by Gordon M. Hahn
Ever since the idea of expanding NATO without Russia was first broached in the early 1990s, many policymakers and analysts have argued that Russia does not view NATO expansion as a threat but rather uses it as a pretext to interfere in the domestic politics or attempt to restore its lost empire. This is a false and dangerous myth that is intended to remove the share of responsibility the West bears for the growing conflict with Russia. This myth risks yet more conflict to the detriment of the West, Russia, and its neighbors.
Those who purvey the myth that Moscow really is not opposed to, or concerned about a NATO expansion that excludes Russia do so in the face of the facts. Indeed, every late Soviet and post-Soviet Russian president and foreign minister has rejected NATO expansion precisely because it is detrimental to Russian national security. Russia’s military doctrine puts at the top of the list of “external military dangers…the growing violent potential of NATO and the delegation to it of global functions which are facilitative of violations of international law and the nearing of the military infrastructure of the member-countries of NATO to the borders of the Russian Federation, in particular by way of the bloc’s further expansion.” Trial balloons and direct proposals floated by every post-Soviet Russian president about Russia joining NATO were received coldly or completely ignored. Putin publicly supported the possibility during his first months in office and received no response.
The most recent reincarnation of the assertion that Moscow views NATO expansion as benign came last month from former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. He claimed that during the Barack Obama presidency the Russian leadership never raised the issue of NATO expansion, which it now argues was one reason for what I regard to be Moscow’s overreaction to the 21 February 2014 ultra-nationalist-led coup in Kiev by occupying and annexing Crimea.
Of course, we can not know what issues Russian leaders raised in private meetings with U.S. officials, but numerous Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have stated ad infinitum that Russia opposes NATO expansion along its borders. To be sure, the issue of NATO expansion has not been at the center of Russian-American relations during President Obama’s tenure, but this is because Washington and Brussels have made no move to expand NATO further during either Obama term. So Ambassador Mcfaul’s claim is akin to saying that Mongolia has not raised the issue of Argentinian encroachments on its border. The issue would not have been raised because it is not an issue to begin with.
However, in the case of Russia and NATO expansion Moscow’s silence during Obama’s presidency was but a temporary lull in the dispute; a lull shattered by the events in Kiev last year. Indeed, when the 2008 NATO summit approved eventual expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, Putin made a point of denouncing the plan and warning Moscow would be forced to respond in terms of its defense and security posture. When his successor, Dmitrii Medvedev, proposed Russian-Western talks on creating a new European security architecture, Washington ignored him and Brussels issued a lukewarm response before dropping it from the agenda.
At the same time, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili responded differently to the promise of NATO membership; he promptly invaded South Ossetiya, bombed its capitol with inaccurate GRAD rockets, and killed 19 Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians. Russia responded with its own invasion to defend its traditional Ossetian allies and occupied Georgia’s other remaining breakaway republic, Abkhaziya. Moscow could not let chaos reign along its border in a region where Abkhaziyan (and Ossetiyan) compatriots residing inside Russia would have helped produce and feed an insurgency against Georgian occupation forces.
However, with its army a mere 30 miles from Georgia’s capitol and the NATO-trained Georgian army in complete collapse, Moscow made no move ‘to restore the Soviet Union’ or its Tsarist empire by occupying Tbilisi. Instead, by recognizing the long-standing de facto (though not de jure) independence of the breakaway republics it created a buffer zone between Russia and the future NATO member.
Putin’s actions in Ukraine, rather than being part of some master plan for eternal conquest, have been reactive, defensive, and in good part driven by the perceived and real NATO threat as well as losses on the ground in Ukraine. The February pro-democratic revolution-turned nationalist-led coup prompted Putin’s Crimean gambit. Kiev’s initiation of a civil war against ethnic Russians and Russian-language speakers in the Donbas, where virtually no violence had preceded its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ similarly prompted Putin’s rather limited support for the Donbass separatists, which was purely a homegrown reaction to the nationalist surge in Kiev. Moreover, where as Moscow waited three years and frequently negotiated before undertaking its anti-terrorist operation in a very similar situation against Chechen rebels in the early 1990s, Kiev waited a mere month before moving against its separatists.
In this light, Russia’s annexation of Crimea serves a purpose similar to Russia’s support for South Ossetiya and Abkhaziya, preserving a strong Russian military presence to counter a NATO Ukraine. Similarly, the Donbas separatists offer the potential of another buffer state to replace that lost in Kiev.
Thus, it is no coincidence that one of Russia’s chief demands in cooperating to resolve the Ukrainian crisis is that Kiev’s constitution be amended to stipulate Ukraine’s neutral, non-bloc status. If this happens, Moscow will be even less interested in supporting the Donbass rebels, given the instability the rebels are fomenting both across and within its borders.
A NATO expanding along Russia’s western and southwestern borders is a direct potential threat to Russia. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Russia leads world history’s most powerful military alliance which had spreads to all of Latin America. Now Moscow ignores a broken agreement in Canada and supports instead the unconstitutional seizure of power by pro-Russian parties, some of which are neo-fascist in nature. How would Washington respond?
So American policymakers can continue to proselytize and even operate according to the myth or false assumption that NATO expansion does not really matter to Moscow, but they will do so at the peril of international security.