Peaceful Co-existence or Existential Threat: The Russian View of NATO

Post-Soviet Russia raised some objections to NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe. Many Russian officials believed that expansion contradicted American promises during the negotiations over German reunification, despite the language of the final agreements regarding states’ rights to choose their own alliances. There were also claims that NATO expansion was directed against Russia, intended to surround the country with adversaries and reduce its ability to act independently in its former sphere of influence.

Although Russia’s position was weak following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the decline of the economy in the 1990s, many Russian officials still saw the country as having a natural sphere of influence, extending in some cases to Eastern Europe. Thus, at least some Russians saw former Warsaw Pact countries opting to join NATO as a threat to this sphere of influence.

American and Western leaders were not blind to Russian concerns. Even though prospective members initiated the call for membership, despite whatever reluctance within NATO, there was a recognition that such enlargement could not happen without taking into account Russian concerns.

Early in the process, President Clinton told Russian President Yeltsin that he “want[ed] to work closely with you to get through it together.” NATO looked to open itself up to new cooperation with its former adversary, so that enlargement “would be part of a broad European security architecture based on true cooperation throughout the whole of Europe. It would threaten no one and would enhance stability and security for all of Europe.”

The first step was NATO’s creation of the Partnership for Peace program (PfP) in 1994. This program was open to all of the former Warsaw Pact countries and the rest of Europe, and was designed to open larger collaborations toward overall peace and stability in Europe.

Russia gained special consideration within PfP, given its unique geopolitical circumstances. PfP was not a formal arrangement, and did not provide non-members much access to the alliance or its decisions. It was, however, a recognition that NATO could not act unilaterally in Europe, especially outside its area.

NATO took even larger steps to bring Russia closer to the Western alliance. Clinton pushed a new partnership embodied in the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed in May 1997, which created the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) to provide Russia a voice within the alliance itself.

The PJC was not a decision-making body because Russia was still outside of the alliance. But it did provide a consultative arena for Russia to influence NATO policy, especially as the alliance expanded. Yeltsin recognized “the readiness exhibited by the NATO countries, despite … difficulties, to reach an agreement with Russia and take into account our interests.”

However, the council never lived up to its goals. It acted in a 16 (later 19)+1 format, where the allies brought issues to Russia as a body, and Russia could only raise objections after the fact. As a result, Russia largely ignored the council, which fell into irrelevance.

One of the main issues that NATO and Russia faced in the 1990s was the disintegration of Yugoslavia and ensuing violence. As the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina deepened, NATO authorized airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. Russia opposed these attacks against their traditional Serbian allies, but was unable to do much more than object, although they were included in the negotiations that led to the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war in 1995.

These disagreements continued as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia continued, now centered on the Serbian province of Kosovo. As the ethnic violence between Serbs and Kosovars intensified, NATO again became directly involved, launching airstrikes against Serb forces in 1999.

Again, Russia objected on behalf of their Serb allies, but could do little more than they had been able to in Bosnia. As before, Russia was only able to involve itself in the cease-fire negotiations, although Russian forces also contributed to the Kosovo Stabilization Force (KFOR) that NATO deployed to Kosovo following the cease-fire.

Throughout the 1990s, NATO found itself in a changing environment, trying to redefine itself both geographically and existentially. The desire among many Central and Eastern European countries to join the alliance, led by Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, made NATO enlargement a central, contentious issue for NATO-Russian relations.

The conflicts arising out of the disintegration of Yugoslavia exacerbated tensions between NATO and Russia, although in general relations between the two sides remained calm, helped by the close personal relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin.

NATO and a Resurgent Russia

That is how things stood at the start of the first decade of the 21st century, even as Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia. Although many Russians were still upset over NATO enlargement, it was accepted reality by this point and many Russian officials recognized that its work was more political than military.

The reduction of violence in the former Yugoslavia alleviated tension between Russia and NATO. In fact, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, NATO and Russia found themselves closely aligned on a major issue, as both saw Islamic extremist terrorism as a threat.

In response, NATO adapted the Permanent Joint Council to the new NATO-Russia Council (NRC), giving Russia more collaboration in NATO policy. Unfortunately, the NRC proved little more capable at improving NATO’s relations with Russia than the PJC had, and, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (below, right), “made little progress, because the Kremlin never fully embraced it.”

As Russia’s economy improved, many of the contentious issues returned and were joined by new ones like missile defense in Eastern Europe. In response to growing nuclear proliferation fears in the Middle East, especially Iran, the United States looked to Eastern Europe as a base for deploying anti-ballistic missile forces that could protect Europe and the United States from smaller attacks. Russia, however, saw these deployments as actions directed against it, believing that the United States sought to gain strategic advantage over Russia by eliminating Russia’s nuclear deterrent threat.

Starting in 2002, a new set of central and eastern European states sought admission in NATO. In addition to states like Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania that NATO had not accepted in the first round, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia sought membership. These states posed a new matter beyond additional NATO enlargement, as they would be the first former Soviet Union states to be admitted to NATO, and would directly border Russia.

Russia again objected to this expansion, citing concerns about bringing an alliance from which it was excluded right up to its borders. In the end, President Putin was not willing to place the issue of Baltic membership in NATO in the way of improving Russia’s relationship with the alliance.

The expansion arguments won within NATO and, in 2004, the alliance added Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states. In 2009, Albania and Croatia joined.

Furthermore, NATO created the Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 1999, a program designed to aid prospective states looking to join in the future. Along with several Balkan states, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia began working through the MAP process in hopes of gaining NATO membership.

As the first decade of the 2000s progressed, a stronger central government under Vladimir Putin sought to raise Russian influence in the states along its long western and southern borders. Much of this new influence was directed toward Central Asia, where Russia sought to build a new Eurasian Union to balance the European Union to the west.

Russia also turned renewed attention to Ukraine, where, after a pro-Western interregnum beginning with the 2004 Orange Revolution, a pro-Russian government held power after 2010. In 2008, Russia used a simmering sectarian conflict in Georgia to invade its smaller neighbor and reassert its influence.

The Russian moves along its borders culminating in the 2008 war in Georgia did deter further NATO enlargement for the moment. The alliance dropped plans for expanding to Ukraine and Georgia, while keeping the door open for including them at some point in the future.

The 2014 overthrow of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovich in favor of the pro-Western government of Petro Poroshenko, and the subsequent Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the outbreak of violence between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, again set back plans for further NATO enlargement.

Both the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine also set back NATO-Russian relations, with the West reacting to Russian moves on its neighbors with sanctions and other diplomatic maneuvers.

Created out of Cold War circumstances, NATO has now operated for 25 years in a post-Cold War world. Has this new NATO attained its goals?

If NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s was designed to increase its military power, especially vis-à-vis Russia, then the results are debatable. While NATO has added new manpower to its forces, it also has more territory to defend, much of it away from its economic and military center in the United States and Western Europe. The Alliance has worked, especially since the Ukraine crisis, to expand its military power in Eastern Europe, but defending that territory is still based largely on the principle of deterrence.

However, looking at NATO expansion from a political standpoint, the results have been more successful. Along with EU expansion, NATO has brought stability and democratic norms to post-communist Europe. The goal of attaining NATO membership has forced these states to meet the standards set by the Alliance, including open elections, civilian control of the military, and elimination of ethnic and national conflicts. The security NATO has offered these states has given them the room to prioritize internal reforms over confronting external conflicts.

The West went into the post-Cold War period emphasizing, as President George H.W. Bush did, that “no one had lost the Cold War, but everyone had won.” NATO took steps to turn Russia into a partner rather than an adversary, but that effort presently seems to have been unsuccessful, and Russia still sees NATO as its primary antagonist.

NATO will now have to reevaluate its approach to Russia, likely placing more emphasis on military force. While this condition will likely not rival the Cold War in its intensity or danger, it will still represent a major source of international instability into the future.