In a March 2014 address to parliament, honoring the annexation of the Crimea, Putin alleged that Western countries had “lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the east, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.” He added, “we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, continues today.”
This week, a Kremlin spokesman reiterated the basic argument, saying, “the eastward expansion of the NATO infrastructure is, in my view, of an openly destabilizing nature and has no relation to the real security problems in Europe.”
As Edward P. Joseph wrote for The National Interest earlier this year, “The argument has a certain moral logic to it, suggesting that if only the West — the United States, really — hadn’t been so arrogant toward a defeated and demoralized foe, then relations with Russia would be far less difficult today. But,” he cautioned, “this morality play only holds water if we believe that NATO expansion, first, violated Western promises to Russia and, second, threatened Russian security.”
In February 1990, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and shortly before the Soviet Union would collapse, American president George H.W. Bush is supposed to have promised his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not take advantage of this moment of weakness in Russian history and push the alliance up to its borders. Whether or not such a promise was ever explicitly made, the Russians believed they had reached an understanding with the United States that, as the Cold War was ending, they would enter a partnership with the West and share responsibility for security in Europe.
Despite repeated attempts at cooperation, no such partnership ever emerged. Rather, NATO did expand eastward, first admitting the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999. The remaining Warsaw Pact countries entered NATO in 2004. Among them were even three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
With NATO virtually on Russia’s doorstep, the only remaining buffer states are Belarus, which is ruled by a Russian puppet, and Ukraine, which, as the Russians saw it, the West just tried to snitch from them with a European Union association and trade agreement that could have been a first step toward Ukrainian membership. Hence Russian aggression in the Crimea and the Donbas — the most Sovietized east of the country.
But as Joseph pointed out, there was no clear promise to refrain from expanding NATO. Indeed, at the time, there were no plans to expand NATO at all. “To insist otherwise, as NATO expansion critics do, is to impute a masterful clairvoyance and Machiavellian duplicity on the part of American and European leaders in the early 1990s, which they simply did not possess.”
It also overlooks the agency of those former Eastern European states that wanted to join the Western alliance. The first three countries that joined each “had a searing experience under Russian domination,” according to Joseph, while “the less exacting and more rapid NATO membership process became the de facto stepping stone to joining (or rejoining) Europe.”
The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all have a strong Central European sense of identity that the dichotomy of the Cold War temporarily negated. Joining NATO — and the EU — was not only an insurance against possible future Russian aggression, but primarily a means of rehabilitation into Western civilization.
The notion that NATO’s expansion was some sort of anti-Russian plot can be further disproven by pointing out that virtually none of the alliance’s initiatives and operations following the end of the Cold War were aimed at Russia. While the war against Serbia angered Russia, which sees the Balkan nation as something of a fellow Slav protectorate, it was motivated by humanitarian impulses, not Russophobia. So was the 2011 intervention in Libya, which also upset Russia because it believed NATO had overstepped its mandate to engineer regime change in the country. To the extent that the West backed “color revolutions” in Russia’s former sphere of influence or, more recently, the westward aspirations of Ukraine, this had more to do with a genuine desire to export liberal democracy than undermine Russian power.
And that is exactly what NATO achieved. As James Kirchick argued in Foreign Policy earlier this year, “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,” he wrote.
Russia likes to see itself as a victim and copes with a perennial sense of insecurity and inferiority vis-à-vis a West. In this sense, NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe can be considered one explanation for Russia’s behavior. But that is a far cry from justification. That would carry far more profound implications. As Joseph put it, “By insisting that NATO expansion is a main source of Russia’s grievance with the West, alliance critics unwittingly affirm Moscow’s right to act as hegemon.”
So does Russia itself. After Poland suggested in 2009 that Russia should ultimately join NATO, then-Russian envoy to NATO and now a deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, retorted, “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.”
This reveals a misreading, whether deliberate or not, of the West’s intentions — which, Kirchick knows, stems from “the zero-sum worldview and neo-imperialist agenda of President Vladimir Putin.” NATO can hardly be blamed for standing in the way of that.