Gordon M. Hahn
Once NATO expansion began in the mid-1990s, it became all but inevitable that it would continue to do so until it encompassed all the territory between the original NATO member-countries and Russia’s borders. Along the way, this process has driven a wedge deeper and deeper between Russia and the West, creating pivotal conflicts along Russia’s borders in Georgia and Ukraine and thereby endangering both sides’ security. There was a particular security logic inherent in the NATO project’s self-security concept and Eurasia’s geography of the open steppe that drove the eternal expansion dynamic.
In his The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed the internal logic of eternal NATO expansion. Brzezinski proposed a strategy of gradual, simultaneous, and “integrally connected” processes of EU and NATO expansion with no defined limits. Europe’s expansion was not to begin in the east to include Russia but rather from the west, thereby excluding Russia and bringing in countries largely antagonistic towards her – Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states. He delineated a “historic timetable” for NATO’s expansion: admission of the “first” new Central European members by 1999; the beginning of accession talks and admission by 2005 for the Baltic states and Romania; eligibility for the Balkan states at about the same time; possible accession by Sweden and Finland; and somewhere between 2005 and 2010 the beginning of “serious negotiations” for Ukraine with both the EU and NATO. Except for the last two stages, Brzezinski’s timetable played out approximately as he advised. The geostrategic logic was to build a “the critical core of Europe’s security running” from France (actually the U.S.) in the west through Ukraine in the east, thereby ending at Russia’s border. In fact, for Brzezinski there were two “vital geopolitical pivots” in Eurasia—Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Generals on Arbat Square would, should and surely did logically ask: ‘Security from whom?’ However, the key to the inner logic and self-driving mechanism for eternal NATO expansion to Russia’s borders was revealed in one particular phrase. For Brzezinski, if an increasingly geographically larger EU must base its security on continued alliance with America, “then it follows that its geopolitically most exposed sector, Central Europe, cannot be demonstratively excluded” from NATO [Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Signed First Edition (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1997), pp. 52 and 84-5].
According to this logic, with each wave of NATO expansion there will be a new ‘geopolitically most exposed sector’ further to the east that ‘must not be demonstratively excluded’ from NATO. This logic inherently dictated another round of expansion creating a new ‘geopolitically most exposed sector’ that needed a new buffer, and so on and so on.
This logic appears quite often in pro-NATO expansion narratives. In a recent Wall Street Journal oped piece John Vinocur reiterated the logic in regards to the Ukraine crisis created in good part by the same logic, arguing: “It’s a reasonable conclusion. With borders on four NATO members, Ukraine ought to receive the American antitank weapons necessary to make a Russian onslaught against it a matter of unacceptable casualties for Moscow” (John Vinocur, “Putin’s New Normal Begins to Take Hold,” Wall Street Journal, 1 March 2016). Of course, Ukraine would not neighbor four NATO members but for the several previous rounds of NATO expansion. As I have noted in a previous research article, NATO repeatedly has declared it a goal to expand the alliance to Ukraine and undertaken numerous measures to facilitate that aspiration (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/01/21/report-the-russian-american-reset-nato-expansion-and-the-making-of-the-ukrainian-crisis/).
The same logic involving a long-standing, pre-expansion era NATO member, Turkey, was evident in a Forbes piece by Adam Ereli. He characterized a Russian-Armenian air defense agreement in the wake of Turkey’s irresponsible shooting down of a Russian fighter jet early this year as “a growing Russian military buildup” and “the most tangible sign yet that Putin is creating a new satellite state on NATO’s border and threatening an indispensable U.S. ally.” He emphasized Armenia’s “approximately 165 mile border with Turkey, a NATO member and the alliance’s southern flank.” Detailing other examples of Russia’s strengthening alliance with Armenia, ne concluded: “The growing Russian military presence in Armenia is but the latest indicator of a worrisome trend: Putin’s threat to NATO and America’s interests in Europe” (www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/02/24/putins-newest-satellite-state/#6c06e4e53549).
Again we see the continuing expansion logic and the accompanying pattern of Russian defensive deployments to countries neighboring NATO being regarded by the West as a threat to a widespread alliance moving in Russia’s direction. The logic inspires a logical question: Does NATO’s presence and world history’s most powerful military alliance’s growing deployments to the most eastern NATO members—several located on Russia’s borders—pose any threat to Russia, if a Russian-backed, but destitute Armenia poses a threat to NATO?”
In this way and others, NATO is its own self-realizing prophecy and manufacturer of the ‘growing Russian threat.’ The first imagined threat is now becoming more a real, repeatedly manufactured threat—or at least intensifying perception thereof—driven by NATO expansion. There can be no end to NATO’s eternally expansionist logic. Each round requires another. NATO expansion’s end to Russia’s border can come by way of four paths: Russia’s membership in NATO, the collapse and breakup of the Russian state, the dissolution of NATO or a NATO-Russian war; perhaps first a proxy one followed by direct war, with all the potential consequences that can follow. Take your pick.