1990s, was thinking along 1815 and 1945 lines. But incrementally his policy was reversed by his successors, first by the Clinton-Albright duo, and then by his son, and now by Obama, the latter prodded by his belligerent assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland.

Of course it is not really possible that Russia will respond to its Versailles the way Germany did, remilitarizing and for a time dominating its adversaries. It is almost certainly too weak for that. But it can begin to act irresponsibly in global affairs, perhaps most menacingly on nuclear proliferation. It is a state with many weapons and many nuclear scientists. Russia can also reforge its strategic links to China. Of course unlike during the 1950s, an anti-Western Moscow would be the junior partner in a Beijing-Moscow alliance. But it’s still a combination the United States should not be working to bring about.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "NATO’s Wrong Turn"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 28, 2014 @ 9:22 am

I think the Soviet Union merely ran out of steam. I think the will to exercise such vast mounts of control just was too much. The exposure to new informational content via a technology free of wires just proved to be a major turning point — the vast amounts of contradictory data against Russia’s own history weakened it joints. I also think the costs on their central banking system proved to be too much combined with elite and even middle members of the population to more tourists, and travel — intermingling counter balanced Soviet teachings about westerners proved to be inaccurate experientially and the foundation of what preached against reality proved to be too much sand.

#2 Comment By collin On March 28, 2014 @ 9:42 am

Is it really fair to bring a slow growth of NATO in terms of Russian action in The Ukraine? This seems to fall into ‘Blame the US” when in reality Putin (in words of the The Daily Show) “Does not give a S***”. Many of the East European nations are also on the Euro or Poland leaders are moving that direction despite some extreme economic depressions in these countries.

Remember Putin reacted to The Ukraine having increase trade with the EU not a NATO treaty. What I see if these East European nations are economically willing to move to the EU arrangements and that is what threatening Russia.

#3 Comment By DOD On March 28, 2014 @ 11:12 am

A wise review and analysis to enlarge Munich and 1938 fixations. I fear, however, our national imagination may be forced to cross many rough patches before reestablishing contact with reality and surrendering an undeserved sense of innocence. This is exactly the exactly kind of foreign policy insight we need right now, the kind utterly lacking and unlikely to emerge from the red/blue chatter. Thank you TAC.

#4 Comment By HeartRight On March 28, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

‘Russia can also reforge its strategic links to China. Of course unlike during the 1950s, an anti-Western Moscow would be the junior partner in a Beijing-Moscow alliance. But it’s still a combination the United States should not be working to bring about.’

Sir, complex and dynamic strategic relationships between Muscovy and Bejing go so far back in time, that very little that the United Status has done or could do, could be considered a leading cause when Russia and China adjust their mutual relations once again.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 28, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

Want to take on a closed system — expose them to themselves. Our military posturing against North Korea only prolongs that which we fear.

The role of NATO is complex but I believe it could serve a useful purpose which would have nothing to do wit expanding it membership.

I would add, suppose those countries in question had been the ones to decide minus any prodding from NATO that they desired NATO alliance or membership. Should they then be denied because it might be interpreted by Russia as a threat? I think member reversing the dynamic is valuable.

#6 Comment By Paul On March 28, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

One of the best analyses written in recent months, and there have been a lot of them. Particularly useful to a culture for which the world starts anew each week on Monday.

#7 Comment By Stephen Reynolds On March 29, 2014 @ 12:50 am

Here we go again. The discussion is entirely from the “power club” perspective. The West (essentially the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) push NATO eastward and threaten Russia, which reacts defensively.

It takes two to tango. The new members of NATO were not bludgeoned into joining. After half a century of brutal tyranny, they had every reason to want to enter into a pact that obligated the West to defend them. They certainly could not count on the West to do so out of fraternal concern.

In 1992, the same “Karanakov”—his surname is *Karaganov*—cited by Mr McConnell published an article proposing that since Russia could not let the countries of the former USSR go their own way because they were incompetent to rule themselves and would bring chaos to the entire region, and on the other hand Russia could not reestablish the empire by force (what he referred to, sounding rather nostalgic, as “normal imperialism”), the best policy would be for Russia to declare itself the defender of the interests of the numerous Russians remaining in the former Soviet “republics” and use their presence as the means to gain control over political processes there. This is called the “Karaganov Doctrine.”

East Germany had already been reunited with its western counterpart when this was published, but otherwise the first Soviet-bloc countries to join NATO did so in 1999. The Baltic states, directly threatened by the Karaganov doctrine, did not do so until 2004. The Commonwealth of Independent States was formed about a year before this article was published; the Balts declined to join, and since then, but especially on Putin’s watch, have been the targets of a vicious propaganda campaign and sometimes worse (remember the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007). They and the former Warsaw Pact countries joined not because the West wanted to threaten Russia, but because Russia was a threat to them.

And Putin intervened militarily in Crimea on the exact plan laid down by Karaganov, claiming the the Russian population and the Russian bases were endangered and needed protection—which was simply untrue. Russia complained that the new government of Ukraine consisted of thugs (which is true of Svobodists, and of Pravyy Sektor people who will no doubt run in the upcoming elections, but not of the center-right and largely Russian-speaking technocrats who hold the top positions) and was unelected and therefore illegitimate. Then it set its own thugs to harass, beat, disappear, and kill non-violent Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea, and appointed the wholly improper Aksyonov to head the government.

I do not favor taking Ukraine into NATO (although now I must acknowledge that sufficient threats from Russia could change my mind), and I don’t advocate humiliating or threatening Russia. But I have to insist that discussions of Russia and NATO take into account the perspective of those who have joined and those who want to join the latter.

#8 Comment By Locke On March 29, 2014 @ 3:14 am

Americans would be wise to realize that one of the key factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union was massive overspending on ‘defense’. I know conservatives know this as they’ve claimed it was Reagan who defeated the Soviet Union by causing them to make this mistake.

Of course, now its the Americans who are massively overspending on ‘defense’. Of course, its a well known conservative maxim that any problem can be solved by simply throwing more and more money at the problem.

But, while the Soviets collapsed their country by overspending on defense to try to match the world’s other superpower at the time, America seems to be desperately searching for enemies and causing crisis around the world in order to find a problem that would justify throwing more and more and more money at via the Pentagon and black agencies.

#9 Comment By George Archers Toronto On March 29, 2014 @ 7:17 am

What’s missing in all of this— In WWII, Russia and USA were jocking who would take control all of Europe.Germany was used as a sap.
Russia got almost half of Europe and the other USA. USA’s money men took advantage of American dollar being world reserve. Money loaned and free interest in the billion$. Russia got saddled with freeloader Europe nations.
take note; If american dollar as a reserve goes like the Dodo bird.. USA empire will collapse faster than Russia did in 1990

#10 Comment By James Canning On March 29, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

I think the ill-considered proposal to have Ukraine (and Georgia) become Nato members, back in 2008, is part of the problem. This created a concern by some Russian leaders that continuing use of their naval bases in Crimea could be in jeopardy.

#11 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 29, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

The problem is not the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe but Russia’s exclusion from it. NATO was set up as an anti-communist, not anti-Russian, alliance. It worked brilliantly in the cold war and should never have been turned into an anti-Russian alliance. The bright side is that Putin’s generation is slowly being pushed into retirement by younger people who see themselves not as cold warriors but as modern Europeans who simply want to return to the place in Europe that Russia occupied before 1917. Putin won’t be there for ever!

#12 Comment By Eileen Kuch On March 29, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

NATO should have been dissolved at the same time the Warsaw Pact was, period. The Cold War was over; thus, NATO had become (and still is) obsolete. But, no; the “Neocons” (aka Trotskyites) wanted to use NATO to pursue their own agenda: world domination; thus, NATO remained as their tool to wage aggressive wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), and Libya. They were thwarted from attacking Syria by a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin.

Nations of the former Warsaw Pact were incorporated into NATO, starting in the early 90’s and into the beginning of the 21st Century, with the last being the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. By then, Putin had replaced the incompetent, often drunk Boris Yeltsin and completely revamped Russia’s military to the degree that prevented any further NATO expansion.

Therefore, had NATO been disbanded with the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe would have had nothing to fear from Russia; and the entire continent would have been in a much better financial condition.

#13 Comment By Nikolay Romanov On March 30, 2014 @ 8:14 am

The author has a biased view of Russia and demonstrates a shallow understanding of historical processes. It’s the USA who ‘acts irresponsibly’ in global affairs, not Russia.It’s the USA who love to swing a club globally, and and always cover their actions with lies and information blockade of the international community. Russia will never be a “junior ” partner in an alliance with China – to think so is like to call it a “regional” state, as Mr Obama did recently. This will be a union of equal partners, though hardly anyone in the USA understands the meaning of a word “equality” in global affairs. Thanks U.S. for Crimea back to Russia! Dull American foreign policy toward Ukraine, rough cowboy pressure, unwillingness to understand anyone’s interests, but its own, and even lifes – someday we restore the USSR, perhaps. With such blunt, unprofessional, lying, inhuman enemies like the USA, strong friends are not required.

#14 Comment By westie On March 30, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

Very enlightening piece that appears to confirm my sketchy memory of the implosion of the USSR. A shame our contemptible State Dept & Dept of Offense has made such a mess of the opportunities this provided.

#15 Comment By Furbo On March 30, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

Putin – grateful for his showing the world why the US Army still exists – could, I belive easily move his ‘sphere of influence’ to the Rhine & Danube rivers. Not that he’d want to do that, but there’s really nothing in his way short of a nuclear deterrent. European military capbilities are …well, lets be nice. There are no US ground forces of real mention left in Europe that could counter anamrmored threat. Given our current kindergarten teacher leadership, a nuclear option is unthinkable. A fascinating time, truly…

#16 Comment By Rossbach On March 30, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

The original purpose of NATO was to organize the defense of Western Europe (with substantial help from the US) against a Soviet invasion. That threat disappeared 25 years ago. NATO should have been disbanded after 1991. Its purpose today is to create markets for US military hardware and to serve as a staging area for Wilsonian interventions in Eurasia that the American people do not need or want.

#17 Comment By BraesBladesmyth On March 30, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

DOD above said it best.

My bit would be that we need a good purge of the Neo Conservatives of both parties.

#18 Comment By Ruslan On March 30, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

The fear of NATO expansion did not emerge on a grand scale in Russia until the Kosovo bombing campaign of 1999 when NATO in violation of its own charter unprovokedly attacked a sovereign European country. The humanitarian catastrophe used as a pretext looked to the Russians largely a propaganda product based on extremely controversial (and often manipulated) evidence (e.g. Račak massacre). The Kosovo bombings coincided with the first post-German-reunification NATO expansion round. It all conspired in the minds of the Russian public into a powerful image of an old adversary readying up to interfere in Russia’s internal issues including the looming separatist/terrorist threat from Chechnya. Despite the strenuous efforts by Putin to convince the West that Russia was on the same side in the war on terror the US and its European allies in a massive feat of double standards continued to criticise Russia for the conduct of the second Chechen war while invading Afghanistan and Iraq with numerous casualties among non-combatants. The Western powers also moved on with the second and third rounds of NATO expansion while the US unilaterally pulled out of the ABM treaty which Moscow saw as a major breach of the post Cold War security arrangements. All this amounted to a near complete denial of Russia’s security interest by its Western partners putting Putin under enormous pressure both from the standpoint of national defense as well as from the public opinion to respond in a decisive fashion.
It has been said many times that the Ukraine uprising whereby Western-sponsored opposition with a help from right-wing extremists deposed an elected president drew the line for Russia. But in order to understand why the Ukraine was that red line one should look back at the Kosovo precedent and not only for the similarities with the Crimea situation (in fact there are probably more differences than similarities between the two cases and mostly not in favour of NATO’s argument) but because in Kosovo the most powerful global military alliance demonstrated its readiness to side with the militants whom it had officially termed terrorists (KLA) in order to secure its geopolitical interests and take advantage of the apparent weakness of its partners-turn-foes in the Balkans. Suddenly Russia could draw too many vivid parallels with its own plight in the Caucasus and could no longer tolerate NATO’s eastward push and the double standards used to camouflage it. Yet the Ukraine story is not so much about the threat of NATO expansion, as it is about the gross and cynical neglect of the opinion of Russia’s natural allies – the Ukrainians living in the Russian-speaking parts of the country who probably constitute the better half of the Ukraine’s population and who lost almost overnight all their representation in Kiev, neglect of their security concerns and of the trust that they (and by extension all other Russian allies) have placed with Russia. So before taking it to the brink the US should probably step back and think whether the mentality of treating Russia as no more than a nuisance fits with the modern reality and whether a federal constitution (something that the US has lived with for over two hundred years) for the Ukraine and its guaranteed neutrality are too high a price to pay for defusing the most serious crisis Europe and perhaps the world have faced since the collapse of communism.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

The pretext of humanitarian crisis was confirmed when Russia herself chastised Serbia for actions in Kosovo.

NATO in response to continued violations by Serbia of her agreements not to engage in the behavior she insisted on doing was to cause for the attack.

She agreed to reduce troops, she increased them. She agreed to conditions for discussion then violated them. She agreed to stop attacking civilians and raising villages. Instead she increased both. Upon leaving the talks she commenced to engaging in a genocidal cleansing —

NATO took measures to get her out of Kosovo as that seemed the only mechanism by which they could get her to abide by her own word and appropriate behavior.

One could harangue all day along about the NATO Charter, and the failure to acquire specific UN agreement. But they had a mandate to enforce peace as to both parties. Serbia made that exceedingly difficult.

I would say that if the EU, NATO and the US had engaged in supporting a violent coupe against a standing government — there is valid reason for concern. And shame on all parties that so engaged.

But in Kosovo, one could argue that NATO and the UN waited far too long to establish serious brightlines of conduct.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

. . . and I mean that in both directions.

#21 Comment By Clint On April 1, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

Konstantin Sivkov, the first vice president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems:

“Statements claiming that Russian Armed Forces are ready to repulse any attack after the so-called reforms are nothing but nonsense. They are capable of settling a small conflict, in which not more than 100,000 men would need to participate. If there’s a larger, local conflict, which requires the participation of up to 500,000 people, then the Russian Armed Forces would not be able to deal with it, not to mention a large-scale war with NATO or China.”

“No country participating in WWII used chemical weapons during the war in spite of the fact that everyone had more than enough of those weapons. No one did that, not even the dying Nazi Germany.

The same will happen to nuclear weapons. Everyone is very well aware of the fact that using nuclear weapons is similar to committing suicide. Both NATO and China know that Russia will not use its nukes if a non-nuclear war occurs.”

#22 Comment By John Baldridge On April 2, 2014 @ 3:48 am

I strongly agree with Eileen Kuch and Rossbach that NATO should have been dissolved in the early 90s. I argued it at the time, because I foresaw just this sort of future tension if it weren’t dissolved. But the fact is that the post-WW2 Western (and, in particular, the US) economic dependence on the military-industrial complex prevented this from happening.

So… here we are. Does anyone remember the concept of the “peace dividend”? A sad loss, indeed.

#23 Comment By Ken On April 6, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

TO STEPHEN REYNOLDS. “After half a century of brutal tyranny, they had every reason to want to enter into a pact that obligated the West to defend them…”
Pardon my intrusion in your otherwise reasonable remarks – but there was no half a century of brutal tyranny. I am Ukrainian by name and I lived in the times of the USSR. And may I assure you – culturally it was a unique concert of nations (though started first as hell at times). Overly simplistic to describe it that way…

#24 Comment By axbucxdu On April 6, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

As any US taxpayer should be, I’m all for NATO’s dissolution. However, I might be convinced of its continued utility if, and only if, the Russkies were allowed in as full card carrying members.

On second thought, the first alternative is indeed cheaper, and it does have the advantage of removing any excuses that Russian pols make to their constituents for their .guv’s strategic “acquisitions”.