This year marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This military alliance, which forms the basis of European and global security, continues to endure long after the end of the Cold War for which it was originally founded. Though the Soviet Union is gone, the resurgence of Russia as a player in global affairs has renewed the sense of urgency around protecting this alliance. But ironically, many have argued that the expansion of NATO itself has helped encourage Russia to become more aggressive. This week, we’ll tackle the question: Did NATO expansion help cause Russian resurgence?
We’ve already discussed the formation of NATO before. But as a quick refresher, NATO was established as a military alliance of “Western” nations in opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These nations all worked together to help coordinate their defensive military strategies in the event that a member nation was attacked in a traditional military conflict. They also signed Article Five of the NATO Charter, which basically states that all member nations will come to the aid of another member nation that is attacked. The Soviets created a similar organization called the Warsaw Pact, but this alliance proved ineffective and was ultimately disbanded after the most influential nations (Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) all protested a Soviet intervention in the small Baltic country of Lithuania. Once the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the rest of the Soviet Union soon followed.
After the Cold War, the victorious NATO alliance quickly moved to expand its influence and membership. Many of the newly liberated nations (like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were quick to begin vying for membership as a means to protect themselves from Russian intervention again. In International Relations theory, this is known as “balancing.” This is where a nation will “balance” against the influence of an aggressive neighbor by allying itself with that nation’s rival. By 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had joined NATO to get away from Russian control and make it easier to join the prosperous European Union markets. The Baltics (Estonia, Lativa, and Lithuania) and several others followed suit in 2004. Some within the United States and Europe criticized this decision at the time as they believed it would push Russia into a corner and force it to act aggressively. From Russia’s perspective, it seems they may have been correct.
Naturally, Russia did not view this expansion favorably. For a brief time, it was thought that Russia would welcome democratization and join the Western European community, but memories of the former Soviet glory (and a prominent politician named Vladimir Putin) helped ensure that Russia would continue to defy America and Western Europe. Suddenly, these expansions had pushed NATO’s boundaries right up to the border with Russia. Poland had historically been considered a buffer region for Russia, so Russia would have time to prepare a counter-attack if Germany or Western Europe tried to invade. Now, Russia felt backed into a corner as its former puppet nations turned away to support Russia’s historical rivals. Then, the situation deteriorated rapidly when the European Union and NATO began to discuss including Ukraine into the alliances.
Ukraine’s importance in Russia’s history and security is hard to understate. Ukraine shares a long border with Russia and until recently held strategic ports on the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine began to make serious movements towards joining the European Union following the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in the 2014 Revolution. In response, Russia pushed back by annexing Crimea and helping to instigate a simmering civil war in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Whereas most Ukrainians did not favor NATO inclusion before, now a majority support joining NATO as a means to prevent Russia from re-establishing control over the entire region. Currently, Ukraine is continuing to take major steps towards joining NATO, steps which Russia will certainly oppose.
So would halting NATO expansion have stopped Russian resurgence? It’s hard to say. Putin’s Russia would probably have tried to control these nations anyway as he has shown every indication that he seeks to re-establish Russian domination of Eastern Europe. It could also be argued that NATO expansion simply channeled Russia’s existing expansionist aims towards nations like Ukraine and Belarus (which are not part of the alliance). More than likely, it seems that NATO expansion and Russian resurgence are symptoms of the much larger divide between Russia and Western Europe that has persisted for centuries. What’s clear is that both sides appear to be locked in an intractable struggle for supremacy and influence that is unlikely to de-escalate anytime soon.
Why should it matter to you? Russia is doing everything it can to play spoiler for the United States in global issues. At every turn, Russia is trying to break up old alliances and trade relationships that benefit the United States and has successfully amplified political and social divisions within our own country. This hurts both our ability to project power in the world, but also limits our options for responding to crises and leaves America marginalized during trade negotiations. Sure, there are benefits to America’s current track of bi-lateral trade negotiations, but giant trade deals among multiple nations aren’t simply going to go away (and most have continued without the United States playing any part). The NATO alliance may seem a little outdated, but it still plays a vital role in ensuring America remains relevant on the global stage. This relevance is key to enhancing the lives of Americans at home. After all, it’s better to be at the head of a large multi-national institution than completely shut out of one.