The madness of NATO expansion



He is on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s upcoming trip to Europe put to tell Georgia and Ukraine that there is an “open door” for the two states to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an astonishing development that is certain to stir up the already bad relations between the US and Russia. While maintaining the sovereignty and prosperity of both countries is a laudable goal, it is more than reckless to invite two states on the Russian border to an anti-Russian security alliance in an era of escalating brinkmanships between Moscow and Washington.

The temptation is easy to understand. Both Ukraine and Georgia are struggling with democracies that have had parts of their territory cut off by Russian revanchism this century. Russian armed forces occupied and never left the South Ossetia region of Georgia in 2008, creating an autonomous region and displacing ethnic Georgians. And in 2014 Russian troops occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and deployed troops in support of ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, where to stay. Both conflicts have their roots in unresolved territorial disputes following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I visited the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 2014 and found it fascinating. The city has a ramshackle beauty, and Georgians are some of the most passionate pro-Americans I’ve ever met overseas – part of the taxi ride from the airport took us down a street named after George W. Bush. A trip to a monastery in Kazbegi, which is improbably perched on a snow-capped mountain peak, topped with jugs of Georgian rosé in a crowded café, gave me a soft spot for the country that will last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, sympathy and cheap wine are not a solid basis for a consistent foreign policy. NATO is a collective security pact and Article 5 of the Organization’s charter treats an attack on one member state as an attack on all. And because both Georgia and Ukraine beautiful Are involved in unresolved border disputes with Russia, inviting them to join the alliance when there is no fuller settlement with Russia is a bad idea.

Again, there is a problem with the larger picture. When NATO expanded into Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, boosters promised not just a military alliance, but Engine of democratization. By asking member states to resolve territorial disputes among themselves, joining NATO could avert potentially destructive conflicts such as those that hit the Balkans in the early 1990s. And the security guarantees of the pact would help deter right-wing extremists from exploiting nationalist claims in the service of militarism, ensuring civil control over military apparatus, and embedding post-Soviet countries in an alliance of democracies that are unlikely to go to war with one another.

It is an eye-opener to read through the case for NATO enlargement in the 1990s and early years. In a 1997 Essay for comment, neo-conservative Joshua Muravchik denied concerns that Russia might react poorly to expanding a defensive security alliance to its borders. “An ongoing dialogue with Russian political and military leaders,” he mused, “could help them see how little internal conflict exists between their enlightened self-interest and ours.” Three years later, Vladimir Putin was elected president for the first time. In the end, he didn’t see much overlap in our mutual self-interest.

The involvement of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic did not, of course, lead to a catastrophe. Writing in 2005 for the venerable magazine Security studies, International Relationship Scientist Rachel Epstein claimed justification for the expansion advocates. The first round of expansion in 1999 to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic not only “prevented the rise of destructive military cultures by insisting on democratic standards,” but the expansion did not destabilize relations with Russia, as critics warned.

Epstein concluded that “as a result of NATO enlargement, Russian policy had not been unduly radicalized, there was no new Cold War, and important arms control agreements were in place”. I only pick on Muravchik and Epstein because a complete review of this way of thinking, which was rampant and almost undisputed at the time, would use tens of thousands of words.

Today these hopeful assessments are almost ridiculous. Under Putin, Russia fell into a frozen authoritarianism and became a vicious influence on beleaguered democracies not only in Europe but worldwide. Several arms control agreements are now in tatters (mostly, it must be said, at the behest of the US Republican presidents), including the Ballistic Missile Combat Agreement (ABM), and the Medium-Range Nuclear Missile Treaty. Worse still, Russia has been aggressively trying to retake territories on its periphery, believing the US and its allies imposed an unjust settlement in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War at the moment of Moscow’s greatest weakness.

It’s not just Russia. Obviously, neither NATO nor the accession to the European Union was enough to cause a drift into authoritarianism for countries like Hungary, which in the course of the 21st Freedom House, which in its report Freedom in the World annually compiles an index of democracy, downgraded Hungary in the “Partially Free” category in 2019. Other NATO countries that are in the initial stages of enlargement, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, which are still considered democracies, have seen their scores go down in recent years as right-wing populism swept across the continent.

NATO has added eleven more countries since 1999, including the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which border Russia directly. I would invite you to look at a map and think about how this development could be perceived in Moscow. The not unreasonable view that post-Soviet Russia was being made by the West to cough up too much of the possessions of the USSR played an important role in the rise of Putin, whose philosophy is a strong element of the Irredentism, the desire to recapture national territory.

This rapid expansion of what was once a close-knit alliance has also given the organization an identity crisis. Should NATO keep peace in Europe or respond to other threats to peace and security far from the continent, or both? And if the goal is continental peace, what exactly is the benefit of deliberately shaking the cage of an enemy Russia?

Remember, if Georgia had been a NATO member in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014, the alliance would have been obliged to wage a gun war with Russia. Indeed, the prospect of NATO membership in 2008 seemed to have carefree Georgia’s leadership, convincing Russia to seize its territorial grips before the strategic situation changes. And the Biden administration should really think very carefully about reproducing this dynamic, especially at a time when the American public is in a particularly anti-interventionist mood.

Enlargement enthusiasts might reply that NATO membership would have deterred Moscow from aggression from the outset. Maybe like this. But it is just as likely that NATO’s promises to these friendly – but strategically unimportant – countries would have turned out to be empty given the prospect of war between nuclear powers. Another decade of foreign policy failure can only have fueled the perception in Moscow that the US determination to help Kiev and Tbilisi is thinner than ever. And the further the United States expands its powers and obligations at a time when both its relative and absolute world power is waning, the less it will be taken seriously by anyone.

All of this means that the expansion of NATO to these countries is folly, a provocation that could spark a new crisis with Russia and, therefore, is unlikely to improve the security situation of any of the new members much.

That sounds like a door that the Biden administration would rather keep closed.


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